Covid-19

Long-lost sisters drawn together in a bubble

Suzanne McFadden speaks to two Kiwi 'bubbles' who have unanticipated - but serendipitous - housemates.  

Sue Bremner has found a silver lining to the brooding cloud of lockdown – it’s meant getting to know the sister who never knew she existed for almost 65 years.

Englishwoman Bremner has found herself holed up in her sister Margaret Hannay’s home in Auckland during the coronavirus lockdown. The two women, who only discovered they were siblings last year, say it’s the perfect way to learn as much about each other as they can.

“I can spend time with my sister who I can suddenly get to know, by cooking together, talking together and trying to get through this together,” Bremner says.

Theirs is one of any number of stories of unexpected inhabitants in bubbles across New Zealand. People who've found themselves stranded, away from home, but have been taken in by those they barely know – but will know well by the end of the isolation period.

People like hikers Becca Rolon and Diarmuid McInerney, who were just 83km short of walking the 3000km length of New Zealand when the lockdown came into action last week. They’re now living in a bubble in Whenuapai with the “trail angel” who came to their rescue (there’s more of their story below).

Long-lost sisters

Born in England 71 years ago, Margaret Hannay was adopted out when she was just two weeks old. She moved to New Zealand after meeting her Kiwi husband, John, and they’ve raised two children here.

It was only last year, encouraged by her daughter Emma, that Hannay decided to find out if she had any siblings. Two weeks after contacting the General Register Office in England, she discovered a half-sister, who was seven years her junior.

Bremner, though, had been trying to track down Hannay for 19 years.

“In 2000, my dad said I had a sister, but it took until last year to find Margaret,” Bremner says. “I’m sure our father - wherever he is, the rogue - is looking down at us now and laughing.”

Hannay also has two half-brothers, Lawrence and John. Last year, she met her three siblings in the UK for the first time. “We only got to spend two days together,” Bremner says.

Margaret Hannay (second from left) meeting her three siblings for the first time: from left, John, Sue and Lawrence Connell. Photo: John Hannay.

So Sue and her husband David planned a trip to New Zealand to visit the Hannays, and travel around the country pursuing their passion for vintage aircraft.

David Bremner has rebuilt a Bristol Scout, the fighter plane his grandfather flew off the Gallipoli peninsula in World War I. He sourced the engine for the plane in New Zealand - from Vintage Aviator, the aircraft restoration company in Masterton, owned by Sir Peter Jackson.

They were planning to visit Masterton and the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow, with their friend Theo Willford who also flew out from England, but they never got to leave Auckland. “It was so unexpected. When we left the UK on March 5, everything was absolutely fine,” Sue Bremner says.

So the Bremners and Willford are now living comfortably in lockdown with their new family in New Lynn.

“It’s ridiculous…utterly crazy,” Margaret Hannay says. “The whole story of finding each other is amazing.”

So far, the sisters have discovered they share a fear of spiders and “weak, wimpy lattes”. They're both organisers, who love to cook. “We’ve spent a lot of time together in the kitchen, but Margaret is the boss. I’m now her ‘Sue chef’,” Bremner laughs.

The English visitors hope it will be “fourth time lucky” to get on a flight home next week.

They are booked to leave on April 11, but they're not hanging all their hopes on it - three times so far, their flights have been cancelled. They’ve already spent $6000 trying to get home.

“But looking at life in New Zealand, the temptation is to stay here,” Bremner says, still buoyant in her bubble. “I love the way everything has been very well organised here.

“Our dream is to come back and bring our Bristol Scout aircraft to fly in New Zealand. It’s the only air-worthy Bristol Scout C in the world.

“And I believe dreams can come true; finding my sister was a dream.”

Becca Rolon and Diarmuid McInerney on Stag Saddle, the highest point on Te Araroa Trail. Photo: supplied. 

Pining for the wild

American Becca Rolon and Irishman Diarmuid McInerney have gone from one extreme to another in the past 10 days.

Since last October, they’ve been living in a tent, as they’ve walked almost 3000km south from Cape Reinga, to just north of Invercargill (where they were picked up by police).

Now they’re confined to a house in the Auckland suburb of Whenuapai Village, yearning to get back to the great outdoors.

“It’s a big transition for us,” 31-year-old Rolon say. “When you’re outside every day, walking up to 14 hours a day to meet a goal, you crave a comfortable bed.

“Now we have the bed, but when we go for a walk, it’s not with purpose. And there's anxiety in the back of my head; I want to stay in shape and stay active so we can finish the 83km we had left to finish the trail.”

The couple, who met in a Melbourne hostel on their travels, heard New Zealand was going into lockdown when they were deep in Southland’s Takitimu Forest.

“A girl ran past us, frantic, and said there was a lockdown, and told us where we could get phone reception. She couldn’t help us out, because there was a car coming for her and three other hikers on the trail. And we were left stranded,” Rolon says.

When they finally found phone reception, they called Stacey Baker, who's a ‘Trail Angel’ – someone who looks after walkers on the Te Araroa Trail. They’d stayed with Baker when they first arrived in New Zealand, and at her bach in Northland on their way through.

“It was 2pm on Wednesday, the day before the lockdown, when we found out. Then Stacey gave us a picture of what was happening in the world - that we had till Friday to get on a flight,” Rolon says.  

From there, the couple walked 85km straight through the night.

Bubble buddies (from left) Diarmuid McInerney, Stacey Baker, Becca Rolon and Nicolette Rugg. Photo: supplied. 

They stopped at the next hut on the trail and made 10 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They tramped across a mountain range and crossed two rivers in the pitch dark using only one headlight.

They also walked 25km through private land on the Mt Linton sheep station (Rolon rang and apologised to the farm manager when she got back to Auckland).  

When they finally reached a main road, on Thursday morning, Rolon phoned for a taxi and a shuttle to take them to Invercargill airport, but no-one answered.

“People in cars were looking at us real funny, shaking their heads at us. Two of them started recording us on their phones. Then it clicked - the lockdown is happening right now,” she says.

They were finally rescued by a policeman from the Winton police station, who found them "walking by a cement plant somewhere between Nightcaps and Invercargill”, McInerney explains.  

Realising how long they’d been on their feet, the policeman took them to get hot food before delivering them to Invercargill Airport.

The couple had no trouble getting on a flight three hours later and returned to Auckland to the safety of a bubble with Baker and Nicolette Rugg.

It’s working out well between the bubble buddies. “Diarmuid has fixed the front gate, and Becca bakes us cookies,” Rugg says. “It’s fun, but it’s a shame we’ve left most of our board games at the bach.”

But the visitors have itchy – if still sore – feet. Rolon isn’t used to sitting still – she’s cycled coast-to-coast across the United States and roller-bladed through Israel, from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip.

“We want to finish the trail once the quarantine time is over,” McInerney says.  “We want to do the 83km all in one go and find a charity to do it for.”

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