On a wing and a prayer, weary travellers make it home to Melbourne

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When Keely Briggs flew to South Korea in January 2020 to take up a job teaching English, she couldn’t have imagined what was about to unfold.

But the 25-year-old’s nearly two-year ordeal finally came to a close on Monday afternoon when she rolled into Melbourne Airport’s international arrival hall and into the arms of her eagerly awaiting family.

Kirsty Rae embraces her daughter Keely Briggs, who arrived home from South Korea on Monday morning. Credit:Eddie Jim

“It was perfect timing; I had no idea that this would happen, and then one thing after another [meant] I just had to stay there,” she said after her Cathay Pacific flight touched down just before 1pm. “It doesn’t feel real.”

Tens of thousands of Australians, like Briggs, have been stranded overseas since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with few seats available into the country as airlines operated under strict passenger limits in line with hotel quarantine capacity.

But on Monday, Briggs was one of the first handful of Australians to return home as Victoria and NSW re-opened their borders to fully vaccinated Australians. It is the first time anyone has flown into Australia without having to undergo 14 days’ hotel quarantine since March 2020.

“I feel like confiscating her passport,” said Ms Brigg’s mother Kirsty Rae, shortly before embracing her in the arrival hall.

Jimmy Sugandi and wife Eveline and their sons Bryant 10, Jordan 6, and cousin Andi Setwawan, right. The family took a long-shot booking a flight on November 1 at the start of the year, which happened to pay off. Credit:Eddie Jim

Jimmy Sugandi looked at a calendar back in January wondering when it might be possible to return to Melbourne from Indonesia and reunite with his parents.

November 1 looked as good a bet as any, and he booked a flight home via Singapore with Singapore Airlines. As it happened, he won the sweepstake with four tickets on the first quarantine-free flight to land in Melbourne on Monday morning, touching down at 10.10am.

Mr Sugandi said that during two long years stuck in Jakarta, his family in Australia and Indonesia would connect on FaceTime every day and pray they could be together soon.

“It’s a miracle – just amazing,” Mr Sugandi said after rolling into the arrival hall with his wife Eveline Koordi and their exhausted sons, Bryant, 10 and Jordan, 6. “It’s a dream come true.”

Despite thousands of Australians around the world being desperate to come home, there were just 23 passengers on board Singapore Airline’s first Airbus A350 and only around 200 arrivals were expected across the five flights scheduled on Monday. Airlines were only putting tickets on sale within the last 11 days following the surprise announcement on October 21 that Victoria would reopen its border.

Qantas was set to start flights in and out of Melbourne on Monday, but late on Friday pushed that back by a week because of low demand. Monday was also the first time since March 2020 that Australians have been permitted to leave the country without an exemption.

Cheryl Leijer was supposed to fly to London in March this year to be with her daughter as she gave birth to her first child. But the Department of Home Affairs rejected her request to leave the country. Twice.

“That was really, really hard on me, really hard on my daughter; it was her first baby, so she just wanted me there,” Ms Leijer explained at the departure gate.

“It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster really since then. As soon as I heard the border was opening last Friday, my travel agent just got me on the first flight out.”

After her long flight to London, she most looks forward to seeing her daughter Kristen, laying eyes on her granddaughter Maya for the first time and giving her a cuddle.

“It’s very emotional and overwhelming,” she said.

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