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Gregg Holmes on his 2018 Honda Africa Twin CRF1000 in canada, at the start of his journey. Photo/Supplied

A New Zealander's 3000km race back home in a pandemic

New Zealander Gregg Holmes has spent the past eight months living the dream and travelling the world on his motorbike. Rene Ryall talked to him over the phone about his compelling journey to get home, as he raced against border closures amidst the Covid-19 crisis. 

It’s quietly ticking over into the evening at Buenos Aires Airport as I speak to kiwi motorcyclist Gregg Holmes on 23 March – just two days before New Zealand went into lockdown. He awaits the very last flight out, still unsure as to whether or not it will be cancelled yet again. The flight has been rescheduled multiple times, but as of now, it’s up on the board, it’s open, it’s on time – yet he can’t check in. 

In a desperate effort to get home as Covid-19 spreads around the world, he’s just driven 3,000km on his 2018 Honda Africa Twin CRF1000, from Ushuaia at the bottom of South America up to the Argentine capital, stopping only for fuel and sleep. After two full days driving more than 1,000km, borders shutting just hours after crossing them, and 24 hours spent trapped in quarantine just outside of Buenos Aires, it seems nothing short of a miracle that he made it to the departure lounge.

Holmes tells me he is quietly confident he’ll make it home – but in the same breath, he’s come to terms with the fact he may not. The airport is said to be closing in a day or so, and getting a flight out is proving to be no mean feat. “I think by the skin of my teeth, I might get out of here tonight,” he says, “but I’m also resigned to the fact I might not.” 

A police check in South America. Photo/Supplied

The previous night was spent in his accomodation, not far from the airport, constantly updating the airline’s website to see if he could check in. He’s functioning on a couple of hours' sleep, if that. Despite all this, I’d be hard pressed to find a more up-beat personality to chat to whilst I have my morning coffee.

I mean it when I say Holmes really needs to write a book. And I’m pleased to see that on one of his latest Facebook posts he’s concluded: “If I was ever to write a book of my around the world adventures, these last two weeks would make a great last chapter of part one, of my journey so far. With all the cancellations and rescheduling, the hours of waiting and the not knowing, to finally get on the last flight out of Buenos Aires with Latam Airlines and missing the connecting flight out of Santiago, then having to wait 16 hours to finally get on what was the last flight to NZ, was a great relief.”

Holmes was eight months into his world tour, aptly named ‘New Zealand to Australia - the Long Way’, when it went awry. The dream is to bike the world, starting in the U.S and Canada. After hitting Alaska, Holmes rode south, all the way to Ushuaia; “the bottom of South America, as far as you can ride – to the end of the road, basically, so I’d ticked a box.” 

Days for a traveller with no calendar blur into one another, but Holmes says it can’t be more than 10 days ago he was staying in an Ushuaia hostel when he made the decision to leave for Buenos Aires. He explains he had been fairly removed from the media during his travels, and heard about Covid-19 from fellow travellers.

They discussed the growing seriousness of the situation. “They were talking about the borders of Argentina being closed, and the national parks being closed… all of a sudden, this was getting really serious, and I was thinking, my god, you know, this is getting next level.” 

From here, there were some rapid decisions to make. The risk of being trapped at the bottom of South America with winter on the way wasn't something Holmes was willing to try, so the initial plan was to ride up to Buenos Aires Airport and fly from there to South Africa sooner rather than later. 

“But this whole thing just escalated so, so quickly. By the time we got out of Ushuaia, through Chile and back into Argentina, the border closed four hours behind us.” Every day, the reality of Covid-19 around the world is changing, and it was this that forced Holmes back to New Zealand, rather than the next leg of his adventure. 

Holmes made it to Buenos Aires Airport, a major international hub normally crowded with travellers. Photo/Supplied

“There’s a lot of hysteria and paranoia about foreigners,” Holmes tells me. “We were on our way up to Buenos Aires on a 3000km ride to get here as soon as we could, and we were 500km short when we arrived late at night at this particular town and we went to get something to eat. Of course, we were the only tourists in town, the locals, being paranoid, rang the police.

“While waiting for our order to come through, three police arrived, wearing masks, gloves and carrying a clipboard… and they were there to ask us questions, what our travel movements were. A rule had just come in that day that anyone entering the country as a foreigner with a stamp of 15th March or later was immediately quarantined. We fell into that bracket, and were going to be held up in our hotel for 14 days. And it was barely 3x3m, it was so small. 

“Through our embassies and just pleading with the owner of the hotel to try and get an interpreter with the police to come back, we felt we needed our situation interpreted to the police properly so that they could understand that we were actually only transiting a small section of Chile and we were in Argentina prior to this. They saw that, understood that, were actually apologetic and let us go through.

“The whole situation is happening so, so quickly here. We’ve had borders close within hours of us coming through … Things are starting to close down, curfews imposed, all sorts.” Holmes explains that whilst his Spanish is no use whatsoever, and therefore can’t really follow the media, he knows Buenos Aires is in lockdown. You are only allowed out to get groceries, and even grocery stores are limiting the number of people that can go in. In order to get to the airport without risking arrest, Holmes had to use the airport shuttle service provided by his accomodation. “Essentially, it's total curfew.” 

But this little bump in the road is by no means the end of the road for Holmes: “I just see this as a little break.” His bike has kindly been stored in Argentina with the owner of his accomodation there. He plans to ship it over to South Africa and meet it there, as soon as the Covid-19 situation is over, so he can take on the next leg of his journey. 

Safely back in Auckland, he says he has more travel confidence now.

“I can’t wait to get to Africa, and that was one of the continents I thought I’ll really, really struggle, and it’s going to be scary… but I think I’m through the scariness.”

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