After being stuck in Ecuador for almost two years and enduring flight cancellations, a mountain of visa paperwork, months-long lockdowns, civil unrest and almost a dozen COVID-19 tests, couple Oliva Norris and Jorge Maldonado have made it back to Launceston.
The couple met in Melbourne in 2014 while Mr Maldonado was studying for a Masters in Forest Ecosystems.
Two years later when Mr Maldonado's completed his masters, Mrs Norris took the leap and moved with him to Ecuador, where they were married that same year.
Fast forward to early 2020 and Mrs Norris was teaching English and her now-husband had taken up a job as a bird-watching guide.
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Soon, however, their everyday life began to look very different.
"COVID hit in March and suddenly we had curfews from 2pm and had to stay home. We were in a basic lockdown for about five months," Mrs Norris said.
By the time the couple had emerged from semi-lockdown in July, COVID-19 cases in Ecuador were hovering around 1000 a day and the pair resolved to apply for a partner visa and head back to Australia - but that was no small task.
"The waiting times are between six months and two years, so we thought it was going to take a long time," she said.
Luckily, however, the visa came through in December, allowing for the couple's entry into Australia - but they still had to get here first.
"We had four commercial flights cancel on us, including one that went to Amsterdam through Singapore," Mrs Norris said.
After months of dead ends, the pair landed a place on a now-famous Qantas repatriation flight heading to Darwin, but it was leaving from Buenos Aires, on the opposite side of South America.
The couple managed to secure a place on a connecting flight, but it too was cancelled just days before they were due to fly home.
"It was devastating," Mrs Norris said.
Then, just a day before the repatriation flight was set to take off, the couple found a replacement flight connecting them to Buenos Aires.
"We literally had one night to pack our bags and be ready. When we eventually arrived and checked what we had in our suitcases, we thought, 'what's this?'" Mrs Norris said.
Making it to Buenos Aires Airport by the skin of their teeth, the couple boarded the Qantas repatriation flight and settled into their seats, more than a year since they first began looking for a way back to Australia.
The flight marked the first direct Buenos Aires to Darwin route in Qantas history and broke the airline's longest commercial flight record for both time in the air and distance.
The 17-and-a-half-hour flight ferried 107 passengers, many of whom had faced the same protracted and difficult journey.
"We've met lots of people around South America who've had the same issues with last-minute cancellations and getting back," Mrs Norris said.
The journey spanned more than 15,000 kilometres and stretched across some of the most southern routes available to airlines, evening skimming over Antarctica.
"Partway through the flight, the pilot came on and said we're going a little further across so we could have a look at Antarctica. It was amazing. All we could see was ice and then after a while you could see the mountains," Mrs Norris said.
Due to the southern nature of the route, QF14 made the journey entirely in daylight and experienced sub-zero temperatures.
Disembarking in Howard Springs, the couple spent two weeks in quarantine, providing some much-needed rest following such a tumultuous 18 months.
"The first week we had to recover from the huge 16-hour jet lag," Mr Maldonado said.
Two weeks later, and following a comparatively much shorter flight to Tasmania, the couple made it back to Launceston and Mrs Norris' family. "I was finally able to meet my niece for the first time," she said.
Back in town, and with the state and country preparing to open up, the couple remains hopeful of the future. "We're not sure what's next, but I'm excited to go see my sister in Victoria when we can," she said.
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