IT WAS a chance to finally celebrate her 60th birthday, a long-awaited holiday to tie a bow on an otherwise difficult year.
But Kim Hurley realised her dreams of a relaxing cruise to New Zealand were quickly becoming a nightmare as the cabin crew of the Ruby Princess announced they were turning the ship around to head home.
Eight months on, the Lake Macquarie woman still struggles with the effects of a COVID-19 infection she contracted on the ill-fated ship.
At first, she had just felt "exhausted", she said. Her body ached and she could barely walk.
She lost her sense of taste and smell. Her hair was falling out. She had a terrible cough.
Ms Hurley, now part of a class action against the operators of the Ruby Princess, said she could not return to work for three months.
To this day, she struggles with debilitating fatigue, and breathlessness.
The nodules that now scar her lungs remain a solemn souvenir from the cruise linked to 28 deaths and hundreds of infections.
"It had been a really, really hard year," Ms Hurley said.
"My dad had been sick, and then he died, so I wanted to go on this cruise to have a nice, relaxing time. The only other cruise I'd been on was a few years back and I really loved it. When they were turning the boat around and people were getting uneasy, it wasn't quite what I thought it would be. And these cruises are quite expensive.
"My daughter had saved up for about two years to come with me and some friends."
Ms Hurley said there was "a little bit of nervousness" after hearing the Diamond Princess was stuck off Japan.
"But they were pretty reassuring that it would be OK," she said. "We didn't buy an internet package, so we weren't really aware of what was happening on land.
"It wasn't until we started getting into New Zealand that there started to be a bit of talk about COVID - and we felt that we were really safe... The feeling on the boat, generally, was that we were safer than people on the mainland because we were out at sea, away from it all."
The cruise was making its way north, towards the Bay of Islands off New Zealand, when it was announced they needed to return home.
Ms Hurley said it took three days to get back, two days ahead of schedule.
"At that time they were saying that if anyone has cold or flu symptoms, to please go to the medical centre - but they were reassuring people that there was no COVID on the boat," she said.
"On the Wednesday, they made an announcement that we would be coming into dock in Sydney on the morning of the 19th of March.
"We were told we would get in at 6 o'clock in the morning, but then they got in at 2 o'clock. As it turned out, they were unloading a couple of passengers. The only reason we found out was because it was on the news. At least one of those passengers had COVID and died."
Ms Hurley said they were shuffled off the boat very quickly that morning.
"They were herding us off like cattle," she said. "It felt like we just got spat out at the other end."
She had gone to the reception area to sort out a bill that morning, and to make sure it was OK for them to catch the train to Newcastle.
"We had been given WiFi in the last couple of days, and people on the mainland had contacted me and told me what had been happening," she said. "We were given information saying it was OK to catch public transport to the airport, or to your home, or to your hotel. But I went to the front desk to ask, to make sure, and they said that was OK."
Border Security staff were wearing masks at customs.
"We did not know about social distancing at all - that wasn't even a term or a concept we heard about until we got home," Ms Hurley said.
"Originally, my mum was going to pick us up. But she is 84, so my sister was saying - 'Don't let mum come and get you'. So we did a car shuffle so that we didn't have contact with my mother. We were told to isolate once we got home, but it wasn't until the next day we found out that people had COVID on the boat."
Ms Hurley began to feel unwell that weekend.
Tired, and achy.
"I went and had a COVID test because I wasn't feeling great, and it came back negative," she said. "Then my daughter had one, and hers came back positive. So I went back and had a second one, which was positive.
"By that second weekend, I was really sick."
For 24 hours, Ms Hurley was really worried. She found it harder and harder to breathe.
"The coughing went on for weeks," she said.
"My breathing is still not improving. I can go for a 10-minute walk on level ground and I'll be puffing. And the fatigue... I might do something, and then I have to go to bed and sleep for several hours - and that is so unlike me. Usually I'm a Duracell bunny."
Ms Hurley said she had been exasperated by some of the conspiracy theories claiming COVID-19 was a hoax.
"COVID-19 is real. It is real, and it is highly infectious, and not everyone is just going to get a mild dose of it if they are inadvertently infected, like we were," she said.
"We live such a privileged life in Australia. This is a time in our history where we actually just have to suck it up and adhere to the rules and restrictions.
"Many generations in the past have had to do that and pull together for the sake of their country and the benefit of others. It's not just about us."
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