Family stuck with lots of social distance between each other ... ...

News

Family stuck with lots of social distance between each other ... and home

Holed up in a tiny flat in Russia, and on an oil rig in Malaysia, they are yearning for each other, and Africa

Senior reporter
Haley-Rae Thomson, right, is stranded in St Petersburg, Russia, with her brother and mother, Oliver and Rosalind, left, and her grandparents Schalk and Michelle van der Merwe.
Worried Haley-Rae Thomson, right, is stranded in St Petersburg, Russia, with her brother and mother, Oliver and Rosalind, left, and her grandparents Schalk and Michelle van der Merwe.
Image: Schalk van der Merwe

Feeling frustrated by coronavirus lockdown? Spare a thought for the Thomson family from Cape Town who find themselves split across Europe and Asia ... and missing Africa.

Rosalind Thomson had planned an ice-skating trip to Russia for more than a year to allow her daughter, Haley-Rae, to compete against the best in the world.

She took her parents along, never thinking they would be stranded together in their St Petersburg Airbnb due to the international travel ban which took effect in late March.

Brett Thomson at work on an oil rig off Malaysia.
Lonely wait Brett Thomson at work on an oil rig off Malaysia.
Image: Brett Thomson

Meanwhile, Rosalind’s husband, Brett, who works on an oil rig off the coast of Malaysia, found himself working an extended stretch – three months so far, and counting – because the replacement crew cannot fly in.

“We used to be out all the time, but are now in an apartment the size of our TV room,” said Rosalind, adding that the family was trying to make the best of their extended holiday.

“We love it here, but we don’t live here and do need to get home. People are looking after our animals – we need to go home.”

Rosalind’s father, Schalk van der Merwe, said the family had been due to leave St Petersburg on March 30.

“But then Turkish Airlines cancelled all flights and effectively we were stuck – the Russians closed the borders,” Van der Merwe said, adding that they had been humbled by the hospitality of their foreign hosts.

“We have found they are amazing people. They don’t talk to you much, but if you talk to them and need help they are there – you knock on the door and they have a plate of something for you,” Van der Merwe said.

Haley-Rae Thomson in action in St Petersburg.
Top level Haley-Rae Thomson in action in St Petersburg.
Image: Schalk van der Merwe

Fortunately, the trip was not in vain: Haley-Rae, a Western Province figure skater who has twice represented SA, won her club competition. She is now keeping fit and training in the apartment via the internet.

Darren Bergman, a DA parliamentarian who set up the Home Away from Home social media group to help repatriate stranded South Africans, said the Thomson family were part of a much larger group stranded in Russia.

Haley-Rae Thomson after her victory in St Petersburg.
Triumphant Haley-Rae Thomson after her victory in St Petersburg.
Image: Schalk van der Merwe

“There are a lot of people from South Africa in Russia and they are getting worried and desperate. The longer we take to repatriate, the harder it becomes for the poor citizens,” he said.

Van der Merwe said the family was surviving on their holiday money: “We saved for two years for this trip – my wife and I are on pension. But we are okay. We are tough Van der Merwes.”