Dui Cameron was meant to fly home from India two days before the country went into strict lockdown.
Instead, the Queensland-based fashion designer was stuck thousands of kilometres from her 17-year-old son as the pandemic swept across the world.
Ms Cameron landed in Brisbane last week, but getting back was a mad dash, involving bribes, sometimes begging, and hours of driving across a country riven with COVID-19.
Mr Cameron has been travelling to India for 27 years since she started sourcing second-hand saris in the early 1990s and turning them into unique pieces to sell at the flea market in Goa.
From those markets the Boom Shankar fashion label was born, and her love affair with India was cemented.
Ms Cameron now spends her time between Australia and India – where she has a farm and works with two factories – and it was there that she found herself when COVID-19 hit India.
“It was all very frightening in the beginning,” she told The New Daily.
“They went into lockdown on the 24th (of March) and they only gave us a few hours notice. My flight was meant to be three days later.”
The nationwide lockdown was swift and strict, with India being one of the first countries to impose travel restrictions, suspending most visas and stopping all international flights.
India’s 1.3 billion citizens were banned from leaving their homes for weeks and hundreds of Australians were stuck inside after their ‘rescue flights’ were cancelled.
Some struggled to find bottled water, and many supermarket shelves were bare. Others needed medication they couldn’t get.
Ms Cameron said conditions got tough, but she managed by swapping fresh food with the farmers around them.
“At one stage, we couldn’t get access to fresh fruit and veggies, but we’re in a farming area, so our neighbours brought us stuff,” she said.
“I would swap tomatoes for cauliflower and different vegetables. And not even swapping, people were willing to drop off piles of garlic for instance. We were just living off what we had around us.”
Ms Cameron said with a son waiting for her in Australia, she knew she had to get home.
Australians in India last month put pressure on the government to help get them home. Hundreds of them joined a WhatsApp group and demanded flights were sent to bring them to Australia.
The government announced a set of flights out of the country, but for Ms Cameron, the drama started there.
“It wasn’t as straight forward as getting a ticket. It wasn’t easy,” she said.
“When the flights got released, they had been pre-released to a priority list.”
Some Australians were sent emails allowing them to buy flights the day before, she said. So when everyone else went to book, there was nothing left.
“You’re waiting to buy that ticket. You’re there waiting and you jump on immediately but you couldn’t get through,” Ms Cameron said.
“On WhatsApp, everyone was asking if anyone got through, no one had success, that’s when things unfolded a little bit,” she added.
One man on the priority list was selling his ticket for an extra $300. A desperate Ms Cameron snapped it up.
After attempts in both India and Australia to change the name on the ticket, she was contacted by the Australian consulate.
“This incredible woman did everything in her heart to get me out. I couldn’t get on the first flight because it was in 12 hours and I live 8 hours away from Delhi,” she said.
Instead, Ms Cameron secured a place on a flight two days later, but getting to the plane would prove to be another challenge.
Anyone who volunteered to drive her to Delhi would have to self-isolate for 29 days when they got home. Not surprisingly, no one was rushing to offer their services.
Eventually Ms Cameron found a driver and paid him more than double the usual amount for the trip.
“He really did me a favour. He was nervous in the beginning,” she said.
The highways to Delhi were all but empty. A journey that can take up 13 hours sometimes, took just over six.
When lockdown hit, Ms Cameron made sure her factory workers were given food and shelter so they could self-isolate near where they work, but others were not so fortunate.
With most factories and businesses shut down, millions were made jobless. With no way to get home, thousands of them have been walking across the country.
Ms Cameron’s journey along the quiet highway was only broken by the occasional truck and groups of migrant workers trudging on the side of the road.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
“We saw people walking with their bags on their heads, on their backs. Migrant workers are what they’re called there, but it’s like someone from Sydney trying to get back to Queensland.”
Ms Cameron wanted to offer them rides, but her travel pass wouldn’t allow it.
“In every town, there are border checks. I had a pass, it was stuck to the car, my name and drivers name and that’s the only two people in the vehicle.”
Driving into Delhi, the first thing she noticed was the clean air.
“What’s incredible was the amount of pollution that had lifted. Delhi’s pollution levels are huge. Sometimes they have to close the schools because the pollution is so bad,” Ms Cameron said.
“All of a sudden you’ve got blue sky in places you don’t have it often.”
The staff on the Qantas flight had volunteered to be there, and as the Australians lined up to have their temperature checked and board the plane, there was a unique familiarity.
“That part just made you feel ‘Wow! Okay, here we go, we’re on a mission together and these guys are here to support it’.”
A ten-hour flight, a bus to a quarantine hotel, where soldiers brought her coffee every morning and afternoon for two weeks, and then flight to Brisbane. She was finally home.
“It was amazing when I landed – mind-blowing. My son ran up and hugged me from behind and then off we went,” Ms Cameron said.
“From India to hotel isolation to that was cool. I thought ‘God, I’m lucky’.”