Friday, 6 January 2017

Marlborough Sound, an Earthquake and a Detour Back to Christchurch: New Zealand, The First Five Days

On Friday evening, the 11th of November, sometime between 10 and 11pm Nathan's sister picked us up from the airport in Christchurch and we began the journey up the east coast of the south island to Marlborough Sound where we were to begin our New Zealand vacation.

As we drove along the coast road through Kaikoura Rochan described the ocean view and lamented that we weren't able to see it.  But we would be back that way on Monday when we returned to Christchurch so we would see it then.

Or so we thought.

The hours passed easily in the car in the dark night.  I lay my head in Nathan's lap and listened to him talking to his sister, and to the steady sound of the road beneath the tyres.  It was a comforting sound which reminded me of road trips we took as a kid when mum and dad would lift us out of our beds in the wee hours and we would wake up to the countryside passing through the windows of the car…

The last bit of road to Duncan Bay was steep and windy and the headlights lit up rainforest - I knew it was gorgeous, even in the dark, and I couldn't wait unti the sun came up and I could see where we were.

But by the time it was light on Saturday morning the sky was full of cloud and the rain was falling in sheets and it was clear that I wouldn't not be seeing anything but grey.

It's a good things the sounds are still pretty in the rain.

We waited for a break in the weather to take a walk down to the waters edge, but spent the rest of the day inside, by the heater, playing games.

Sunday was Nathan's birthday and while we had no blue skies the rain seemed to have slowed so we decided to take our chances with the weather and head out on kayaks for the day.

We kitted up in wetsuits and raingear, rigged fishing rods, and launched our Kayaks into Duncan Bay, Tennyson Inlet.  Despite the grey clouds the vista before us was spectacular.  The rolling hills cradled by the sea seemed endless.  And the stillness was sublime - the quiet that only comes from being on the water is quite unlike any other peace.

The forest was lush luminous green, water cascaded through the rocks filling the air with its music, and the soft moss that grew on the trunks of the grease gave the whole scene an enchanted feel.

I was in heaven.

I paddled along the shore, captivated, for hours.  As the tide receded mussels appeared by the hundreds and I pulled them from the rocks imagining how excited Nathan might be when he saw them.  Of course by the time I found Nathan he too had collected a bucket of the shell fish, along with some oysters, and my efforts immediately felt far less impressive.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning barnacles from the mussel shells, scrubbing them and removing the beards. Then we cooked them in a tomato and white wine sauce and celebrated Nathans birthday with a feast from the ocean and a couple of good bottles of red.

A few hours later, warm and well fed, we were talking over a glass of wine when the house began to sway. We looked at each other in recognition - earthquake.  We didn't rush to safety immediately, assuming that it would be short lived. But it got worse rather than better and we found ourselves holding hands in opposite door frames.  The house shook and swayed for quite some time but didn't seem to be in danger of falling down.  Aside from a few falling glasses and plates the house handled the quake very well and not long after the first shock subsided we all just went to bed.

We woke up on Monday morning expecting to pack up, clean up, and go home.  But instead we put the news on and quickly learned just how serious the earthquake had been.

We knew almost immediately that our road out, Highway 1, was closed.  Whether we could even make it to Highway 1 was unknown.

The road in was sheer and windy and we knew the likelihood of rockslides and slips was high.  The rain had been relentless through the night and continued to fall.  Gale force winds were predicted to follow.  We had enough food for one more day and all our services - electricity, water, sewerage - were all intact.  It didn't seem like a bad place to hole up while the full extent of the damage was being assessed so we followed advice to stay off the roads and settled in for another day.

Rochan and Mitchell braved the weather hoping to find a neighbour with a phone so we could get a call home and let our people know we were safe.

Aftershocks continued to rock the house and the wind rattled the walls so severely that at times it was difficult to tell the two apart.  And all the while the rain fell.

And so it continued into the night and on Tuesday morning we woke to more of the same weather.  By now we had lost satellite and couldn't get the news to find out the conditions in the rest of the country.  But we had no food left so packing up and getting on the road home seemed like the best option.

We knew, with Highway 1 being closed, that our route down the east coast was impassable and we would have to instead head west - but we had to get down to the Rai Valley first.

As we expected the road was in pretty bad shape.  Water came down the mountain and onto the road in swiftly flowing cascades, lifting the bitumen in parts.  We never knew what kind of debris was going to be around the next bend and once we had to get out of the car to clear a rock slide off the road in order to pass.  It was a somewhat treacherous journey but passable.  It turned out that the Rai Valley is where we would get stuck!

The Rai Valley, on a nice day, would have been the epitome of the picturesque farmland you imagine from New Zealand with the rolling green hills and lush pasture.  But when we drove through - or attempted to drive through - the hills where shrouded in thick clouds and brown water flooded the pasture and flowed over the road in a ruthless current.  And so it was that the floodwaters stopped our journey and not the earth quake damage and we wondered if we shouldn't have braved the roads the day before after all…

The rain seemed to have let up but was still falling and it seemed unlikely that the flooding would dissipate if the weather kept up. Unsure of what lay ahead or how long we would be stuck for we started knocking on doors.

A lovely Swiss couple welcomed us into their home. They assured us that the road beyond where we got stuck would be worse than it was here and we were better of waiting out the rain, but were certain that as soon as the rain stopped it would only take an hour or two for the flood waters to recede so we could get on our way.   We stayed for hours, drying clothes, warming ourselves by the fire, and sharing stories and much laughter with our generous hosts. They fed us soup and tea and cake and kindness.  And sure enough, in the early afternoon, the rain stopped and the sun came out and the water receded and we hugged goodbye and were gone.

Not wanting to drive at night in the condition we had been experiencing we opted to stay a night in Murchison where we booked ourselves into a cabin on a creek, had long hot showers and enjoyed a glass of wine, a pub dinner, and an early night.

It was raining again when we set off on Wednesday morning but not having a big job packing the car and putting boats on the roof meant we were on the road quickly and much more easily than the day before.  Despite less than perfect weather conditions the drive through Lewis Pass was stunning and gave us a good taste of what the coming weeks in the South Island would have in store for us - luminous green mountains, braided rivers and golden broom flower for days.

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