8 Dec 2016

Tiny settlement of Rakautara marooned after quake

From Checkpoint, 5:49 pm on 8 December 2016

While limited access has been achieved to and from Kaikōura, three weeks on from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, many in surrounding settlements remain cut off.

Rakautara on State Highway 1, north of town, finds itself marooned between giant slips the authorities say will take months to clear.

The village used to be a few minutes drive from Kaikōura but now requires parking your car at the foot of a massive slip and walking through train tunnels and over huge boulders.

Seen from the air, the damage to this part of the highway is jaw-dropping.

Up close, your stomach begins to churn and thoughts quickly turn to best means of escape in case there's an aftershock. 

Beyond the devastation sits Rakautara, where eight people have decided to stick it out, despite their isolation.

Among them are Tahua Solomon and Ngaio Te Ua.

The morning of the earthquake, fearing a tsunami might come and wash them away, Mr Solomon said they attempted to leave the area, only to find their way blocked by a huge slip to the south.

"The next morning we went for a wander up to the other end and you get to this place called Buddha's Bend, and from there you could get a good clear view right across to Ohau Point. And so, from there, you couldn't distinguish a road. It's just like the side of a mountain and so yeah - we knew we were stuck."   

Ms Te Ua said it was a week before any help came their way, first from a local chopper pilot who delivered food from the local marae.

"Next minute this guy comes in his little fixed-wing top dressing plane and lands here on what we now call our airstrip, and he brought all of these supplies from these amazing people in Christchurch."    

The settlement only recently had its power restored and went close to three weeks without running water, something the locals only managed to restore thanks to some DIY plumbing.

But while day-to-day living is now easier, bigger questions such as whether they still have jobs are yet to be answered.

Ms Te Ua works for Whale Watch in Kaikōura and has been promised employment until the end of January, thanks to the government's business assistance package.

"So we'll know at the end of that how viable businesses are going to be. Really it's all about this road, getting this road open for people, getting people wanting to come back here again.

"This was meant to be our bumper year, the amount of people coming through the door, which just hadn't been happening over the past five, six, seven years."  

Access to town isn't completely impossible but requires walking over slips and through train tunnels to cars waiting on the other side, which help locals to complete the journey to Kaikōura.

The pair are staying positive and continuing to look ahead to the future, including the possibility that Rakautara could provide accommodation for road workers once the job of clearing the highway finally begins.

For now Mr Solomon said they are making do with what they have, in their "splendid isolation".