19 Nov 2016

Along a fractured highway

From This Way Up, 12:15 pm on 19 November 2016

Simon Morton takes a trip by mountain bike along State Highway 1 north of Kaikoura to see how locals and visitors in some badly affected areas are coping with the aftermath of the 14 November quake.

By Simon Morton

It's been a tough week for many people across New Zealand. My family was no different; a tsunami warning and evacuation meant a sleepless night, but a bit of fatigue come Monday morning was a minor inconvenience when pictures of the earthquake damage started filling screens.

On Monday we made a call that I would try to hitch a ride on a helicopter down to Kaikoura and capture some stories of people outside the town and off the beaten track. It was also a chance to check up on some friends living 30km north of the township, close to the Ohau Point seal colony.

Destruction near Ohau Point seal colony

Destruction near Ohau Point seal colony Photo: RNZ

On Tuesday morning, as high winds and biblical rains pounded Wellington, I'd seriously wondered if we'd made the right decision. But thanks to GNS Science and its rapid response team, I got a ride south in a helicopter; there was even room for my bike, a few kilos of muesli bars and my camping kit. We flew to Omaka near Blenheim, and dropped some seismic equipment off at Seddon, checking and installing more earthquake sensors on the hills behind Kaikoura, before I was dropped off at Black Miller stream with my friends the Lidgards on Tuesday evening.

The couple had been due to celebrate their 50th birthdays with a group of friends this weekend in Kaikoura, but with no access north or south, the party was over! Fortunately they were all safe and well and at sunrise on Wednesday 16 November I ventured out to see the damage for myself, starting at the well-known seal colony and waterfall at Ohau Stream.

Kaikoura area map

The plan was to cycle north through Okiwi Bay to Waipapa Bay, take a detour west up the Clarence River Valley to see how families were doing up there, and ride onwards through Kekerengu and into Ward along State Highway 1 before returning to Wellington from Blenheim. So what did I find on my way? Well, the audio and photos will do the story more justice than these words, but here's a few highlights.

A terrible limbo

Morris and Belinda from Waipapa Bay crayfish and camp

Morris and Belinda from Waipapa Bay crayfish and camp Photo: RNZ

At Kaikoura Crayfish & Camp at Waipapa Bay, the owners were in a horrible state of limbo.

"There's nowhere to go. No matter which way we go, we can't get anywhere. So we have to juggle between a rockfall and a tsunami" - Belinda, owner of Kaikoura Crayfish & Camp.

With the inside of their house trashed, they had keys in every vehicle ready to run if an earthquake or tsunami threatened them. What would you do? Hemmed in by the sea on one side and steep cliffs on the other, where should you go? Is a landslide to be feared less than a tsunami? The couple had got a bank loan to stock up for the upcoming tourism season which had just got underway.

"Our house is trashed and we've got nearly $20,000 worth of crayfish in the freezer just rotting, a couple of thousand dollars worth of whitebait, 10 kilos of scallops..." - Belinda, owner of Kaikoura Crayfish & Camp.

Up the road, an abandoned milk tanker stood with 20,000 litres of milk fermenting. Camper vans were left deserted along the shore, their occupants' food strewn in piles on the ground after they were evacuated. And the smell! The stink of thousands of decaying paua and crayfish lying in the hot sun. With the stench only going to get worse, I remember thinking that this must take some emotional toll on people struggling to rebuild their lives.

Signs of hope?

Amidst the devastation and decay there were signs of hope. The shearers who, with no work, loaded up their ute with tools and went to help people in any way they could. And several people described a growing sense of community and camaraderie that seem to emerge in times of distress and natural disaster; the families up the Clarence River valley who congregated on higher ground together to wait out the tsunami threat, before returning home on Monday morning to survey the damage to their properties – and their lives.

Through Kekerengu I pedalled, meeting Italian and Argentinian cafe workers who were now out of work and who had chosen to travel around New Zealand with a new appreciation of their lives and what they wanted to do with them. For all of them, this had been an unforgettable experience.

"Well, it's been pretty hard but with a business you've just got to keep it running. You can't just fix your house. That's the last thing that we need to fix right now" - George Murray from Matariki Farm, Clarence River valley.

Finally, exhausted, after pedalling over 100 kilometres, it was getting dark and I needed to find a safe place to camp for the night. Entering the town of Ward I found the East Coast Inn, a hotel and pub with its lights twinkling invitingly in the dusk. I just had to drop in. Its owner had only bought the pub one month before, seeing it as a place to grow old in after a lifetime spent travelling around the world. Her plans for the future seemed to be dashed, but her story of hope was one of the most moving that I heard all day.

Simon Morton at Okiwi Bay

Simon Morton at Okiwi Bay Photo: RNZ / Simon Morton