5 May 2014

An Easter weekend nightmare

6:29 pm on 5 May 2014

For the Easter weekend, my partner and I decided go to Collingwood to meet up with some old friends. We booked a flight to Nelson on the Thursday, where we would meet one group of friends and drive over the Hill. It all seemed so straight forward, but little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for.

Here's how the trip unfolded:

The Thursday Air New Zealand flight left half an hour late at approximately 1.05pm, for the short 25 minute flight across the strait.

As we began descending in to Nelson things got a bit bumpy, then downright shaky. We hit a storm front heading north as we were going south. After attempting to fly down through it, and with the plane creaking and jumping about, the landing was aborted. I knew it was a bit more than the usual lumpy Wellington type of landing when I had to hold on to the seat in front to stay in my seat. White knuckle stuff.

The remnants of Cylone Ita hit South Island farmers hard.

The remnants of Cyclone Ita showed no mercy. Photo: METSERVICE

With Nelson airport closed, we flew on to Christchurch.

In Christchurch we collected bags and waited for land transport to take us through to Nelson. Once on the bus, we headed north up Highway 7 to the Lewis Pass. The rain was incessant. It got dark. The bus leaked. It had no toilet.

A few km's short of the Hanmer turn-off, flashing lights and a Police car across the road indicated that the Lewis was closed. It was now around 7pm.

We turned around, headed south again, then over the inland road to Kaikoura. It was raining, pouring, sheeting down.

10pm. Kaikoura is closed, railway blocked, little power, no telephone or cell phone coverage. The driver is determined to get to Nelson.

Two hours north of Kaikoura, around midnight, it is still raining as we come to an impassable slip across the road. We manage to reverse and turn around to head back south. Ten minutes later we come upon another slip across the road, a smaller one, maybe passable as a four wheeler does ahead of us. And then with a roar the hillside seems to move and slide across the road in front of us, mud, trees, boulders. We are stuck - literally between a rock and a hard place. Sea to the left, hillside to the right, slips to the front and at the rear.

Landslides and slips block SH1 between Clarence and Blenheim on the Kaikoura Coast Road, Friday 18 April.

Mud and slips across SH1 on the Kaikoura coast road. Photo: SNPA / Ruth Fisher

It's after midnight, pitch black outside, still sheeting down, no other traffic around, no cell phone coverage, just a dark leaky bus with no toilet and 34 Air NZ passengers who thought they would be in Nelson 12 hours ago. A couple want to leave the bus and walk back to some lights they saw a while ago. They are talked out of it. We share water and food and my torch. The bus is moved to the highest place on our little bit of highway and adjacent to the lowest bit of hillside. Lights out, we sit and wait for rescue, although we didn't know that no-one knew where we were. Air NZ thought we were safely tucked up and warm in Kaikoura. Friends and family, who had received communications before they went down, thought that we would be nearly in Nelson by now.

Around 5am, breaking the darkness and sound of wind-blown rain, there are some flashing yellow lights and the rattle of machinery. The caterpillar cavalry have arrived. It takes about an hour to clear a path for the bus, and off we go again - south, towards Kaikoura, in the rain. We arrive in Kaikoura at daylight on Good Friday, stop at the first petrol station and hurry the operator to open up. We need toilets, power for flat cell phone batteries and hot food. There is limited power, no land lines or cell phone coverage. Kaikoura is in a state of civil emergency. Word of mouth tells us that there may be cell phone coverage from the top of the hill, ironically near the cemetery. The hill is a mass of people wandering around, cell phones in the air, trying to get coverage. We make broken contact with Air NZ, but the connections are never long enough for a full conversation.

Back on the bus, a list of passengers is compiled and an email prepared, we head south for Christchurch, in the rain. About half an hour south of Kaikoura, cell phone coverage! Everyone yells for the driver to stop the bus. Contact is made with the world, and Air NZ and an email of passenger names is sent through. Stop for a cheese roll and half decent coffee in Cheviot. After petrol station food and coffee, this is good. Still raining.

Trees at Whataora were felled by the wind.

The storm had the power to snap tree trunks like matchsticks. Photo: Shona Rathgen

Mid-afternoon, we arrive back at Christchurch airport. It's been 25 hours since we left Wellington. It's still raining. We are met by a very apologetic general manager who has left her son's birthday party to talk with us. We are given boarding passes for a special flight that they have arranged for us, and we are escorted to the Koru Lounge while we wait for our flight. Real food and drinks all round.

A little while later we fly to Nelson, arriving 29 hours after leaving Wellington.

The Takaka Hill road is closed because of slips and flooding, so we stay in Nelson with friends who offer a warm house, hot food and a bath.

Postscript. We finally got to Collingwood on the Saturday. Air NZ will hold an enquiry in to the flight diversion and subsequent events. They will refund our Wellington to Nelson flight cost.