Remembering dates of past events is not a strength of mine and that’s why I like the way Facebook pops up with ‘Your Memories’ to remind me of previous special occasions. The Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand two years ago appeared last month as we’re about to embark on another cycling trip.
My sister Lyn selects the: ‘Tasman Great Taste Trail,’ a bike circuit out of Nelson in the South Island which will suit our group as it features food, an easy gradient, swims and walks in the Abel Tasman National Park.
The same four gals commit but in the intervening months the landscape changes dramatically. One of our team withdraws as she is undergoing a rugged bout of chemo. Two weeks out Lyn falls off her bike and has plates and pins in her wrist relegating her to organiser/navigator. And what appears to have the least impact, is a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake in November last year that centred on Kaikoura.
Our girly group is as fractured as the landscape. At the last minute Neil my chivalrous partner is co-opted to stand in and as token male, is a willing adventurer, cyclist and co-driver.
My responsibility is to book accommodation at Kaikoura, the first night of our drive north from Christchurch to Nelson. I’m keen to get started but oblivious to the earthquake’s area of devastation and its impact. I head to Booking.com to choose a lovely apartment overlooking the stunning bay and send details through to my sister.
Moments later she rings to say: ‘I didn’t realise you were booking. I think we need to skip Kaikoura as the earthquake has closed the north Kaikoura – Picton scenic coast road’. I gasp and log onto various websites to look for road updates but they are scant and it seems obvious we’ll have to take a major detour to get north to Picton and Nelson.
I try to cancel my booking and find that I have neglected to pay the extra fee for ‘free cancellation’. I feel as uneasy as someone standing on a fault line and ring the accommodation to find that the response is cool, if not hostile, and a male voice says: ‘It’s like booking a plane trip, it’s final, you don’t get your money back’.
I hang up and feel angry at his response and annoyed at myself. Lyn is understanding and says: ‘We’ll be okay, it looks like a gorgeous place anyway’.
It’s now March. We have a GPS but search for additional road information and maps at Christchurch airport, collect the car and head north unaware that the road to Kaikoura had re-opened that day because of previous wet weather and landslides. Some 20k’s from our destination we reach the coast and in stark contrast to the sea views, there’s evidence that things are not good. The narrow gauge freight and passenger rail line hugging the coast road rises and falls twisted and taut, rail tunnels are barricaded, large shipping containers dot the road on the hillside to catch falling rocks, and roadworks are rife.
The town appears deserted but I recognise our hotel in the dying light. I’m pleased, but somewhat apprehensive about meeting the ‘male-voice.’ Instead a welcoming receptionist greets us and offers more insight into the impact of the earthquake on the seaside resort. In handing over the room swipe card she says ‘sleep with the car keys beside your bed in case there is a tsunami warning and you have to drive to higher ground in the night!’. My gut does a half turn and I try to rationalise my fear. As Neil has the car keys in his hand he’s delegated official key-keeper for the night.
The next day it’s raining. Anita takes a short walk along the misty foreshore and comes back breathless to tell us that most of the other hotels and motels are boarded up due to damage.
On the door to the tourist centre there’s a tatty sticker that declares the building ‘Can be Used: No Restrictions on Access’ and ‘Quake shakes’ and ‘Quake specials’ are promoted on the breakfast menu. A visit to the seal colony on the peninsula is suggested. The first one we see lies somnolent on the duckboard next to the car park 200 metres from the sea. It looks displaced and dead as though it’s been uplifted and dumped by a tsunami wave.
By now the road we came in on is closed but our route north via Hanmer Springs is open and we’re keen to leave. We’re relieved we’re moving on, but agree that if we were planning the same trip we’d still detour via Kaikoura.
Postscript: Elsewhere as we travel north to Nelson we hear and read about the impact the earthquake continues to have: according to GeoNet mid-March there’s been 14,796 quakes recorded since Kaikoura: the coast road and rail line that carries most of the freight from Christchurch to Picton is not expected to open before the end of the year if not later; NZ emergency services are scheduling meetings to prepare for a potential 8.2 earthquake; and the latest analysis on the Kaikoura earthquake claims that the south island has been shunted five metres closer to the north island.