“There has been an earthquake in New Zealand! There are Tsunami warnings in the South Pacific! Are you okay?”
“Are you okay?”
“Why aren’t you responding to my emails?”
Andrew and I were hard at work tidying, scrubbing, conducting engine maintenance, removing ropes and sails, and generally getting Sonrisa ready to withstand the six month cyclone season alone in the Tonga Boat Yard. My poor father was trying to reach his eldest daughter in Tonga, after hearing New Zealand experienced an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale. By the time we fired up our systems to collect email, he had been waiting hours to hear from us. I felt bad. It was just a sunny, warm day in Tonga with no danger in sight.
Meanwhile, in Kaikoura, New Zealand the locals and tourists alike had been shaken up and trapped by land slides and roads that buckled under their feet in seconds. The power of this earthquake was such that it picked up and moved giant mountains four meters higher than they used to be. The sea floor was instantly raised, leaving lobsters (or Crayfish as the Kiwis say), clams, oysters, fish, seaweed, jellyfish, and anything else passing close to the Kaikoura coastline high and dry. Everything was crushed, crumpled, bent, cracked or otherwise impacted by the sudden shift in the earth. New fault lines seismologists did not realize existed cracked open and created havoc.
Several of our friends were sailing southward and slated to arrive in New Zealand on this very day. As Phil and Laura neared land, they received word of the earthquake activity and tsunami warnings, too. Welcome to New Zealand!
New Zealand straddles the collision zone between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. The boundary between the two plates runs between New Zealand’s two islands, splitting them further and further apart with each shift. These tectonic plates are the creative force behind the volcanos dotting New Zealand’s landscape, the thermal pools and vents in Rotorua, the giant “Southern Alps” that run the length of the South Island (and form our beloved Mount Cook), and they also give New Zealand a little shake every now and then. Kaikoura wasn’t New Zealand’s first ride on the Earthquake Rodeo. Most recently, in 2011, the South Island’s largest city of Christchurch was struck by an Earthquake of similar magnitude. So, we were curious about how Christchurch and Kaikoura are faring.
When we arrived in Christchurch, we found a bustling little city with all the normal suburbs you would expect. We parked near the City Center, and started to explore. We found a botanical garden with people relaxing here and there. Nothing unusual. I figure they had everything cleaned up since 2011.
(Andrew decided if his likeness is every constructed into a statue, this is the look would select.)
We wander down the street to some beautiful old stone buildings that previously housed a University. Here, the buildings were in use, but not for their original purpose. Crews were cleaning and working in the Courtyard, and a sign led us to a lecture hall recently renovated for the purpose of concerts. The stained glass had just been repaired and put back into place.
A little work to be done here and there, but nothing crazy…I thought.
We had dinner at Fiddlesticks and enjoyed flank steak with pureed parsnips, duck fat fried rosemary potatoes, a salad and delicious wine. It was so tasty, I forgot to take a picture of my dinner. (SHAME). We were celebrating our one year anniversary of leaving San Diego.
We stepped outside and continued our tour. We hang a right and walk past the new art gallery, a colorful neon sign lit against the fading afternoon sky reads: “Everything is going to be alright.”
Past the art gallery, though, we come into the center of the city. High rise hotels, business towers, government buildings, and Chistchurch’s cathedral. Some buildings are in various stages of being taken down. Other buildings are still standing, but they are covered in graffiti, fenced off, propped up, and abandoned. A strip mall of businesses on the bottom floor of a hotel tower are fenced off, their signs still in place, merchandise still visible behind dusty glass that didn’t break. Wooden ply board taking the place of glass where windows shattered. These buildings are uninhabitable, dangerous, and too expensive or complicated to be taken down at least so far in the six years since the 2011 Christchurch quake. A sign is posted before one that offers it for sale at auction, a lot of work to be completed to repair structural damage or raze it to bear land.
There are art exhibits built in 2009 before the earthquake, still standing, still beautiful in the center of the chain link fences. A giant pile of rocks have been erected in the center of the square, held into a tall column with chicken wire. The rocks are there in protest of land use policies currently in debate here. A “garden” building has been built just in front of the cathedral, a place for people to stand and look at what used to be one of the spiritual centers of the city. The flowers and plants built into the building softening the harsh view of collapsed blocks, birds taking roost on the skeleton of the church.
We move on toward Kaikoura next, somberly considering the Christchurch situation as we drive. When you put the size and population scale in perspective (Nevada and Utah alone), the scope of repair work comes into light. Imagine a good portion of the buildings in Salt Lake City being structurally damaged to the point of no repair, then try to fix that damage with the tax revenue of those same two states alone. A good chunk of tax revenue is no longer available because the businesses that were previously operating in these damaged buildings can no longer function, and the rest of those two states are trying to keep their cities and areas functioning well, too. It seems like a challenge.
Our drive to Kaikoura starts on a sunny, blue day. We roll along, until we start to see the ocean again in the distance. A cloud of grey mist hovers in the distance, and as we get closer, we are enveloped in the fog. Even fifty miles away from Kaikoura, we start noticing the road becoming rough with ripples and uneven areas in the asphalt. In some places, it seems like part of the road was picked up and moved to the left, then reconnected to its formerly straight section.
“Oh wow, look at that!” Andrew says, incredulous. The metal guardrails designed to keep cars from overshooting the tight turns are crumpled like an aluminum can.
As we get closer to Kaikoura, road crews are working every few kilometers attempting to clear landslide debris, repair a bit of road that broke off and fell down the cliffside, or shore up tunnels.
Are we sure about this? We creep up to a tunnel still under repair, then zoom through as fast as it is reasonable given the road work in our surrounds.
As we reach the coast line we pull over. The ocean floor has been lifted out of the water, high and dry. Ground that used to be underwater is exposed to open air. Green seaweed is still in the process of dying off on the areas that still get ocean water at high tide. An old boat marina is closed completely, no longer deep enough for use by boats. The boat ramps are about 10 feet away from any water now.
I walk across the street and find railroad tracks split apart and set four feet away from each other. As they move in the distance, they now curl around the landscape in waves. It looks more like a rollercoaster than a train track. The fog adds an eerie backdrop.
We reach Kaikoura and find it is a beautiful little beach town. Small hotels line a street that faces the beach, the patios connected to each room look like a nice place to lounge and read a vacation book. This is usually the place tourists go to whale watch, swim with dolphins, charter fishing trips and enjoy the ocean, but it is devoid of tourists. Compared to the crowd of tourists we just left in Mildford Sound, this place is a ghost town.
We stop by a food truck and get fresh fish for lunch. Then, we relax on a beach made not of sand but a million smooth round pebbles. Dark black, the pebbles soak up the warmth of the sun perfectly. I bury myself in warm pebbles, and lay down beneath my hat. See those mountains in the distance? The earthquake lifted them up, too! Can you imagine how much force it would take to vertically LIFT those giant mountains several meters in some places?
My mind is blown.