I have been tuned in to more media broadcasting in the past 24 hours than I ever have in the past several years; let alone during my time in NZ. The mining accident in Greymouth, the numerous cyclists killed way too close together, the aftershock on Boxing Day; all of these added together don’t begin to compare to the events of yesterday. I am not sure how to react. The attitudes around me are somber yet spirits are surprisingly high. I am in Kaiapoi, a suburb about a half an hour’s drive from center city Christchurch. I was meant to be staying in a backpackers downtown last night, a few blocks from the now collapsed cathedral.
Louise and I woke up yesterday morning to a beautiful sunrise from our noisy campsite located a bit too close to the highway and train tracks for a sound night’s sleep. Our plan was to drive about an hour up to Sawcut Gorge and hike the 3-5 hour track to see a fascinating piece of water-carved rock. By the time we arrived at the trailhead (12k off the main road on a narrow gravel driveway) it had started to drizzle. There were signs warning of flash floods in the case of heavy rains, which could be dangerous due to the numerous stream crossings. We weren’t sure what the weather was supposed to do, so started the hike to try and catch up with some folks working on the trail up ahead. I went ahead with my trusty keens (no need to take my shoes off for each crossing!) and when I caught up with the workers, was informed the weather forecast did not look promising. I went back to retrieve Louise and we bagged the hike, deciding it was not worth it due to the menacing clouds and wind.
We drove back to Kaikoura (where we had been the night before) and stopped for groceries to make a tasty meal for our last night together. Our ten day road trip was coming to an end, and she had a flight to Melbourne this (Wednesday) afternoon. It was another two hours or so to get to Christchurch, but we had things to do when we arrived at the only backpackers we arranged for our road trip (showers and laundry seem to go on the back burner when you are living out of a car).
At some point while I was driving, Louise happened to turn on the radio. We heard snippets about another earthquake, but have somehow become accustomed to the announcement of an aftershock in Christchurch. We weren’t sure the severity of the event, and stayed tuned in, anxiously waiting for details as they unfolded. We thought maybe it happened overnight (and why would we have noticed anything between the trains barreling by?) Then we figured out it was recent; within the past hour. We stopped for petrol and made sure we had water, but continued to head south so we could be available if Lou’s flight was indeed flying out the next day.
Around Kaiapoi we started seeing some earthquake damage, an increase in the number of cars on the road, and massive queues at every petrol station (some were already closed with signs saying they were out of fuel!) We decided we’d better not continue any further south, and focused on trying to find a place to stay the night. We had spotted a “Top Ten Holiday Park” on our way into town, so asked if we could camp on their property.
We figured out that the damage we had seen in town was mostly from the September quake, though from Kaiapoi you could definitely feel vibrations from the ongoing aftershocks. We made our planned dinner, using a few more rustic and creative methods than expected, and settled into the common room where empty faces were staring at the unending footage on the big screen.
I had chatted with a lady who drove up from Christchurch with her husband, towing their caravan. They made it as far as Kaiapoi but could not get any further due to lacking fuel. She contacted her daughter who had gathered the grandchildren and escaped away on the other side of the city. She was shattered, and I felt her pain when she told me she could not get to her family. I tried to be encouraging, focusing on how at least they were all okay and she had been able to contact them – much more than so many families out there.
The room was almost silent – apart from the continuing narration of the images that flashed across the screen. People were hurting; trapped; wet and cold with rain. Buildings were demolished; leaning; broken. Help was on its way from Australia; Japan; America. I sat there trying to absorb it all.
The phone lines were congested, so I had texted my dad earlier, assuming news would be breaking in the states that evening. I started thinking of all those I have met in New Zealand, and who I might know in or around Christchurch. I thought of all the families who could not contact their loved ones; of the survivors who were helping to rescue others; of the people who were still trapped in rubble, hoping for a miracle.
Once in a while, everyone in the common room would look at each other. I didn’t know what prompted this sudden connection, and after the initial surprise on her face, Louise would look at me in disbelief. They were aftershocks. They happened at least every hour, and I couldn’t feel most of them. I’m not sure if there have been too many years of my life spent on boats and docks, or if my inner ear isn’t working correctly, but the small movements didn’t trigger a response in me. I could see the hanging lights swing back and forth afterwards, or feel the building move during the more intense ones, but I couldn’t feel the tremor itself.
Louise and I sat there long after everyone else had retreated to bed. We tried to be productive – organizing pictures and pretending to be busy – but were quite focused on the footage onscreen. It was a bit of a relief when a cop show came on to distract us two non-TV-watchers from reality. Eventually we retreated to bed, still uncertain of how our plans for today would pan out.
Now, I have always prided myself on being a rather deep sleeper, but I woke several times in our tent last night as the ground was shaking beneath me. Louise told me of many small aftershocks that I didn’t feel, but the ones that woke me were a bit startling. We were far enough away from the epicenter of the quake that there was no real concern for our safety, but when solid ground begins to move and shake beneath you, it brings about a certain amount of anxiety!
It seemed like a long night in the tent and this morning when we couldn’t lay there anymore, we got up to do some laundry, make breakfast, check the news, and head downtown to get on the internet and organize our plans for the afternoon. It looks like Louise will actually be flying out today and the rental car agencies appear to be open. So, aside from our accommodation last night and our plans to go out to breakfast this morning, we were generally – and fortunately – unaffected by the earthquake. I am extremely grateful for that fact, and also quite blessed to have had so many concerns for my safety. I was inundated with emails and facebook posts when I finally got online this morning, and want to thank all those who were worried about me!
I’m still unsure about how to react to the events of yesterday. Though close in proximity, I still feel quite far away from the people whose lives were so drastically changed. I’m not sure how long it will take for it all to completely sink in, or even if it ever will. What I do know, though, is that I feel incredibly lucky to be here, to be alive, and to be healthy!