The Earthquake – Kaikoura, New Zealand

Monday 14th November
We were running late, in standard Mel and Alex style. Both of us had jumped into the shower at 11.00, and then sat down in the communal area to plan our route for Monday – heading up to see the fur seals at Ohau stream, then on to getting a view of Marlborough Sounds and the Pelorus River (from The Hobbit) before stopping for the night at Nelson.  

We headed to bed, Alex the bunk on top of mine, at pretty much dead on midnight, and it is a telling part of our relationship that when the bed began shaking, each of our first thoughts was to assume the other was wobbling it on purpose! I got as far as opening my mouth to tell him off when the door started banging violently.

It’s weird how your brain rationalises the unexpected into terms you can comprehend. Seamlessly, the situation went from Alex taking the piss, to someone trying to get into the room. The door had turned from a rattling into a slamming sound, the hinges shivering in protest, and I was worried, still not about an earthquake but because of whoever was outside the door.

It must of taken a moment for all four of us in the dorm to absorb the sensory overload in its entirety, and all of us began reacting simultaneously. I remember jumping out of bed as the Dutch girl next to me began screaming, and shouting at Alex and the girl’s partner to get off the top of the bed as the force of the quake pinned me up against the opposite wall. The noise was absolutely deafening, all the lights had gone from outside and I could just make out Alex having managed to get down the stairs, trying to get to me but unable, both of us completely at the mercy of the directions the quake took and unable to reach each other.  

Still a bit detached from what was happening I slid down onto the floor, where at least I felt more stable and shouted at the Dutch girl that it was ok, just an Earthquake, they happen a lot here. She was the only person with the presence of mind to get under the bunks, the rest of us just stared wide-eyed at one another as the boys held the bunks to support them.

While it felt like minutes it was more likely only a matter of 30-40 seconds, and looking back some parts are a blur and some I can remember with perfect clarity. I remember the feeling as I slid down the wall, with it still rocking behind my back, and I remember numbly looking up at the outline of the lampshade, wondering if the bulb would hit me if it fell and I was still sitting there, then reasoning there wasn’t a lot I could do about it if it did as there was no way I was moving any way the quake wasn’t forcing me.

The roaring of the floor protesting and the clicking of the door and Windows being buffeted gradually slowed, then stopped, and we waited in suspended silence to see what would happen next. 

Nothing. We could hear people calling to each other in the other dorms and a few people still screaming, but the ground had settled. We took to calming the Dutch girl down – we had spoken to people during our stay who had been in the Christchurch earthquake, and people had frequently highlighted how common the quakes were and so we were soon laughing about how it wasn’t a big deal, and as being Europeans who weren’t used to earthquakes we were most likely over reacting.

We could hear people running to their cars and the sounds of tyres screeching past, the roads in our opinion being some of the unsafest places to be with people panicking over such a trivial event. Our perspective was entirely taken from our room, where everything was still standing. We used torch lights to read through all the fire safety and instructions sheets on the wall but found no advice about earthquakes, and as there had been a couple of smaller aftershocks we reasoned the best thing to do was stay safe indoors and wait for someone to come and tell us what to do and that it was safe.

This is apparently the wrong thing to do! In the event of an earthquake – we have since carefully memorised – if it is powerful enough that you cannot walk you want to get underneath something sturdy and hold it in place until the shaking stops. Then you want to get outdoors as soon as it is safe to do so, away from buildings or anything that may fall, such as street lamps, trees or telephone poles. 

Irregardless, we were quite clearly making it up as we went along, and the quiet that we assumed was people settling back down for bed turned to an eerie silence. We decided to leave the room and find everyone else, so threw on some warmer clothes over our PJs and left the room.

This was the first time the magnitude of the quake hit home. The rooms all across the floor had been deserted, clothes strewn across some of them and even a MacBook abandoned in people’s rush to get in their cars. We had seen a few vehicles leave outside but hadn’t heard anything from the corridor at all, and it was creepy. Bad apocalypse film creepy. There had been glass smashed, a bookcase relieved of its contents, chairs had walked of their own accord and PC screens dangled from tables, but luckily no major damage. The Dutch couple in our dorm had headed out before us, and we could hear them calling back to get out now, so we grabbed Alex’s day bag and scarpered.

There were about ten people still outside, the manager, a member of staff and a few guests. The manager had said she had called round but not found anyone, and been unable to go back into the building for worries about its structural integrity. She explained that someone had come out screaming that people downstairs were trapped in their rooms and had feared the worst, but at our appearance had a scout round the building to make sure there was no one else in it.

We were a ramshackle bunch to say the least. People had rushed out in varying states of dress, one Kiwi (who knew a lot more about earthquakes than anyone else and calmly explained what we should have done) stoicly shifting from one bare foot to the other in an effort to keep them warm. A German mother was quietly rocking her sleeping toddler, both in jimjams. All power and phone signal had gone, but they knew from the police going past relaying information that the quake had been big. Roads had been destroyed and there was nowhere to go, so best to stay where we were and wait for further direction. There was muttering about tsunami risk, but as the epicentre of the quake had been so far inland it was considered minimal. 

A coach drove past and offered lifts to people looking to get up to higher ground, where people were gathering at the hospital. We decided to stick with the hostel and close to the car, along with a couple of other people, including one of the hostel staff, Gabriel. We pulled the car to the front and waited inside in the warm, still feeling the odd aftershock. 

Half an hour passed, and we were starting to relax and assume we would be there for the night, until a police car went past, talking to people in the street, and they started running. Alarms had been sounded further down the coastline, a tsunami was coming. We paused to call for Gabriel, unable to find him or anyone else, we got into the car and fled.

Just a five minute drive away we arrived at the hospital, and walking from the car overheard radio reports of a 2 metre tsunami hitting Kaikoura. Reports were so conflicting and dramatic it was difficult to tell what was true and what wasn’t. Using the hospital WiFi we were able to get online, to panicked messages already from England, where the news had already gone out. Reportedly 7.8 on the Richter scale and only 10km deep, the force of the quake even surpassing that of the Christchurch disaster 5 years ago.

There was panic everywhere. Dogs were running around freely, owners not even having the time to grab a lead on their way out of the house. People were milling around desperately searching for friends or family members, while others were coaxing elder, frightened relatives into the warmth and safety of the hospital. The hostel manager Claire rushed over to ask if we had seen Gabriel. For me, especially seeing their relief when they eventually found each other, it was probably the first time I realised that while it was scary for us, locals had lost homes, livelihoods and were at this time unsure if they had lost friends as well. 

We eventually took a car load of people and settled down in the tiny Daihatsu for an hour of uncomfortable, restless sleep, everyone jerking awake at every tremor, wary of another earthquake.

***

The following day we really saw the best and the worst of people. In the morning the family in the home opposite our car brought out all the food they had and a grill, and were making breakfast and tea and coffee for passers by, heedless of the destruction inside their own home. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so cheerful, let alone the morning after an earthquake! She was fantastic, bubbly and loud, lifting everyone’s spirits up. She even got a guitar out and played happy birthday to one of the ladies getting a coffee! People were chipping in to support others and help everywhere, and it was heartwarming to see. We helped a lady quickly cleaning out the glass in her shop who had her cow, two goats and a piglet chilling out in the back of her car who she was taking to her mums on higher ground, and that along with the many dogs (and goats!) wandering around was a great example of the respect and bonds the locals have with the animals in their care, which is further demonstrated by this amazing story

Lovely family handing out ‘sausage sizzlers’!

On the other side, when we were walking down from the town later in the day a van pulled up, asking the couple in front of us to smile for a photo. When they did, he then jubilantly declared he had seen them looting the store down the road and their pictures were going on Facebook, so it was a bit of a mixed bag. There were various reports of looting across the supermarkets primarily, but thankfully it was only a small minority and the rest of the town manifested a supportive, team-playing attitude.

We saw this little one all over town

Aftershocks were still shaking Kaikoura throughout the day. Sometimes they were hours apart, other times every five minutes almost like clockwork, to the point where we were starting to become desensitised to them.. But not quite.

The tsunami threat had been lifted so we could travel more freely, but we were still unsure about how the building had held up, so our group had nowhere to stay except our car. We were able to walk around and explore the town, and established that we had got off lightly. The wall of a large hardware store lay on the floor in front of the building, glass and wood and random assortments of equipment littered across the floor. Not a single picture remained standing in the art gallery, and we heard an independent shop owner putting a brave face on the fact the building was too old to insure against earthquakes, so he would be paying to fix the structure and front windows out of his own pocket. 

Some of the damage the quake caused

In comparison, our hostel (when we were eventually able to get in and retrieve our bags) was relatively unscathed. The water tank pipes had cracked and some had been dislodged completely so the water reserves were lost. The hostel had a large ornamental boulder in the main hall which had left a fairly hefty dent in the wall, but nothing effecting the structure of the building.

Everyone was at a loss of what to do, information was slow coming in, and understandably the efforts of the authorities were concentrated on ensuring everyone was accounted for before assessing buildings and getting the power back. A plan was eventually announced that the local Marae would be taking people in, the tsunami threat was confirmed as over, but that the roads were bad, and we were looking at being stuck for at least a week, potentially longer. Use water and food sparingly, and support people if you can.
Our hostel opened to take in whoever was in need, as the decision was made that it was likely low risk in terms of damage, however a lot of residents were concerned about returning so close to the water and remained up high in the Marae, which did a great job but was packed – the Dutch couple spent the night next to a couple and two children all sharing a single mattress. We grabbed enough food for twenty and returned to the hostel, pretending we could ignore the intermittent shaking of the floor.

Tuesday 15th November

Awoke to another aftershock (which I was later told was a 6 on the Richter scale and one of many more earthquakes in its own right). Through sheer exhaustion we had slept well, and were keen to hear news about how to get out. 

The queue outside New World

Clare told us the local supermarket had opened with some restrictions, and we said we would pick up a couple of bits. The queue ran across the car park and it took over an hour and a half to get in. Staff were literally picking through the debris, setting aside anything salvageable to move onto makeshift shelves for customers to peruse. We managed to pick up a couple of basics for the hostel.. And a couple of ciders and a dairy milk for us!

One of the many helicopters flying resources in and people out

We were rushed out on return to the hostel for a mass meeting outside the hospital, lead by leaders of the clean up and various council members. The roads were looking at 5 days at best case scenario, and they were having difficulty getting food and supplies in, so we were advised to use water sensibly and sparingly. The sewer systems were in bad shape and very few places had access to clean water, but they had the fire services visiting buildings and clearing them for use where they could. The porta potties had popped up all over town (we quickly scouted out the least disgusting one down our road) and hand sanitising stations, as the concern about hygiene and bouts of sickness were also becoming a concern as we were so contained. They were looking at naval ship support for the evacuations and were aiming to get a couple of hundred tourists out each day as a priority, to conserve the remaining food and water for the locals.

Our crayfish lunch

Scenes at the Marae were mixed. Everyone was in good spirits and well fed, a business owner having donated hundreds of crayfish (we actually probably ate better throughout this than we had on our backpackers budget!), however any good cheer we took from this was dampened when we saw the notices on the fence from people still despairingly searching for loved ones.

They were beginning to evacuate people, mostly tourists, by chopper, and when it wasn’t rumbling from an aftershock, the ground around the hospital and Marae was humming with the constant take offs and landings of the various helicopters. The Chinese government in fact chartered a New Zealand helicopter company and evacuated the Chinese tourists en masse. The government organised effort was primarily focused on those with the greatest need; the old, young and injured so we have our details and headed back to the hostel, fully expecting to wait a few days before we would be called. 

We headed back to the hostel and did a bit of cleaning and rooting through the food that was left in the fridge, salvaging anything useable and planning meals for the group for the foreseeable future. As a sign of how bad things were I was actually cooking (only pasta… But still) – and as Alex can attest if I’m cooking things must be dire!

Wednesday 16th November

Alex’s birthday – and not quite how he expected to spend it bless him. 

We spent the morning in the hostel and had a chat with the team who had been watching the news. The Prime Minister had flown into Kaikoura to meet with business owners and discuss a plan of action, as the long term effects on tourism were being examined for the town. We saw reports of the damage in other areas such as Marlborough and Wellington, and were gutted to hear that Ohau stream had been the site of a landslide and was destroyed, along with the poor fur seal’s home.

There was another meeting early afternoon so we headed up to the hospital. Tensions were running much higher; the locals were frustrated and frightened, running out of water and bread with no definite answers of when support was coming. One of the solutions was to move all the tourists out as a priority, to preserve the food and water for the locals who needed it.

Goodbye EEW!

With that in mind we trooped over to the Marae and signed ourselves up to be transported out. We bid a tearful farewell to our lovely little rental car (who is probably still sitting happily in a school car park in Kaikoura) and boarded a coach to the naval boat. 


This was the first time we had ventured out of the town and the damage was even more evident, massive cracks down the roads with cordoned off areas due to land slips, not to mention the difference in the sea bed from how it looked after our whale watching trip just a couple of days beforehand.

Around 450 tourists were boarded onto HMNZS Canterbury (plus four dogs and seven tonnes of luggage) with amazing haste and professionalism. Alex was particularly impressed and I was worried he was going to ensign on the spot! The navy guys were approachable, cheeky and very helpful, and did a great job putting everyone at ease and moving people along as quickly as possible. This well oiled machine also provided a slap up meal, and we enjoyed quiche, roast beef, chicken escalope and skewers, and kicked back and enjoyed Pitch Perfect, Happy Gilmore and Captain America as we cruised our way to Lyttleton.

Thursday 17th November
We arrived at Lyttleton, tired and dishevelled after a not so comfy nap on a Hessian sack! We were loaded onto buses and transported to the Horncastle Arena where we had a sit down with reps from the Civil Defence team and they helped us plan where we would be heading next and gave us our all important insurance documents. Again, you could tell these guys had been through this before during the Christchurch earthquakes and they knew what they were doing, so we were moved along quickly and seamlessly. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for actually getting us to where we were staying, and it was gone 5 by the time we made it to the campsite, absolutely exhausted!

The Civil Defence guys were amazing and supportive the following day as well, and had sorted us our accommodation, transfer to the airport and a takeaway pizza for dinner. We were keen to get on with our trip and make the most of our stay in beautiful New Zealand, but they had made arrangements for us to stay for three nights should we need them, which was incredible and took a huge amount of pressure off.

Friday 18th November  

It’s been easy to write this in hindsight with a fairly lighthearted tilt to it. We are currently flying to Auckland and while it has been undoubtedly disrupted, our trip is by no means ruined – and we definitely have a story for years to come. However the locals we left behind have lost homes, businesses and livelihoods, and the consequences of the quake are far reaching, to the point where the long term effects on tourism for the area are still inconclusive.

We are impossibly grateful for the care and support shown by so many people in Kaikoura, notably Claire the hostel owner, the family looking after people the following morning and the manager of the Adelphi restaurant, who took charge in the Marae kitchen and was responsible for feeding hundreds of hungry people with nowhere to go. The town and the way they pulled together was truly an inspiration, and we were amazed by the unity shown and upbeat, positive natures of locals who had lost so much. Massive thank you as well to the amazing guys working with the Civil Defence and of course the team on HMNZS Canterbury.

To date there have been two confirmed deaths, 2000 aftershocks (20 above a 5.0) and at a minimum an entire season of tourism lost for the businesses in Kaikoura – private businesses entirely reliant on tourism for income. The town is still experiencing aftershocks, the army is struggling to provide supplies due to the terrible state of the roads, and the majority of sites still have no water.

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4 thoughts on “The Earthquake – Kaikoura, New Zealand

  1. Not bad your the only person i know who will travel these sorts of distances to find TROUBLE and I now even find myself reading a blog !!!!!!!
    Glad you both fit and well .
    Love Dad xx

    Liked by 1 person

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