After an amazing two weeks exploring New Zealand’s south island, where we squeezed in as much as possible in our little camper van, we were moving quickly on our way back up to the north island. We had planned three days of 6-8 hours of driving in order to return our camper to its owners by the due date. We made good progress on the first day, making it from Milford Sound all the way to Christchurch, where we pulled into a functional and friendly campsite near the airport, on the outskirts of town.
Late that night, while the kids slept and Richard and I were making plans for the next leg, we started to feel an odd feeling that the camper was moving, much like we were driving over a bumpy road. We both thought Nora must be horsing around in her bunk but when we looked in on her, she was quietly taking advantage of the campsite’s wifi to chat with friends on her phone. As the shaking continued, my brain then thought it must be a bunch of youths outside having a laugh by shaking our van. Intending to confront the hooligans, I jumped outside and found that not just our camper was shaking, but all the camper vans. It took a full minute for us to realize that this was an earthquake, and a violent and long one at that. Long enough for that entire thought process to play out and still time for us to experience the earthquake with the full knowledge of it being an earthquake.
What a disconcerting feeling it is – for a full two minutes we rocked like we were in a bouncy castle with a bunch of adults and a camper van. As Gabe woke from a deep sleep and realized one of his few anxieties about this trip was coming true, panic set in. The rest of us remained calm, as we knew that a camper van in an open space was likely the best place to experience an earthquake and we felt relatively safe. Once the shaking stopped, we settled Gabe and talked with our neighbours about where to get information, posted a few updates on Facebook to let family know we were ok (knowing it would likely make the news), and turned on the radio to see what the damage was. Our calm subsided when we heard a tsunami warning for low lying areas in Christchurch and a calm voice telling all those in low-lying areas to evacuate to higher ground. Not knowing if we were high or low, but knowing that we were relatively close to the ocean, we opted to head to higher ground, along with most of the other campers at our site.
We buckled the kids into their seatbelts and started driving west inland. My brother, Peter, was online with us through most of this, tracking our position on GPS and helping us navigate as we looked for safe place to park for the night. We eventually found a farmer’s field with a small, level area that we could park and feeling far enough away from the coast, we settled in for the night. After more than 600 aftershocks (a few of them over a magnitude of 5) and a very restless sleep, we woke to learn that the epicenter was just north of us in North Cantebury.
Although bigger on the Richter scale (7.5) than the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch quakes (7.2), the damage was less extensive, as the epicenter was in an area of less dense population. Tragically two people lost their lives, and it must have been a terrifying experience for all those that suffered through the 2011 quake that killed 185 people and destroyed the city centre.
As the damage was assessed, we learned that the roads near the epicenter had suffered considerable damage. Given the mountainous terrain of the south island, there are really only two routes north from Christchurch – State Highway One is a three hour coastal drive from Christchurch to the ferry landing in Picton. The other option is a nine hour drive through the Lewis Pass in the Southern Alps. State Highway One suffered extensive damage and was going to be closed for weeks. The Lewis Pass route was reduced to single lanes and allowing only the passage of light vehicles. We later learned that all ferries out of Picton and Wellington were cancelled while they assessed the damage to the docks. This was compounded by a massive storm was hitting Wellington on the North Island, knocking out roads near the North Island’s ferry landing and flooding the downtown core.
Although early estimates had put the tsunami at 5 metres, a 2.5 metre (8.5 feet) tsunami did hit the north eastern coast two hours after the quake. The most significant damage to infrastructure was due more to rock falls, slips and heaves. The quake even changed the coastal seabed near Kaikoura, where the coastal rock shelf was raised two metres.
The next day, we learned that the ferry docks suffered significant damage and it was likely that they would not return to vehicular service before November 21st. This was unfortunate for us, as our flight from Auckland to Sydney was scheduled for November 21st and missing that flight would jeopardize all the future flights booked on our RTW ticket.
We decided to set up camp outside of Christchurch for a couple nights to decide what to do. Our camper van return was now overdue and we were not likely to make our flights. Our options included, fly the owners down to Christchurch to pick up the camper van and fly to Auckland? Sell the camper van to pay off the security deposit and fly out of Christchurch? Settle down in Christchurch and live in the camper van? We landed on eating the cost of changing our flights and slowly making our way back to Auckland. We spend most of Day Two on the phone with travel agents, insurance providers, and upcoming accommodations. Despite the hassles, we spent most of the day reflecting on how fortunate we were.
We are grateful for the twist of fate that kept us out of harm’s way. We had intended to make it to Kaikoura the night of the quake, so that we could wake early and take in a whale watching expedition in the morning. Thankfully, we are not a team of morning people – our sluggishness delayed our start, and we ended the day in Christchurch instead of the quake’s epicenter.
Although our logistics issues are minor in comparison, we’ve again been awe struck at the cheerful nature of Kiwis and the kindness of strangers.
Our camper van hosts were entirely sympathetic and helpful and have given us the necessary grace period needed to navigate our way back up to the North Island. Our travel insurance will cover the cost of changing our flights. Sweet Megan at the Share-a-Camper organization helped us arrange new insurance coverage for the trip back home. Wonderful Gwen and Sammy at the local iSite Tourist Information Office in Kaiapoi, spent hours with us helping us map out our options, well after closing time, and followed up with phone calls the next day.
So, we remain in the South Island, waiting patiently for our turn to cross the Cook’s Strait. Despite some panic during the 2 minute quake, the kids have rolled with these punches really well, and have renewed their commitment to continuing the trip. The adventure continues!
For more info on the quake, see here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37967178