Date: 17-18 November 2016
On Monday morning, 14 November 2016 at 3:30am we found ourselves on the highest point reachable by car from where we stayed, on the Dunedin Peninsula. Two hours earlier the M7.8 Kaikoura earthquake destroyed, amongst other, the scenic SH1 coastal road south of Kaikoura. A tsunami threat had been issued for the whole NZ eastern coast, and everybody near the coast were urged to seek higher ground. We were about 50 metres from the sea, and at my sister’s persistence (after frantic calls to wake us up!) we thought it is probably for the best – rather safe than sorry, as they say. Strangely enough we didn’t feel the quake in Dunedin at all. Neither did any of the other conference attendees we spoke to the next day.
We got out of bed, put on some warm clothes and headed for the hills while our sleepy bodies and minds where still trying to wake up. Although we didn’t hear any sirens and were the only people on the Peninsula seeking higher ground we still thought it best to play it safe. Some of the houses we passed had their lights and TVs turned on, so we were not the only ones who were awake in the middle of the night. It was very cold and while we were listening to the radio and checking in on social media the scope of what had happened slowly started to sink in.
After about two hours, frozen stiff in the car, we decided to head back to our accommodation. Jumped into our warm bed for an hour’s shut eye, but I couldn’t stop thinking about everybody who’s houses had been destroyed, who had to evacuate to safer ground, those who were trapped on the coastal road, people who have lost loved ones, all the animals (cows that needs milking, etc).
But work was calling and by 7:30 we were at the Otago Museum for three days at the SCANZ (Science Communicators Associations of NZ) Conference. Very topical, one of the presentations, by Brad Scott from GeoNet, was about earthquake crisis communication where we heard first hand that the top eastern part of the South Island had lifted by about 50cm and moved out to sea by about a metre! That was the news hot off the press, but as more info came to light it turned out that the change to that area of the land was actually significantly more severe in some places. But all-in-all in terms of the communication around these types of disasters, I have to give it to them, they did a sterling job making sure everybody knew what was going on, and getting everyone evacuated in time, and all the rest that goes with it, especially in the initial stages.
While the Kaikoura and Wellington districts were in crisis mode, it was also bucketing down all over the country. During the three rainy days at the conference, we followed the quake news and updates on social media. Peter Griffen (from the Science Media Centre) also talked about crisis communication and the fine balance required to keep everyone informed yet not create hysteria.
At midday on day three, the conference proceedings came to an end, and we drove straight through to Alexandra where we spent the night in the holiday park to get ourselves sorted for a two-day hike. Our plan was to hike to Meg Hut, opposite the Waiorau Snow Farm (in the Cardrona area), and weather permitting go a bit further in the Pisa conservation area to the Deep Creek Hut.
But as luck would have it, on the day we planned to start our hike, the area was suddenly hit by a cold snap. We parked the car and started making our way up a steady 4WD climb in a bitterly cold wind. With all the rain of the past few days, little streams became big streams with some muddy patches. A few spits of rain were blown our way and by the time we reached the saddle (1140m) Gerry exclaimed: “f-word! It’s snowing!”. Among the sleety rain, a few snow flakes also found their way to the hill. And all around us, we could see the fresh dusting of snow on the mounting tops and ridges.
The bitterly cold wind with occasional sleet and rain continued for the biggest part of the day. What was meant to be a 2-hour/7km trip, took me 2:45, partially because of the cold wind and adverse conditions, partly because of the relentless uphill, but probably also because of my deteriorating fitness levels.
After a steep short downhill, we reached Meg Hut (960m). The idea was to heat up a pot of water for tea, have a bite and continue on to Deep Creek Hut. But the shelter in the hut from the extreme cold and wind, made us rethink our situation. To reach the next hut would mean crossing the ice cold Roaring Meg River and scale another hill before walking on the ridge and be exposed to more sleet, wind and possibly snow past the highest point on that stretch in order to reach the hut (1325m). Which will no doubt be a fair bit colder considering the height. From the info we could find beforehand on the DOC website, it also appeared as if Deep Creek Hut had no fireplace/heating. So we decided against it and just spent a relaxing afternoon at Meg Hut.
We were by ourselves and decided to start collecting wood to get us through the evening. Even the warm tea didn’t do anything to help my clattering teeth and apart from being sheltered from the wind, the hut was extremely cold.
Unfortunately, both the axes were broken and the saw was so blunt that no amount of elbow grease could make the slightest dent in a stump. Besides that, the only wood around were massive dead trees of which everything within reach has long since been broken off and burnt. To top it all off, everything was soaking wet and rotten.
All afternoon we were lugging and tugging with a waratah, a blunt saw, a short piece of rope and an axe-head at the massive trees, as it was just growing more cold. A good few dumpings of sleet made sure we kept at the task of trying to get firewood. I started collecting every tiny piece of wood I could find laying around while Gerry still tried to get bigger pieces from the dead stumps, to not much avail. Despite the manual labour in multiple layers of clothing, buffs, beanies, and gloves, we were still freezing our butts off. By 6pm we decided to light the fire and pour a tipple. It was a balancing act trying to keep some form of heat going through the evening with the amount of wood we managed to gather by that stage. And since the hut was very basic, with no isolation, the wind was blowing the freezing gale through every nook and cranny. I shoved plastic bags, stones and anything I could find into some of the biggest cracks in the hut, but cold wind has a way of finding the gaps.
I lined the fireplace with some of the wet wood to dry out a little before using it. Luckily we collected so much of the tiny bits and pieces, that we had a lovely fire going all night long. Despite the cold, we spent a great evening out by ourselves in a valley, surrounded by mountains with a dusting of snow next to the Roaring Meg River, which is also the water source at this hut. Unfortunately the wood couldn’t last through the night and not too long after getting into our sleeping bags, the last of the heat disappeared and the cold air started to creep in.
The temperature in Wanaka (the closest town to where we were) were predicted to be 12 maximum and going down to three degrees. Where we were in the mountains, and about 600 metre higher above sea level than Wanaka, it was significantly colder and despite being in a hut and well prepared, it was one of the colder nights I’ve experienced.
Luckily the wind died down during the night and a sunny day greeted us in the morning. We had a bit of a sleep-in before boiling the billy for some warm sustenance in a sunny spot on a wee bench in front of the hut. Setting off on the steep climb out of the valley, we noticed the snow dusting had melted away, but the air was still very nippy on the ridge. As soon as we started descending, things started to warm up and by the time we reached the car, it was a lovely hot day. As it was for the next few days in the area.
There’s some really beautiful places our there. All it takes is a little bit of effort to haul yourself and some bare essentials over mountains, across ridges, and through rivers, to spend some quiet time out in nature – a necessity in these hectic days of non-stop connectivity.