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Travelling post-quake Kaikōura: What it's like three years on

Kaikōura Peninsula was uplifted one metre during the 2016 earthquake, leaving previously underwater reefs high and dry.

Kate Evans rides the rebuilt Coastal Pacific line to post-quake Kaikōura.

On 24 November 2016, I stood on the shore at Waipapa Bay in North Canterbury, and all around was damage and drama. Here, 10 days before, the Papatea Fault – previously thought inactive – had forged to the sea, one of some 25 faults that ruptured at midnight on 14 November in the massive, magnitude 7.8 Kaikōura earthquake.

Along the line of the fault, pine trees toppled over on a 45º angle. A vast platform of the seabed had been raised more than five metres into the air, leaving kelp and shellfish high, dry and starting to decompose. The road was lifted, too – the asphalt crumpled and the left lane ended in an abrupt cliff – and the railway line was bent and dangling in mid-air. Around the corner in Ōkiwi Bay, we came to what was definitively the end of the line; a series of huge landslides had buried both road and rail under tonnes of rubble.

I was there reporting for New Zealand Geographic, following GNS geologist Russ Van Dissen from fault to fault as he tried to understand how the quake had unfolded – and as he explained the area’s restless geology to curious and shell-shocked locals.

At Waipapa Bay that day, we ran into Jane and Derrick Millton, farmers from nearby Clarence Valley. A whole hillside had collapsed on their property, leaving paddocks riddled with crevasses, and turning their stranded cows into international news. It was the first time Jane had ventured out to the coast since the quake, and she barely recognised the once-familiar beach. “It’s a pretty special place,” she told us. “It’s just a bit broken.”

It did look broken. So broken it was hard to imagine how it could ever be put back, whether cars and trains would ever run this way again.

Read more: Where New Zealand's next big earthquake is going to strikeSurvivor NZ winner Avi Duckor-Jones visits Kaikoura to find a people unbroken

And yet, they are. The award-winning reconstruction effort will become legendary: 40 slips cleared, 20 tunnels and 59 rail bridges repaired or entirely rebuilt, 220 work sites along 190km of road and rail – all done in less than two years by specialist teams of engineers, abseilers, digger drivers, helicopter pilots, seal biologists and others working a total of two million hours.

One year after the quake, SH1 once again joined Kaikōura to Picton. And on 1 December 2018, the passenger train service resumed as well.

I was curious about this feat of engineering, to see what had changed in the landscape since those early days just after the earthquake, and to find out how Kaikōura was faring two years on. So on a sunny weekend in December, I took my 14-month-old daughter Indi with me and went back to North Canterbury by rail.

The Coastal Pacific runs from Christchurch to Picton (and back) daily during summer, offering great views of mountains and sea – and for the writer’s daughter Indi, the chance to make new friends.
We board the Coastal Pacific in Picton. Huge windows wrap around the carriage roof, and I feel like a fish in a vast, travelling aquarium. We pass through tunnels of deep-green vegetation, a swamp full of dead trees, then, approaching Blenheim, row upon row of grapevines. My daughter totters up and down the aisle making friends, much happier than she usually is in her car-seat.

Just after Ward, we reach the coast, yellow lupins waving against black sand. I’m looking hard for any legacy of the earthquake, and the first sign is the coastal uplift: rocks emerging from the sea, bleached unnaturally white.

At several points, the train has to slow down to 25kmh, because there are still works going on along the line. Orange cones and yellow diggers, and in some places huge concrete blocks and piles of gravel, line the tracks.

But in general, as we glide smoothly south, there’s little indication of the massive amount of work that must have taken place here. We rush past Tirohanga, the lines of pines familiar from my last visit, when Van Dissen, photographer Rob Suisted and I walked along train tracks split apart and shunted many metres sideways by the unzipping Kēkerengū fault.

Up the front of the Coastal Pacific is an open-sided viewing carriage, and I join all the other keen photographers there to get a glimpse of Waipapa Bay. The uplifted platform is still visible, but it looks a lot less dramatic than when I last saw it. Weeds are now growing where seaweed once did, and the sharp, high cliff that marked the fault’s edge is eroding away.

A series of bays and exhilarating tunnels later – you can almost touch the walls from the open-air carriage – we’re at Ōhau Point. This was the site of the worst landslides, and the most elaborate reconstruction work. Abseilers dangled 400m above the railway, working to stabilise Ōhau Bluff, and helicopter pilots dumped buckets of seawater on the slips to bring down 100,000 cubic metres of loose boulders and gravel.

Then there was the “seal team”. Before the earthquake, Ōhau Point was home to a thriving colony of New Zealand fur seals. Though the main area of the colony was engulfed by the landslide, the seals returned to the rocks either side. During the rebuild, trained marine biologists literally carried the seals out of the way of the heavy machinery. As we round the point, I can see them hopping and playing on the rocks just a few metres away – and a second later, their fishy smell washes into the open carriage, too.

In the late afternoon, the train pulls into Kaikōura. Just off the platform there’s a sculpture by local artist Ben Foster: a dancing duo of rail tracks warped by the earthquake, inscribed with the names of the locations most affected. According to the plaque, it’s designed as a reminder of the strength of those communities, and also of the “immense effort” by the workers who rebuilt the Main North Line.

Despite the fact that I’ve been travelling along the result of all that effort for the past three hours, from ground level it’s a little hard to appreciate.

I need a bird’s eye view, I reckon. So early the next morning, I leave my daughter with a babysitter – helpfully found for me by the Kaikōura Information Centre – and join Daniel Stevenson at the airfield for a helicopter tour (you can take kids of all ages in the chopper, but I wanted my hands free to take photos.)

Left: Ben Foster’s sculpture commemorating the quake and the rebuild. Right: Lake Hāpuku, which was formed  by landslides in the earthquake and has become a popular sight during helicopter tours.

Stevenson moved to Kaikōura from Blenheim and set up South Pacific Helicopters as a tourism business in October 2016, just five weeks before the earthquake struck. Despite all the difficulties that followed, it wasn’t actually a bad time to move to a new place, he says: “No one could go to work, all the roads were closed, everyone was just having barbecues and meeting up. There was quite a sense of community.”

He spent the following year doing everything but joy rides: evacuating people, delivering engineers across landslides and abseilers up mountainsides, carrying buckets for sluicing down loose rock, even using his chopper to herd seals out of harm’s way.

The rebuild work has dried up now, but the tourists are returning. These days, Stevenson is back showing off Kaikōura from the air. You can watch the whales from above or if, like me, you’re interested in the earthquake and its aftermath, you can take the “Aftershock” tour (a minimum of $275, depending on how many people are in your party.)

The chopper lifts smoothly into the air and we round the Kaikōura Peninsula. It’s now edged by a white border, the surrounding reefs lifted permanently above the high-tide line by the quake. Stevenson points out the marina as we pass overhead; it was badly damaged, but was fully repaired less than a year later, the $7 million project funded by the government, the council, and local tourism operators.

There’s still snow on the Seaward Kaikōuras as we fly past the town and along the coast, tracing the railway north. From the air, the massive slips are obvious, and lines of containers snake along the foot of the steepest cliffs, protecting road and rail from tumbling rocks.

The faultlines are clear from up here, too. At Waipapa Bay, we can see the streak of the Papatea Fault extending across the coastal uplift and along the seabed, perfectly visible through the clear water.

We turn inland and up the Clarence Valley, over the Milltons’ farm and the immense white scar left by the landslide. Stevenson flies low over the Clarence River, where the earthquake jacked up the south side of the riverbed by 10 metres, forcing the water into a completely new course and cutting paddocks in two.

Then it’s up, up into the mountains. We crest a ridge and the land drops away beneath, and I can see all the way back to the peninsula. It’s exhilarating. Nested behind one of the peaks is what’s become known as Lake Hāpuku, formed when the Hāpuku River was dammed by landslides in the earthquake. Stevenson is disappointed that storms a week before have breached the dam wall, draining away some of the lake – but it’s still a gorgeous sight, a scrap of bright glacier-blue among the grey rock and green bush.

We follow the Hāpuku down the mountain and, too soon, come down to earth at the airstrip. I ask Stevenson how long you have to train to become a helicopter pilot – only six months, if you do it intensively. I file that away on the bucket-list for some future point when I develop amazing spatial awareness.

The Coastal Pacific.
Whale watching is Kaikōura’s core business, so I give that a go, too. Under-threes aren’t allowed on the boats, so baby Indi doesn’t get to go cetacean-spotting, either.

Kaikōura’s resident sperm whales are all male (the water is too cold for females and calves, apparently) and spend their days diving as much as a kilometre below the surface to feed on fish and squid. Today, they’re pretty far offshore, so it’s a long ride at high speed to reach the spot where the guides hope we’ll see one.

Just a few minutes out from the marina, we’re already over the Kaikōura Canyon. I only learned about this incredible feature of New Zealand’s geography from my reporting on the earthquake – and it’s a real marvel.

Just 500m off the coast, the canyon dives from the shallows to more than 1200m below sea level; turn one of the mountains behind Kaikōura on its head and that’s how deep it is. It’s a hotbed of biodiversity, and supports the ecosystem on which the whales and dolphins thrive. But on 14 November 2016, the Hundalee Fault broke right into the head of the canyon. Fortunately, despite scientists’ fears, that didn’t trigger a tsunami – but it did send a landslide of gigantic proportions thundering down into the depths.

Joshu Mountjoy from NIWA is an expert on underwater landslides, so I’d given him a call before my trip. His team estimates the earthquake flushed at least a cubic kilometre of sediment through the canyon and out into the Hikurangi Trench. That deepened the canyon by as much as 50m, and scoured out the sea floor, affecting the life living in the sediment and the entire food chain. “The whole system has been disrupted and reset,” he says.

That hasn’t hindered the ability of the whale-watching boats to spot sperm whales, according to the guides – but I want to know more, so I track down marine researcher Marta Guerra from the University of Otago who’s been studying this very question.

During the year following the earthquake, she says, sperm whales searched for their prey over a wider area than usual, and shifted away from the near-shore upper canyon, which was previously a sperm whale hotspot – and was the area most affected by the landslides. The whales also spent longer resting on the surface between their deep dives (a boon for the whale watchers), suggesting they were having to search harder to find food in the altered canyon.

Those rest intervals have since returned to normal, Guerra says. “Although they seem to have changed their patterns temporarily, it seems they can adapt to these events of natural disturbance.”

More than an hour into our trip, we still haven’t spotted our whale. The guides can hear him clicking faintly on their hydrophone, but if he doesn’t show up on the surface in 10 minutes we’ll have to head back, they say.

But then, right on cue, the white mist of a tired whale’s breath sprays out a few hundred metres away, and we spend an awed 10 minutes watching his knobbly grey back bob on the water, before he slides beneath the waves with a final flick of that unmistakeable tail.

Reunited with Indi, we have lunch at the Craypot cafe and bar, eating a delicious fish burger (me) and flirting with the waitresses (her). Wandering around town, we stumble upon a great little exhibition in the Kaikōura Museum. Called New Normal, it tells stories of the earthquake from the locals’ perspective.

There are videos and animations and infographics displaying a great sense of humour. (“Although the surf breaks remain, there are some changes, and the best way to find these is to speak to a local who will send you on a wild goose chase to the worst break in the district.”) But the centrepiece is a stack of dioramas in glass boxes, all made by members of the community. There’s a plasticine model of the coastal uplift, complete with stranded sea creatures, one with a clock stuck at two minutes past midnight, another featuring the ever-essential tea and biscuits.

One of the most touching has just a pile of salt – 62 teaspoons of it, the amount the artist calculated was produced in all the tears shed in Kaikōura during the earthquake.

Across the road at the Information Centre, I spot Moo and Moo and the Little Calf Too, the picture book written by Jane Millton during a sleepless, aftershock-punctured night after the quake. It tells the story of her stranded cows, and has been incredibly successful, selling many thousands of copies.

I buy it for Indi (who’s asleep), and because I’ve still got an hour to kill before I head back to the station to catch the Coastal Pacific through to Christchurch, I decide to give Jane a call. “We’re okay,” she says. Fences have been repaired, and they’re farming the land around the slip again. It still catches up with her now and again, though – the enormity of what happened to her community and this much-loved land.

“It is still a bit broken,” she says. “But it’s mending, and time heals, doesn’t it?”

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

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