New Zealand - an eventful destination

Posted by barbara on May 24, 2011


Near the summit of Mount Egmont, Taranaki, New Zealand, 2007

I penned this 'travelogue' in 2008, two years before the first quake unsettled Christchurch, the least likely major city in NZ to be impacted by such seismic activity as far as most Kiwis were concerned.

As the world knows, Christchurch survived the 2010 event with relatively minor loss of life and damage but the devastating 2011 quake and ongoing aftershocks massively compounded the first shake up. Our thoughts remain with Cantabrians, the South Island and New Zealanders as the recovery efforts continue.



Mount Ruapehu from the north in late 2007 

New Zealand - an eventful destination

As a Heckler contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald remarked some years ago, 'that Bindi Irwin needs a good slap!' Her crime in his opinion? For making out early and often to the world at large that Australia was the land of lethal predators, poised to sting or bite the unwary 24/7.

One has to agree with the heckler. With some 85 percent of Australians living within 50 kilometres of the coastline, and 64 per cent of these congregating in built up capital cities, the chances of spotting a snake or crocodile in the average Aussie’s day-to-day life, let alone be attacked, is far less likely than being injured in a mosh pit or a hit by a bicycle courier.  

As for living with near and present danger in reality, one only has to journey ‘across the ditch.’ The nervousness many Kiwis express about coming into contact with Australia's poisonous snakes and spiders surely needs to be put in proportion. New Zealand may have missed out on a home-grown contingent of life-threatening reptiles, spiders, scorpions and stingers in the carve up of Gondwana and NZ’s rift with Australia and drifting apart. But by all accounts, New Zealand is a ticking time bomb of its own geological making by comparison with stable Australia. What's a red-bellied black snake or a funnelweb spider compared to the very real threats to life and limb—not to mention national utilities—that hang over the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Not that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade made a meal of it in 2008. Advising potential travelers to 'Be alert to your own security,' its travel advisory notes that ‘New Zealand is subject to earthquakes’, but surprisingly fails to mention the other natural events that periodically rock the country, both physically or metaphorically. After all, from a geological perspective, the ‘shaky isles’ are rent end to end by the so-called Alpine Fault, with the two halves travelling in opposite directions. Astride abutting continental plates, the 'tip of the iceberg' land masses that constitute NZ slide past each other at the rate of two to three centimetres a day.  

It doesn't sound much but something has to give, and often does, with NZ scientists registering approximately 14,000 shakes each year, of which around 20 in total register 5 or more on the Richter scale. As such, the landscape embodies impermanence, transience and recurring change. And whether they acknowledge it or not, New Zealanders live with a suite of potential dangers of the unpreventable, uncontrollable and gargantuan variety. Indeed as recently as 20 December 2007 a 6.8 earthquake rocked the North Island city of Gisborne. Had the quake been centred under the city rather than 50 kilometres off shore, who knows how many deaths and injuries it may have caused.

There's a litany of really big events across the Tasman. In 1929, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake centred on the South Island’s Murchison area forced up a block of land along a fault line. The 4.5 metre displacement triggered massive earth slips, the scars of which are still visible along the Buller River road. In 1931, just over a year later, New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake devastated the settlements of Napier and Hastings. Unlike the thinly-populated Murchison area where no casualties were recorded, at least 256 people died in the three minute quake of the same magnitude. Lifting the adjacent Hawke's Bay sea floor more than 2.7 metres, the earthquake drained the Ahuriri Lagoon and tidal flat, inadvertently creating the site of Napier’s current airport.

Such inherent stability is far from past history. Indeed the West Coast tourist township of Franz Josef sits on the same fault line that was responsible for the Murchison Quake, as does the Mount Cook Hermitage, a magnet for tourists and climbers. Loss of life aside, it’s predicted that a major pressure release of this fault would have a major impact on the economy and livelihood of the entire West Coast. With tourism employing one in ten New Zealanders, such an out-of-the-ordinary quake would be a massive hit on the country’s sustainability. So much for Westland tourism if the glaciers were suddenly unreachable by road. Providing safe vehicle access on a daily basis to the shrinking 'feet' of the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers is already an issue and will only intensify as these majestic ‘cash cows’ retreat and tourist numbers rise.  

What blunter example of New Zealand's instability than the 10 metre ‘loss of face’ of the country's high point, the double-peaked Mount Cook. In 1991 the 3764 metre high 'Cloud Piercer' Aoraki was spectacularly demoted to 3,754 metres (12,316 feet). The 500 metre-wide rock avalanche that sheered off the top of the northern peak, making it more knife-edged and precarious than ever, spewed 10 million cubic metres of rock and ice across the Hochstetter icefall and onto the Tasman Glacier.

There had been other large scale ‘casualties’ of gravity in the Mount Cook area we discovered when we turned up for a day tramp into Hooker Hut. The traditional route to the hut, the one I'd first walked in the 1970s and again in the 1980s had been wiped out by scree erosion of neighbouring gullies in 1995, converting the access route into a dangerous traverse on unstable moraine. One of few valley tramps in the national park that could be tackled without ice axe and crampons, the original route to the hut skirted the left hand side of the Hooker Glacier, offering superlative views of Mount Cook.  

Not only was the orange hut one of the key jumping off points for climbers attempting Cook. Hooker Hut sat directly under the famed Copeland Pass, long regarded as one of New Zealand’s ‘greatest alpine tramps’, an arduous but indescribably scenic ascent and descent that deposits you in Westland, saving a long and windy drive or hitchhike via the Haast Pass.


Hooker Hut of yore, the dark orange structure in the shaded bottom centre of this photograph is dwarfed by Mount Cook

Disappointed beyond belief by this grand scale rearrangement, we join the teeming tourists tramping out to the edge of Hooker Lake, a landmark that hadn't exist on my previous visit. A lone figure up aheada dark speck on the slopeis traversing his or her way along the scree-draped side of the lake, the dicey new route to the relocated hut and base of the once busy pass.  


Hooker Lake, created by landslips that dammed the Hooker River and destroyed the original sidling access route to Hooker Hut

Hooker Hut was not the only mountain shelter that no longer exists in its original guise or location. In the back room of the Mount Cook Visitor Centre, a modest wall display documents the life and times of numerous park huts. The Ball, Malte Brun, De La Beche, Plateau, Graham, Tasman Saddle, Hooker and Mueller huts to name a few, feature an average of three photos, documenting the original and latest versions, and a number in between. Relocating and rebuilding mountain huts appears to be commonplace as their perch gives way, they are wiped out by a flood, or as in the case of Hooker Hut, their old location is no longer viable. Subsequently relocated and/or rebuilt on safer prominences, their name and a percentage of their fabric endures.

 What the Australian travel advisory omits completely is New Zealand’s ongoing relationship with volcanic activity. In 1886 the Tarawera eruption devastated the eighth wonder of the world south of Rotorua, the irreplaceable pink and white terraces that stepped down so daintily to Lake Rotomahana, attracting the adventurous from around the world. At least 150 died.

Volcanic ash and lava are not the only natural hazards associated with volcanic activity. In 1953 NZ’s worst natural disaster unfolded when a ‘lahar’ struck the Wellington-to-Auckland express as it crossed the Tangiwai rail bridge in Central North Island. It being a starry starry night, the driver, crew and passengers were blissfully unaware that the Whangaehu River was bursting its banks. They were confronting a flood that had nothing to do with a deluge from the heavens. Instead the walls of crater lake perched on Mount Ruapehu had collapsed, sending a massive torrent of water, ice, rocks and silt down the mountain. A Javanese word, the resulting ‘lahar’ was a mudflow of volcanic material that included blocks, bombs and fine ash mixed in with water and pulverised local rock. Uprooting trees in the process, the six metre high wall of gray water smashed into a concrete support of the rail bridge, the collapse of which led to the deaths of 151 of the 285 people on board the train that plunged into the river.  

It wasn't the first or last time. In more recent times, the same crater lake blackened the summit of Ruapehu in 1995, and by 2006 was threatening once more to break its rim and pour down the side of the mountain. The prospect of another rail disaster generated heated debate, with the experts arguing over whether to intervene and mechanically breach the walls or let nature take its course but install early warning systems to provide a window of grace for anyone in the way. On 18 March 2007, after ongoing monitoring and considerable publicity, the crater rim was finally breached and the muddy stinking mess, some 1.3 million cubic metres of water and debris, swept down, the latest in the saga of NZ lahars.

As Wikepdia informs, 'Lahars have the consistency of concrete: fluid when moving, then solid when stopped.' In January 2008, you can still see where the lahar overflowed the wide bed of the Whangaehu River, completely ignoring the latter's twists and turns in its mighty onrush. From the look of the flattened vegetation and silt-scoured memorial car park, it might have happened a few weeks ago, not eight months earlier.  

It was a big year for Mount Ruapehu all round. In September and October 2007, the crater lake turned feral once more, the second time catching unawares the volcano's monitoring equipment and a pair of climbers planning an early morning snow and ice climb on the adjacent Taurangi Peak. A 'massive boom' at 8.20 pm on September 25 marked the start of the ash and mud eruption that engulfed their accommodation, a shelter shed perched on a dome-shaped peak above, and some 700 metres from the lake.

The mix of icy water and sludge that poured over the dome and flooded the hut during the unheralded eruption was compounded by rocky missiles, one of which pinned a climber in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

After riding two chairlifts up to the Whakappa ski field in early January 2008, we climbed up the snowdrifts and exposed rock ramping up to Ruapaheu’s summit, hoping for a glimpse of the notorious crater lake. The weather is with us as we approach the seemingly intact Dome Shelter, the subject of media attention in Spring 2007. We are surprised, as in mildly shocked, by our first glimpse of the entrance. A jagged impact hole scores the wooden floorboards, presumably the legacy of the volcanic projectile that pinned the injured climber. Chastened, we venture inside, looking for clues. DOCs has clearly done a clean up job, but the horizontal rectangles of skylight glass at the top of the walls still bear the cracks of the impact. Drifts of gray ash linger in the shelter's corners. Behind the locked back room sits the seismological equipment that failed to register the 2.8 earthquake that accompanied the eruption.

Three months later a 22 year old Auckland-based climber was reportedly recovering from his injuries. Close to death when he was rescued, his leg was subsequently amputated below the knee and he survived significant damage to his internal organ. You could still see the passage of the charcoal-coloured lahar that poured down the hill towards the Whakapapa snowfields where a late night snow groomer was fortunately still at work and able to assist in the mountain top rescue. As to the horrific front page newspaper scenes of the sludge of gray material half burying the hut, though you can still see where it surged, much of the debris has been whittled and washed away.

So what does all this impermanence mean if you are a New Zealander? A national mentality that is braced for the worst in the back of one’s head, a smouldering awareness that sudden, drastic and often dangerous things can happen from the mountains to the coast? When I canvas a few locals, they do not seem overly interested in the Alpine Fault. Having been warned about it for so long, they freely profess to have tuned out. What oh the predicted explosion of the petrol station at Franz Josef if a major quake hits the area? What oh the destruction of multiple river crossings, let alone the ability to get in people and materials to re-erect crippled infrastructure?

Back in Australia, our concerns with adverse natural events are less temporal and in the future, so to speak. Under global warning scenarios, we are just starting to assess the impact of rising sea levels on our harbours and beaches and global warming on our snowfields.

But compare these ‘off in the future’ concerns with the state of play in New Zealand where a much more catastrophic event could strike at any time. What kind of mentality can accommodate such an event hanging over one’s every waking and sleeping moment? Tune out, assume it won’t happen in one’s own generation or one’s own patch. Perhaps as Jared Diamond said of the man or woman who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, spelling imminent doom to the community, we are talking about a phenomenon known as ‘psychological denial’.

So, regardless of our occasional exposure to the likes of snakes, spiders and crocodiles, unlike our friends across ditch, we sleep easy in our beds at night. That's because we assume that our own demise, barring an accident, will be eventual rather than eventful! Perhaps that's why New Zealand bred the likes of Edmund Hilary, men and women who not are not only risk takers by nature, but indeed live with risk as a way of life, like a 'white noise' in the background, a silent tinnitus that portends the rattle and hum of an earthquake, the boom and blast of a volcano and the steamroller turbulence of a downrushing lahar.



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