Picton, New Zealand – November 12, 2016
Secretary of State Kerry was “wheels up” early Friday evening. That meant his visit to Christchurch, New Zealand, and the United States Antarctic program was over.
Once I got back to my hotel, the Ibis; I had dinner, a glass of wine, and prepared to check out early the next morning.
The following morning, I reported to The George Hotel at about 06:30. Some items need to be loaded in a truck and driven back to Wellington. I met a small vehicle and a driver there. In no time, the truck was packed, and we began our journey north.Our route was State Highway 1. We stopped in Cheviot to get a cup of coffee for the road. Then it was on to Oaro. Until that point, the highway was like so many roads in New Zealand. It wound its way through valleys and fields in the lovely rural, green countryside. At Oaro, State Highway 1 begins to hug the east coast of the South Island. Right next to the highway was the railway. We passed through Peketa, Kaikoura (little did I know I would grow to know a lot about this area very soon), Mangamaunu, and Clarence; before turning back inland toward Ward and Seddon.
The scenery in New Zealand is stunning at every turn. However, the view along this portion of the South Island, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was some of the most picturesque I have ever seen. On the west side of the highway were towering hills. Tectonic plate movement thrust them up from the ocean many millennia ago. I marveled at how they seemed to shoot straight up from the roadbed. At a couple of points, there were tunnels because going through the towering hills was the only way highway engineers of the past were able to make any headway.Along the east side of the highway was the rugged Pacific Ocean coast. Now and then I spotted a few seals. In fact, at one point, there was a highway sign cautioning motorists to be aware of seals straying across the road. The rocky coast also appeared to be the perfect habitat for the much-loved paua (abalone). It was all such a beautiful sight.
I remember marveling at how portions of the hillside did not come crashing down onto the road…
Our destination on the South Island was the small town of Picton. That is where we would catch the 13:00 Interislander ferry back to Wellington. I was looking forward to that part of the trip. It would be my first time crossing the Cook Strait. I was secretly hoping the crossing would not be in rough seas.
We arrived in Picton with some time to spare. I took advantage of the time to do a little shopping for tourist trinkets and to take photos.
Waiting in the queue to show our tickets, I saw the large sign with the current water conditions in the Strait. The broad arrow of the Twister-esque game spinner stopped on the pictogram of three-wave crests. The word above that ominous pictogram read “Moderate.” Oh, how I longed for something more in the green or blue-tinted area of the sign. I began to wonder whether or not I would have to deal with seasickness. Waiting in queue allowed ample opportunity to come up will all sorts of plans to deal with the potential discomfort.
I tried not to let my imagination get the best of me, but I have heard horror stories of Strait crossings taking seven-plus hours or stories about running out of seasickness bags. I wanted nothing to do with either of those eventualities.
The driver drove onto the ferry with no problems. We parked the vehicle and headed up to the passenger deck. Before departing Christchurch, I bought an upgrade to my ferry ticket to the Interislander Plus, which is roughly equivalent to a first-class fare. The lounge area has comfortable seating and coffee tables. Once the ferry is underway, there is food, drink, and alcohol available. While I did partake of some of that, I did spend a lot of my time on deck taking photos of Queen Charlotte Sound.
The voyage from the South Island to the North Island takes roughly three hours; about one hour in Queen Charlotte Sound, about one hour on the open water in the Strait, and then one final hour to get from the opening of the Wellington Harbour to the dock.
As it turned out, the crossing was very smooth. The water in Queen Charlotte Sound and the Wellington Harbour was very calm. The Strait did have some swells, but I did not think it was bad at all. I felt no sickness whatsoever. All-in-all, it was a brilliant success.By the time we docked, drove off the ferry, and arrived at the Embassy, it was about 17:00. We had additional help there, so the unloading went very quickly. After the unloading, I grabbed a taxi and went home, arriving around 19:00.
Shortly after midnight, I was unceremoniously awakened. At first, I thought it was Leslie shaking me, trying to wake me up. Once I did wake up, I realized it was Mother Nature shaking me. I found myself sitting up in bed, feeling the whole house violently moving back and forth. Leslie has a cross collection on one of the walls in our bedroom. They were swaying to and fro like leaves in the wind. I saw things on top of our dressers scooting violently back and forth across the surface.After roughly 30 seconds, the shaking stopped. New Zealand has a service that monitors earthquakes. It updates very quickly. I suddenly realized that we had just lived through a monstrous 7.8 magnitude earthquake. When we were in Pakistan, we went through a 7.2. That extra six-tenths was enormous. The earthquake epicenter was very near Kaikoura.
Leslie was bushed, so she stayed in bed. I went downstairs to begin to try to decipher what exactly had happened. It was during that time that I discovered the magnitude was 7.8. While I was watching television and checking for information online, the emergency sirens began sounding. It took me a while, but I finally found out that it was a tsunami warning.I was shocked that our house sustained zero damage; either to the structure or the contents.
Meanwhile, we had several aftershocks that seemed they should have been classified as earthquakes. Many were well over magnitude 6.0. All totaled, there were more than 5,000 aftershocks.
I made it back to work at about 04:00 to see what damage the Embassy may have sustained. I was glad to see nothing. To be sure, I arranged for an engineering firm to do a more thorough review. They found no issues.As news reports began to filter in, I saw the damage along State Highway 1; particularly in the stretch of highway near Kaikoura. The damage was substantial. Several parts of the highway were covered with dirt, rocks, and debris. That all used to be those magnificent hills I had just seen the day before. Parts of the railway were completely swept away and across the now blocked highway. Parts of the coastal seabed were thrust up by as much as six feet. I was so thankful the earthquake did not occur as we were driving.
I was equally glad that I made it to the dock. That next day, I found out the docks were damaged. As I drove home, I saw all four Interislander ferries anchored in the harbor. I was fortunate that I and the Embassy truck were not stuck on one of those.
I really do not wish to go through another earthquake. I have had enough.