It is so long since February that I have hesitated to add my ‘yet another tale’ to the list but I was in NZ again last month and some great friends in Wellington have persuaded me, so … well I am a Brit who lives in France but has family near Auckland. I was doing a circuit of the South Island in February and had just dropped off my rental car and checked in my luggage at Christchurch airport around 11am on the 22nd. Instead of waiting there for my flight to Auckland at 3pm I decided to take the bus down to town to have lunch, which I did, in a first-floor food hall near Ballantynes, where I also had a good conversation with a local couple whose table I shared. I was walking along High Street, almost at Cathedral Square when it happened.
The thing that stays in my memory most of all is – oddly perhaps – the noise: like a fleet of noisy trucks with rattly cargoes but seeming to come from all directions. Initially I looked around, as I could not figure out what it was, and then the ground started to move. It was at that point that I realised something beyond my experience was occurring and that it would be a good idea to get into clear ground, away from buildings – so like so many others, I walked quickly to the centre of the square as everything started to rattle and the ground swayed: it was like trying to walk along the deck of a moving boat. Those who have never experienced a quake seem to think that the ground just vibrates a bit – rather like standing up in a train, but perhaps more violently. It is hard to describe to them the magnitude of the up-and-down, and side-to-side movements that so affect your balance.
Looking around, I watched the cupola on the corner of the tourist office sway, and bits drop off, hardly noticing the noise and cloud of dust as the cathedral spire collapsed behind me. When that dust settled I was speechless at the sight. It is astonishing to think that all of that happened in just over 20 seconds-or-so; and It was only after that I thought of taking photographs. Despite what some of the press would have the world believe, I was struck by the lack of panic – just one or two people clutching each other but the rest, like me, somewhat shocked but calm. I rang my sister in Auckland to tell her what had just happened and said I doubted I’d see her that evening. I hadn’t at that point figured that if everyone did the same, the telephone networks would be saturated.
I thought it prudent to get out of the city so with many others, local and otherwise, started to walk up towards the airport (which I reached in just over an hour on foot, for those tempted to do it in the future!). I was by the Avon when the second shock hit. Across Hagley Park the liquefaction was already present and I have the grey-stained shoes to prove it. Walking past the city centre streets I was impressed at how quickly the orange gilets appeared, streets were cordoned off and a whole lot of safety precautions set in motion. I didn’t realise it at the time but if I had turned my head at certain points I could have seen the collapsed PGG building and the shaky Grand Chancellor. At that point I had a dilemma: I am a Red Cross first-aider (in France) and my thought was to offer help to the authorities… but then I thought that I had no proof with me of my qualification and might be seen as just another well-meaning tourist who would in fact hinder, rather than help, recovery, quite apart from putting myself in danger (which would not worry me, but might worry the authorities). So instead I kept on walking to the airport. I later felt extremely guilty about this, but it was by then too late to do a U-turn.
At the airport, and the Sudima hotel, given the general confusion and worried enquiries from hundreds of tourists from dozens of nations, speaking as many languages, I thought the organisation was remarkably good. (If there is any criticism, it is that Air NZ’s initial reaction was slow – the phone lines and the associated call centre(s), especially were woefully inadequate.) That said, once everything got going, it all went smoothly and after a night spent with some lovely people in a camper van loaned by Backpackers (thank you very much!), which wobbled almost constantly as the aftershocks hit every few minutes, Air NZ got me back to AKL by lunchtime the next day.
I still wonder what happened to the couple I had lunch with. I hope and pray that they and everyone else in the food court got out unscathed.