On the road back to normality
A year, a month and a day after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake isolated Kaiko¯ura, the South Island’s main road is scheduled to finally be whole again on December 15. Everyone is counting the days, report
instead had to take an alternative route over the Lewis Pass, a longer and more difficult drive estimated to cost the freight industry $2.7 million a week.
Against these odds, those charged with rebuilding the stricken highway have set themselves a deadline: reopen SH1 north of Kaiko¯ura by December 15. A year, a month and a day to do the best part of a job which under normal circumstances should take a decade.
The task has fallen to the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery alliance (NCTIR), made up of more than 100 organisations including the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA), KiwiRail and a range of contractors.
The group is well-resourced, with $812 million of Government money at its disposal, but cash alone cannot overcome the natural barriers it faces. The work site is long, narrow and remote. Moving people and equipment through construction zones is the only option and it can make for slow going.
On top of that, the worst damage on the northern section – which needs the most resources – is right in the middle. About 110,000 cubic metres of slip material fell at Ohau Point, home of the famous seal colony. Rather than clear it all and repair the old highway, road builders are in some places making use of a few precious extra metres of seabed uplifted by the earthquake to build a new route.
This new road needs protecting. In all, 2.5km of seawall will be built to shield it from the ocean. Seven thousand concrete blocks, each weighing more than five tonnes, need to be craned into place.
About 4500 of them will be at Ohau Point. Above the new road, the outer edge of the old highway is piled high to catch any further rocks that fall from the gaping slips. Slip material has been used to build access roads outside the seawalls. They will be dug out when the work is done, leaving the coast looking like they were never there.
Work goes around the clock. At night, the site is bathed in the high beam of dozens of portable light towers, powered by buzzing generators. Outside the glow, the inky blackness of night hides the scale of the slip above.
Michael ‘‘Butch’’ McGinnis oversees it all from his dusty white Hilux.
Much of his workplace is at the whim of Mother Nature, particularly in readying the foundations for a new seawall ahead of the concrete pour.
‘‘You get everything prepped up ready to go, you come back the next day and the f...... ocean’s destroyed it.’’
McGinnis has never worked this close to the ocean before. He hasn’t made it into the water since he started work here; hasn’t been fishing. The best part of the job is knocking off as the sun rises. Last week, he and another worker were in diggers pushing big rocks off the last of a slip when the sun rose over the bay. The sight was ‘‘unreal’’.
But there are also sacrifices. McGinnis rarely gets to make the seven-hour drive home to Central Otago, where a wife and five children are waiting for him.
‘‘One had a birthday yesterday, missed it. I’m going to miss the next one too.’’
McGinnis says there’s no doubt the crew want to get the road open for December. The goal is like a carrot hanging in front of a donkey – ‘‘ I want to take a big bite of [it]’’ – but bad weather keeps it out of reach for now.
‘‘Sometimes it is pretty gruelling eh, you come to work and you see your list of jobs on the board, and every job is massive. Some you achieve, some you don’t, y’know?’’
The night shift works five nights a week, but for 13 hours at a time. McGinnis says they perform better this way than if they punched out another day.
‘‘I can sleep 19 hours mate, straight. You go to bed Saturday about 9 o’clock in the morning, kiss goodbye to Saturday, wake up Sunday.’’
Clark Butcher manages the section of the project north of Ohau stream. The slips he is charged with clearing are enormous, but still dwarfed by the might of Ohau Point.
The site is less complex than others along the road, but crews were only given access to parts of it a few weeks ago. Most of the work is building seawalls, which will be at about half of their final height when the highway reopens in December.
Butcher has up to 130 workers under his command. He says the hardest part of his job is coordinating all the resources, like the 35 trucks continually making the 45-minute trip from the Clarence River to provide fill that goes behind the seawalls.
Previously, Butcher worked on the stretch of railway from Oaro to Clarence – basically the entire length of the damaged route either side of Kaiko¯ura. When he took the job, he decided to stop shaving until the line reopened.
That beard went back in September, when the first freight train rolled down the line. A fresh one has sprouted in its place. It will grow unkempt until the road is opened to the public.
At a site known as Irongate, about 15 kilometres north of Kaiko¯ura, a bridge is being built over the rusty railway tracks emerging from the mouth of a dark concrete tunnel. The constituent parts are largely produced elsewhere and trucked in to save time.
Site foreman Race Dill, an imposing Canadian with a formidable beard, has built 16 bridges.
He says this project is going ten times faster that any he has ever worked on. Sometimes things are done out of sequence just so work doesn’t have to stop.
‘‘It’s been like playing Tetris. The blocks are coming down at you and it’s just how you manoeuvre them to make it all fit and work.’’
At Irongate, as with most of the road sites, workers pull 12-hour shifts, six days a week.
The days regularly blow out, though, while they wait for resources to arrive.
While the crews are working long hours and often spend weeks away from their families, Dill says they know it’s for the greater good – for Kaiko¯ura and New Zealand.
‘‘Figuratively and literally, we’re building a bridge here.’’
Continued page 19
Clark Butcher, Project manager north of Ohau stream, on State Highway 1 north of Kaikoura.