On the road back to nor­mal­ity

Kaikoura Star - - YOUR LOCAL NEWS -

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

DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Clark Butcher, Project man­ager north of Ohau stream, on State High­way 1 north of Kaik­oura.

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