The Road: One year on since the big one
Huge hills sprout from the Pacific Ocean’s shore, almost sheer and thickly coated in the deep greens of native bush.
In the sliver of space in between, the fragile road is barely discernible. It stands out at the moment, but only because of the countless men and machinery peppered along its length, bringing it back from oblivion.
One year ago, this particular stretch of State Highway 1 around Kaiko¯ura was nearly wiped out. A magnitude-7.8 earthquake shook loose more than one million cubic metres of earth from the hills, burying the road, destroying bridges and shunting railway lines into the sea. More than 40 separate landslides fell in all, closing the road in two places: a 21km stretch north of Kaiko¯ura and an 8km one to the south.
The process all but cut the town off from the world. A lifeline was quickly re-established via the Inland Road to Waiau, but it wasn’t the same. The southern side of the SH1 work is now open, depending on conditions, from Fridays to Mondays. The northern tract, on the road to Picton, is still closed, severing the flow of tourists that kept the town alive and diverting trucks from a vital transport link between Christchurch and the North Island. For a year, those trucks have 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.
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 rarely gets to make the seven-hour drive home to Central Otago, where a wife and five children are waiting for him.
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 but bad weather keeps it out of reach for now.
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.
It used to be a 15-minute drive. Now it takes 11 hours. The closure of SH1 has affected everyone in the area north of the cordon, but beekeeper Grant Slade and wife Bridgette’s mammoth detour might be a record. The family-owned business, Clarence River Harvest, is based just to the north of its namesake river, where the road closes. It has about 600 hives on the south side, around Kaiko¯ura and in the Blue Duck Valley, accessible only by driving north to Blenheim, down through the Nelson Lakes, back over the Lewis Pass and up the Inland Rd to Kaiko¯ura .
‘‘It’s absolutely devastating,’’ Grant Slade says, ‘‘You think you could be home in 15 minutes. But instead you have to drive all night.’’
Like everyone else in the area, the Slades are holding out for reopening day. Where Kaiko¯ura has partial SH1 openings to the south and the Inland Rd loop alternative, Clarence is at the end of a very long dead-end street. The road cones, heavy machinery and workers clad in high-vis bring a busyness, but it is artificial. At night, the south Marlborough towns of Seddon and Ward are eerily quiet.
Mike Hole enjoys the peace. And during the day his Premier Motor Car business in Seddon is full of vehicles waiting to be serviced. The business had its best month since 2013 this August, boosted by roading contractors.
‘‘I think in another six months, when the road’s open again and it’s all settled, if we don’t get any more big smacks [life will] be back to normal,’’ he says.
Hole lives in Ward. The town of around 900 people was hammered in the earthquake. It lost its only pub, houses had to be demolished, and its biggest employer, Burkhart Fisheries, faces an uncertain future. Dennis Burkhart, who runs the company with his brother Trevor, says the road closure combined with seabed uplift at nearby Ward Beach has had a devastating effect. The company cannot launch its boats there, where it caught most of its crayfish. Contractors can supply some from Waipapa Point, inside the cordon, but the crayfish wouldn’t survive the 11-hour drive to Ward, so must be flown to Auckland for processing. Paua caught in the area can still be taken to the Ward factory, but the disruption has essentially turned Burkhart Fisheries into a nonprofit organisation in 2017.
‘‘We don’t know how lucky we were,’’ Dennis Burkhart says.
Like Seddon, earthquake
Mrecovery has had an upside in Ward. Burkhart and wife Barbara also own Flaxbourne Services, a roadside cafe and kind of general store in the town. Patronage has increased handsomely this year from the presence of road workers. ore than 75 metres above the road, on ropes anchored at more than that height again, a man in full-length orange hi-vis clothing hangs below a mechanical drill boring into the grey rock of the cliff.
Hundreds of fluorescent dots peppered on the cliff around him show the scale of the job he and others have ahead of them. Each dot marks where a hole will be drilled, some up to 6m deep. Rock anchors will be placed in each one, from which helicopters will drape mesh to catch any falling debris, protecting the highway below. There are seven such sites along on the road south of Kaiko¯ura. Nearly 30,000 square metres of mesh will be used.
Progress inches forward. The drills are moved from site to site on ropes anchored to the top of the cliff, an unwieldy process that takes longer than the drilling. At one site, where access allows, a drill is suspended by a crane so it can be moved more easily. This has cut the drilling time from five weeks to about 10 days.
These are the challenges facing those working on the south side. It is a different proposition to the north. More than 30 slips fell along the 8km stretch of road. They were smaller than those on the north side but the exposed cliffs are more susceptible to further slippage triggered by wind and rain. Add to that the road has been partially open since December, delaying work which could not be done for risk of dislodged rocks falling onto traffic. The regular Tuesday to Thursday closures are due to end when the road reopens, pitting workers against the clock.
South earthworks project engineer Melissa Sheridan says the weather has been the biggest challenge. Not just the rain. High winds or heavy cloud can also bring work to a halt.
‘‘It does have an effect on the team,’’ she says, ‘‘They’re here to work hard and get it done, and then they’re disappointed.’’
Lead geotech Johnathan Claridge says winter was a case of two steps forward, one step backwards. Crews working to stabilise the slips would get things under control at the sites they knew about, only to find rain, or time, had created new ones in unexpected places. Some worked in sites that did not see sun for months at a time.
Tony Foster has been contracting for 40 years. Pressure to meet the milestones deadlines is tough, he says, but crews celebrate every little victory. They can be hard to come by.
‘‘You’ll get very, very close and next minute you’ll get a weather event and that pushes you back. You certainly feel it.’’
Foster manages sites from Goose Bay to Peketa – the entire length of the closed southern side. He is hands on. About 90 per cent of his time is spent in the field. He’s driven about 6000km back and forth along the 8km of damaged highway. His job is ‘‘Johnny on the spot’’, making decisions on things as they happen. ‘‘It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle down here.’’
One of its pieces is the encounters with local wildlife. Whales breaching a few hundred metres from the shore is a regular site, while seals wander into work sites on a whim. NCTIR’s seal handlers have had to move on more than 11,000 since February, some of them repeat offenders. One day, Foster wandered into a container during an audit, armed only with a clipboard, to find a seal waiting within.
‘‘He just roared. Man, I was out of there quick as anything.’’
Seals are a ground crew problem. Further up the hillside, abseilers have to contend with goats. The animals are partial to walking across the top of slip faces, sending plumes of gravel down towards those working below. It’s a nuisance, but no-one has been hurt and it’s a small price to pay in such desirable office space. The top of Abseil Access supervisor Oliver Cain’s site is about 180m up, offering panoramic views of the coastline. The idyllic setting does no harm to morale, he says.
‘‘I think we definitely have some of the more glorious work. It’s quite beautiful working up here, we get to see everything that’s going on.’’
Cain, originally from Wales, has been on the road since January, working at 11 sites across the north and south sides.
‘‘For my career its fantastic. To have this on my CV, to have worked in Kaiko¯ura, it’s kind of world famous at the moment for being [the geotechnical site to work on].’’
His priority, though, is people. The pressure of knowing Kaiko¯ura will ‘‘turn into a ghost town’’ without a serviceable SH1 is palpable.
‘‘You come here to do work ... and get the town back open so it doesn’t miss another summer, and to help the people out.’’
Road workers have logged more 1.5 million hours on the job so far. There will be many more. The new journey from Picton to Christchurch is expected to take five-and-a-half hours – about an hour longer than it used to. Eventually, though, that time will come back. The contractors will leave. The seals will move back in. And the road will whisper its way between the mountains and the sea once more.
SH1 north of Kaikoura still being cleared and worked on.
Clark Butcher, Project manager north of Ohau stream.
Abseilers perched high above SH 1 south of Kaikoura.