The Road: One year on since the big one

The Southland Times - - FEATURES -

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.

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