New Zealand: Naturally Disastrous
Date: 3rd March 2005
Subject: Naturally Disastrous
Place: Okahune, Central Plateau, North Island, New Zealand
Living with a beautiful evil
It takes nerves of steel to be a New Zealander. Since the ozone layer did a bunk, only a daily dose of factor fifty staves off skin cancer; there’s a daily risk of being mowed down by a demonic logging truck or hoonie; (hooligan in charge of a souped up Nissan Sunny) but by far the most prolific danger comes from the earth itself.
New Zealand, it seems, is permanently on the verge of exploding, imploding or falling apart. It’s just full of natural dramas waiting to happen. Pay any Kiwi museum a visit and you come out wondering whether you should buy a gas mask or get the next plane home (except for the Dairyland museum where the main attractions are to drive around in a simulated milk truck, then take a stroll under the bum of a giant cow.) Kiwi’s have learned to live with the beautiful evil of their landscape that looks completely beguiling, yet has the power to destroy without warning.
Disaster is potentially never far away
During our stay here we have met many families and individuals who permanently live in respect and fear of their surroundings. We even experienced our own small natural disaster in South Island where we were just a few score kilometres from the epicentre of an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter Scale. Fortunately I bent down to tie a shoelace and missed it altogether, while Stuart assumed he’d had one drink too many. He probably had.
A few weeks ago we visited Gail and Bob Robinson in Kopane, near Palmerston North. We arrived on the anniversary of the day that floods destroyed their home; a year before the banks of the local river burst and sent water flooding across the plain. Just about everything they had was destroyed and they had to rent a house in the nearby city while theirs was rebuilt. For Gail it was a traumatic time, especially as she ran her business from home.
To get some idea of the scale of the damage, she sent us down to the local school which suffered some of the worst flooding in the region. When kids turned up for school that February day, they found their school hall had been uprooted and flung to one side by the torrent of water. We parked our bikes by the side of the newly refurbished school building, and the headmaster gave us a tour of the classrooms. The freshly painted school had been open for just a few days, while the old school hall lay abandoned nearby.
A flood of pencil cases
Post flood, the council donated the damaged old school hall to the people of Kopane and now it appeared to be like an unwanted xmas present that no one could take back. The kids from Kopane school stayed safe in the flood and gained some other unexpected benefits. When the national TV cameras turned up to cover the damage, one little girl told them she had lost her pencil case. Box loads of pencil cases flooded in from across the country. As the school has only twenty pupils, now no one is short of anywhere to put their pencils. And while many parts of their lives were washed away by the floods, the process of renewal brought local families closer together and strengthened the community.
In the shadow of volcanoes
In New Plymouth we spent time with several families who live in the shadows of Mount Taranaki. The location for the film The Last Samurai, Taranaki – otherwise known as Mount Egmont – is a dramatic presence.
“It looks different every day. I do the washing up and watch it from the window and it never fails to send a shiver down my spine, I always remind the children how beautiful and deadly it is,” one mother said to us as we gazed warily out at it’s cloudy summit.
We went to visit Lucy and Geoff, who moved to New Plymouth several years ago with their children. An ex-pat English GP, Lucy is only too aware of a potential threat to her family. “It goes off every two hundred to two hundred to three hundred years….and it’s been two hundred and fifty since it last blew. So….who knows?”
Later we walked up part of the volcano, but only for half an hour.
Thrills as well as spills
“Scenic Bike Rides- cycle seventeen kilometres down Mount Ruahepu” the leaflet said.
We jumped at the chance of bombing downhill after some gruelling uphill rides of late. As we approached the top of the volcano, our driver informed us of its active status, and the fact that there’s some kind of activity or eruption at least once a year. But as the bus dumped all our gear at the top of the mountain we found ourselves standing amid the infrastructure of a ski resort. Being such a ballsy bunch apparently the Kiwi’s see an active volcano as an opportunity for some great skiing and have built two resorts on this molten magma chamber.
Our driver showed us a picture book of the 1995/6 eruptions, “People were skiing on the mountain at the time. The resort closed initially and then reopened for while, advising people not to do the black runs at the top to avoid any lava bombs or volcanic mud flows. You gotta understand we love our skiing.”
Biking down a volcano
Stuart stood in the wind, reassembling the bikes and buggies. I looked around at the threatening charcoal cone with the power to kill and tried to imagine myself skiing down avoiding lava bombs; I doubted my skiing would be up to the job. My fingers brushed against the gnarly, contorted rock, cool to the touch, as if it had been there always. But this was not an ancient landscape, these rocks were the cooled lava flows of Ruahepu. The volcano dominates the landscape, grey and barren, while down in the valleys cows graze on the rich grass, fertilised for free by ash showers. I shivered, looking around me at the silent chains of ski lifts, deserted for the summer months, giving the place a ghostly feel.
“Quick Mum quick” Matthew shouted from the buggy as we raced down into the warmth of the morning sunlight. “Lets go quick because if the fire comed down the volcano, then the pumice stones would drop on my head and get me, and I might trip over on them and I’d die and that would really, really hurt.” We retreated for a nice cup of tea in the safety of the town. Well, we are British after all.
Perhaps it’s no accident that New Zealanders spend so much time abroad. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami’s, landslips, geothermal activity, extreme weather and our old friend global warming; they’re all prone to dropping in as unexpected guests.
They say Christchurch moves two metres in a human lifetime, Wellington, the capital city suffers regular earthquakes, and up here in the mountains skiing the black run takes on a whole new meaning. New Zealand is a rather beautiful natural disaster waiting to happen. Let’s hope it’s not while we’re in the area.