TRAVEL THURSDAY: The Magnitude of Being Away From Home

State Highway 1 to Kaikoura

Passing you over to AJ for another Travel Thursday. This week, he’s talking about the magnitude of being away when disaster strikes.

August 16th, 2013:

I was in bed, nursing myself after that morning’s minor surgery which fixed an ingrown toenail. A low murmur grumbled like a faint siren all around me, right before a magnitude 6.6 earthquake hit.

The first 10 seconds were fine. I love in New Zealand, where there’s one of these fun-sized shakes every month or so. When it didn’t stop, I began to panic. First the DVDs fell from the bookcase, then a plate shattered on the ground. My brother, in the room adjacent to me, had at least eight first over. I couldn’t hear anyone else. Only shud-ad-dudd… shud-ad-ad-ad.

It didn’t stop, even after 40 seconds had passed. In fact, it seemed to be getting stronger. I rolled over onto my back and sat straight upright in my bed, staring at my ceiling and praying it wouldn’t land on it. It was getting deeper and more violent the longer it went on. My walls were swaying back and forth, as though they were the knot in a game of tug and war. The windows back to resemble gelatin, threatening to crack and shatter with each second.

Earthquake damage
Damaged caused by the earthquakes that August

My mind shot to images of Christchurch two years previously. Thinking about the people that were crushed in the buildings there, instead of picturing their dust-covered, bloodied faces, I replaced them with my own face. It kept going. Growing strong and stronger and stronger. Then suddenly, the longest minute of my life was over.

The next few hours were exhausting. Every time I finally calmed down, another aftershock came rolling in.

New Zealand earthquake aftershock map
This map shows the amount of aftershocks experienced in the hours following the Seddon quake

Some were mild and irksome, true. But then you had the big aftershocks which seemed to tease you, reminding you that your life is fleeting. One such aftershock caused me to hop-run outside as quickly as I could, as I was genuinely fearful that my girlfriend’s fish tank would fall on top of me. The shakes didn’t stop at night-time, either.

Earthquake magnitude chart
The magnitudes I experienced regularly during that night

Two weeks of near-constant aftershocks later, it seemed that we were past the worst of it. It seemed that the aftershocks would settle to maybe one or two every month, like before. I was reasonably confident that me, my friends and family would never experience something like that again.

I was half right.

November 14th, 2016:

I was four days into my Australian holiday, enjoying a couple of beers with friends that I hadn’t seen in four years. All of a sudden, my phone vibrated a hundred odd times in a couple of seconds. Facebook was exploding around me. I quickly scrolled through my newsfeed, a blur of OMGs and FUCKs. A combination of messages arrived: hopeful that I was okay, thankful I wasn’t at home, cries for help because they were scared.

My country had been hit my a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, and there was nothing I could do.

GoPro image of Cairns
A world away: taken on my GoPro in Cairns a couple of hours before the earthquake hit back home

I told my friends what had happened. They gave me permission to sit on my laptop – half having a conversation – so I could make sure everyone was okay. It’s a strange feeling, having 40+ chat windows open with people who’d stop replying in unison.

I knew why there would be no replies. That night, they regularly got aftershocks above 6.5. The earthquake I lived through was 6.6. Every single person I asked said, without a doubt, that it was stronger than the one that I experienced.

Perhaps I tormented myself that night, refreshing the front page of our news website every 10 seconds. The quake was felt nearly nationwide, so reports of damage came in thick and fast. The damage around Kaikoura was particularly upsetting, as that road used to be the most beautiful stretch I’ve ever been on. Friends lost chimneys, windows and fish who were sloshed out of their tanks. Some even sustained significant damage to theirs cars. Mum was hyperventilating. Even the big angry douchebag I lived with at the time was swearing, feeling to higher ground before the tsunami alarm even sounded.

Tsunami warning sign
This tsunami warning was just a ten minute drive away from my home

Although no substantial tsunami hit the populated coastlines that night, it was a long and agonizing wait. I kept refreshing to see more damage, checking the tsunami prediction chart to see if my town had been removed from its evacuation notice. Almost the entire population of Blenheim was on the hill last night. Hoping for the news that they could return home. Dreading the worst case scenario.

I wasn’t there for that.

It’s an incredibly strange feeling, seeing so many people you care about experience a brush with death while you can’t do a thing. On one hand I was thankful I had timed my holiday so expertly, but on that other I was upset that I hadn’t experienced it, too. I was an outsider looking in, hearing everyone’s stories the way people at hostels hear mine.

When James Corden talked about the recent London shootings, he said “when something like that happens in your home town, you don’t have a feeling of being glad that you’re so far away. What you feel is you wish you could be there with loved ones, to stand alongside them.” That’s exactly how I felt in November.

I worried. About what kind of state I would come home to. About my belongings. Worried about my friends (and their newborns’) mental well-being. About whether I could even get home, as my route included the now disabled ferry terminal between Wellington and Picton. I heard my workplace was heavily damaged in the quake (and there is still damage there today, months later) and I wondered if I’d still be employed – if I did get back home.

State Highway 1 to Kaikoura
As dawn broke, pictures of the damage came flooding in. This was State Highway 1, on the way to Kaikoura

Most of all, I was worried that a tsunami or a sizeable aftershock would knock down the town I grew up in.

I love traveling away from that place, perhaps because 2013 made me deathly afraid of earthquakes. While 2016 certainly strengthened my flight reflexes, it also made me realize how important staying could be. I hope, once more, that my friends and family are never in another natural disaster such as these. I just hope that, if they are, I’ll be there to suffer along as well.