Read Part 1 here.
Night two saw the addition of a couple of different groups of cyclists to our group of 6 hikers from the first hut. Once again, I was the only international hiker that night. We enjoyed light conversation with the backdrop of a beautiful sunset. Just before retiring for the night, one of the cyclists got word of the weather forecast for the following day, predicting heavy rain to start around midday. This had everyone deciding on early starts for the next morning. As I was heading back to the start of the track, I had 30 kilometres to cover in one shot and although the majority was a gradual downhill, I knew the distance meant I also needed to be up and out early.
Darkness set in around 8:30 pm with the hut peacefully quiet shortly afterwards. Two minutes after midnight, I slowly came out of what must have been deep sleep to a feeling that my bed was rocking and rolling. Puzzled to say the least, I initially attributed it to a strong wind which, learning the next morning, a few others had as well. We were, after all, in a fairly small structure high on an open cliff and the weather was meant to take a downturn. But when the shaking continued on for an indiscernible amount of time, and as I slowly came to a more wakeful state, I knew there must be a different explanation. Could this be an earthquake, the all too common natural occurrence in this part of the world?
I lay still in my sleeping bag trying to decipher what I was feeling, not having experienced such consistent and continuous shaking previously. If this was an earthquake, why was no one expressing any concern, or even stirring in their beds? I wasn’t aware of how long the shaking continued but having convinced myself of what it must be, my thoughts went to our safety. I had flashbacks to the view of the hut from the bottom of the hill. Are we safe in this hut perched high on cliff, I questioned. Why are huts built on cliffs in an earthquake-prone country, in the first place? And what was this going to mean for the 30 kilometre walk back to my car the following day? Perhaps due to the time of night and a lack of outward concern by the others, it wasn’t too long before my mind was back in a safer place.
The morning after
I awoke to confirmations that, indeed, it had been an earthquake and a fairly sizeable one (7.8 in magnitude) at that, centred near the eastern seaside town of Kaikoura, about 300 kilometres from where we were. At the time we were aware that there had been two fatalities but unaware of the far-reaching structural damage. I expressed my nervousness about walking back solo (everyone else was progressing towards the next hut), knowing that earthquakes can cause rock slips and that I had to re-cross the saddle and those gated rock slip areas from the first day. Would there be evidence of last night’s seismic activity? Would parts of the track be impassable? Would today’s expected rainfall cause further damage? And what about aftershocks?
There was only one way to find out, of course. I was reassured by the others that I would be fine. Once again demonstrating that lovely Kiwi hospitality, they took down the license plate and make of my car with the intention of double-checking that I had made it back to the start once they finished their trek a few days later. Feeling a surge in confidence, I set out, motivated by the distance I had to cover and by a desire to reach a spot with mobile phone reception. Given the size of the earthquake, it had no doubt made international headlines. The sooner I made contact with family in Canada, the better. My mobile phone came into range while I was crossing the saddle, the area I assessed to be the riskiest following the earthquake. After sending a couple of quick texts, I hurriedly hiked those first four kilometres. The irony of letting loved ones know that I was safe was that I wasn’t out of the danger zone yet; 26 kilometres were still in front of me.
The last 26 kilometres
With every solo trip into nature, I become more observant. That morning I noticed every single boulder situated over my head, praying it hadn’t been loosened from the earth over night. The path through the saddle was naturally very rocky so it was impossible to tell if any new slips had occurred overnight. Surprisingly but thankfully, the only noticeable change on the track that I could confidently attribute to the earthquake was a tilted track marker pole.
The other concern on my walk back, which developed unexpectedly, was staying warm. The downhill walk on a damp day made it challenging to keep a suitable body temperature. Stopping into Lyell hut with the hope of warming up while having my lunch turned out to be a successful but short-lived strategy. I resorted to jogging every second kilometre or so to feel more comfortable. Not meeting any trampers headed in the opposite direction in those first 12 kilometres, my concern with those gated rock-fall areas remained.
I expected to complete the hike without coming across anyone. Who would be starting a hike the day after an earthquake, in rainy conditions? Shortly after having this thought, I crossed paths with several groups of cyclists and two trampers, all happily enduring the rainy and cool conditions. These encounters not only served as useful distractions in my unpleasant state, but also demonstrated to me the passion that Kiwis have for the outdoors. It still had me puzzled, however. Would I set out on a multi-day hike or cycle the day after an earthquake, if I didn’t have to?
As I had done on day one, I approached the rock-fall areas with caution. By that point I had anticipated that this area was unaffected as several cyclists had already ridden through it. It appeared that there weren’t any major changes here, allowing me to get through safely, giving way to the final 10 kilometres. Wet feet, cold hands and increasing ankle soreness accompanied me relentlessly the remainder of the way. Alas, a big sigh of relief left me as that first drawbridge came into view.
Next adventure, please
Despite travelling in a country that records several earthquakes daily (most are imperceptible), the possibility of one occurring while I was hiking never entered my mind before this outing. Experiencing one while asleep in a hut midway through a hike, high up on a ridge, was far from the adventure I had hoped for. I’m thankful for not only being with others but for being with others who stayed calm. I’m grateful for the welcoming company amidst that beautiful New Zealand scenery. With the Old Ghost Road behind me, I continued my South Island road-trip, being mesmerized by its beauty at every turn, and embracing every additional adventure that came my way.
Missed part one of the adventure?