Away from home when disaster strikes

Struggling to coax my loaded bicycle up Switzerland’s formidable Furka Pass I am all but spent. Compensation is a spectacular mountain upon mountain backdrop and tinkling cow bells. If the assent became a tough assignment, the descent is death-defying with tight corners and the roadway, in places, cantilevered above empty space. I pause to appreciate the diminishing Rhone Glacier.
Arriving safely down in Oberwald, pleased to be in one piece, I send a text message home.
Reply; ``We’re having an earthquake. Scary. I am under the dining table.’’ New Zealand time is early hours of September 4, 2010, when a magnitude 7.2 quake strikes west of Christchurch.
It is reassuring to hear of no serious casualties. And friends ensure those at home are okay.
On February 22 the followings year I am away again, this time bicycling the New Zealand North Island East Cape. Aftershocks from September 4 have diminished so I am comfortable leaving home.
Again, the bike ride is a struggle and a few minutes before 1 pm on day five I find a level grass verge outside Potaka rural school. I stop for a sandwich.
Three pupils climb the fence, lean across the top, and say ``Hello.’’ I say ``Hello,’’ wondering what they think of this unexpected stranger. I ask how many pupils attend the school and they name every one – all eight.

I pedal on, uphill and down dale and spot a sign for Waihau Beach Holiday Park just another 11 km further on. The road is mercifully levelling out.
I arrive and book into a cabin. Then I hear about the violent earthquake striking Christchurch just before 1 pm. This time people have been killed. Central Christchurch has been crumbled. Liquefaction floods suburbs.

It is a terrible feeling not being home – again. My mobile is out of range but a sympathetic police officer knows the details. It is the annual East Cape cannabis crack down so police are not hard to spot. The quake was 6.3 but shallow at five km.
Later I see the shocking television coverage and the wrecked Christchurch Anglican Cathedral. Casualties grow. It is like a horror movie. I call home on a landline. No-one answers. Another call connects with my kindly employer. He sounds shattered. He had already called in at my home. My partner is shaken but okay and the house is still standing minus several roof tiles. At least that is reassuring.
With little appetite I eat a few scraps of food purchased from the local store. I drink a little wine but even that has little appeal.

What next?

I grab my camera and walk the short distance to the ocean beach. I watch the magnificent sunset until the last golden rays are swallowed into darkness.
The brief spectacle from nature has been a diversion. The feeling of desolation and loneliness returns. Will I be able to sleep?
I shower, pre-packed my bicycle, and put items aside for a quick breakfast.
I am on the road early, eager to reach mobile coverage.

East Cape is a Maori stronghold and before leaving home colleagues were curious how I would be treated. I experience nothing but kindness.
``You must go home to your tangatata whenua, ’’ I am continually advised. When I am thirsty, one woman dashes inside and brings me out a can of drink.
That evening I arrive in the village of Te Kaha.

The Maori proprietor ``Chay’’ of the Chay’s lovely beachfront backpackers and homestay generously offers me free lodgings, dinner and breakfast because he wants to help Christchurch.
I continue my bike ride to Whakatane, two more days pedalling, cut my journey short, and fly home to my tangata whenau.

Normality belongs to the past. Water is not running. People queue, toilet roll in hand, at the street-side portaloos.
Electricity and landline phones are memories. Most supermarkets are closed.
The central city is barricaded. We have no way to discover for ourselves what has happened. Grieving goes to the 185, mostly young Asian students, whose lives have been cut short.
Friends provide some humour.
I am not to go away again – unless they can go with me, they tell me.

R Sinclair

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