“Courtney! Courtney, wake up! We have to go!”
I woke up to insistent knocking on my cabin door. I thought I was dreaming, but as my eyes slowly opened, I realized this was real. I looked around the dark box that I called home with blurry vision.
“Courtney, hello!” My friend’s French accent rang through from outside.
I felt as if I had only just fallen asleep, but I looked at my phone and saw that it was after 2 am. I heard my friend knocking at the cabin next door, yelling for them to wake up too. My natural assumption was that she was totally wasted.
I got out of bed just as she came back knocking.
“Courtney! We have to go right now!”
I opened my door, still only half-conscious. “What’s going on?” I asked, slightly annoyed.
“Read this,” she said, showing me a tweet on her tablet. “There’s a tsunami warning. We have to go now.”
It took me a minute to understand what she was saying. The couple next door walked out of their cabin as I looked at the tweet in question.
“There was an earthquake,” she continued. “In Kaikoura. Now there’s a tsunami warning here. We are supposed to evacuate.” Only then did I notice the sirens going off in the distance.
Maybe it was because I wasn’t fully awake, or maybe it was because I’m so used to hearing tornado warnings as a born-and-raised Midwesterner, but my first instinct was that it wasn’t actually a big deal. I told my friend not to worry, that it was probably nothing.
“Why do you think it’s nothing?” she asked, confused. “A lot of us are sitting in the kitchen, I’ve been reading the news since the earthquake. Didn’t you feel it?”
I didn’t feel it. I had been sound asleep, and I still would have been if she hadn’t woken me up.
The two of us and the couple next door stood around for a few minutes discussing it. After deciding to ignore it, I went back inside my cabin and crawled into bed. I could hear my friend heading over to wake up the security guy that lived next to us.
Just as I was about to fall asleep again, I heard another knock on my door. This time it was the Scottish girl, part of the couple. “Grab your shoes and phone. We have to evacuate right now!”
This time I scrambled. I saw flashing lights through my window and heard the security guy shouting orders. I put my shoes on, grabbed a jacket, and bolted out the door.
“You guys get in the car and go. Get to higher ground.”
My friend, the couple, and I didn’t hesitate. We jumped in the car and got out of there. As we were leaving, we heard the security guy delegating tasks, telling others to go around camp and wake up the guests. But we were gone by the time anyone else started rustling.
We drove up to the lookout point and parked up. The ocean was just in front of us, but we were up high enough to avoid any problems if there was in fact a tsunami. The sirens were still going, and we saw faint lights over the hills; cars from the nearby town were getting to higher ground.
“I told you we should go,” my friend jibbed.
“What is going on?” I sighed. Now that I had been jolted into full-consciousness, I was only starting to realize what was happening.
“I told you,” my friend started, “there was a big earthquake. I was sitting in my van watching a movie, and then I feel shaking. So I went to watch the news and see what is happening. The earthquake was in Kaikoura, and now there is a tsunami warning for the East Coast of New Zealand.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t feel it. I slept right through it.”
I had felt earthquakes before. Just a few months earlier, I had felt one at the very same camp. I woke up in the middle of the night to shaking. At first I thought it was just that feeling you get as you come out of a deep sleep, your body coming out of a paralyzed state. After a full minute of shaking, I realized it wasn’t me—it was an earthquake.
And yet, I felt nothing on the night of one of the most powerful earthquakes in New Zealand’s history.
The four of us sat in the car for a while, noticing that no other cars had come out of our holiday park. They would have passed us, or joined us at the lookout point, but we were the only ones. We laughed at how silly the situation was. We weren’t laughing at the earthquake, but at ourselves—the four foreign backpackers who high-tailed it out of there immediately, while everyone else remained calm.
After 20 minutes or so, the security guy came to find us. He pulled in next to our car, and told us the tsunami warning had expired. It was safe to go back.
So we went back to camp, still laughing at ourselves, still a bit delirious from being so frazzled in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until the next morning that we started to hear how serious this earthquake had been.
While up on the North Island we had been worried about a tsunami warning, on New Zealand’s South Island, the idyllic town of Kaikoura was damaged by the earthquake.
The main highway connecting the upper South Island—from Picton to Kaikoura to Christchurch—had been completely blocked off. That section of the highway was one of New Zealand’s most beautiful drives. The winding road was set right between the sea and the rockface. Boulders came crashing down in the earthquake, making the road impassable. For a few days, Kaikoura was inaccessible by land.
Within a week, the southern section of the road from Kaikoura to Christchurch was re-opened. People could access the town once again. However, the section of the highway north of Kaikoura remains closed at the time of this writing.
I didn’t end up visiting Kaikoura during my time in New Zealand. I could have, and maybe I should have. There was a decline in tourism initially after the quake, so the town needed revenue more than ever. The roads are still under construction, but the town is open for business.
My friends and I continued to joke with each other about that night. While most of us just wanted to go back to sleep, my Belgian friend wouldn’t let us. While there was no tsunami in the end, thank god we had someone who wanted to make sure we survived if there was one.