At two minutes after midnight on November 14, 2016, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the South Island’s east coast. It claimed two lives, trapped residents, destroyed roads and buildings, and raised parts of the seabed by several metres.

Those first images were shocking: great heaps of rubble, raw earth where road should be, twisted steel snaking away from what was once a railway line. Anyone who had travelled the scenic route to Kaikoura was dismayed; they worried that the experience of following the dramatic coast revealing magnificent landscape, through thrilling tunnels, catching glimpses of sunning seals was consigned to the past.

But work is well underway to fix the mess. It will take thousands of hours and billions of dollars, but the plan is to have the main road between Kaikoura and Picton open by Christmas.

“It’s critical for the South Island community, it’s on schedule to open by the end of the year and we’re taking every opportunity we can to open it earlier,” says Steve Mutton, Earthquake Recovery Manager, NZ Transport Agency (NZTA).

The NZTA is part of the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery alliance, with KiwiRail and construction companies, tasked with managing the repairs. As well as working on reopening State Highway 1 (SH1) north of Kaikoura, alliance projects are focusing on repairing access south of the town, improving inland alternative routes, reconnecting rail links and reinstating the harbour to a fully functional, safe state. While roading crews are clearing major slips on SH1 north and south of the town, designers are finalising reconstruction solutions for road and rail.

For now, SH1 south of Kaikoura is only open between 6.00am and 8.00pm, as there are concerns about stability. Strengthening and resurfacing is underway on the Inland Road (Route 70), which is long and windy but fully open, providing an after-dark link between Kaikoura and State Highway 7 (SH7). Improvement work is also underway on SH7, the main alternative route north via Lewis Pass so that it can better cope with the extra traffic.

Each project is massive, complex and urgent. With winter comes added pressure on roads not designed for the volume of traffic they’re accommodating. Lewis Pass rolls through alpine territory, open to harsh conditions and vulnerable to the impact of wild weather.

“We’re very conscious of that,” Steve says. “As well as getting SH1 back as quickly as possible, there’s a big push to make the alternative route safe and reliable. We’ve been strengthening and resealing, put traffic lights on one-way bridges and built temporary two-lane Bailey bridges at pinch points to ensure there are no hold-ups.

“Also, the alternative route through Lewis Pass has an enhanced response team so that if there is an incident, it can be quickly dealt with.

“But people do need to allow extra time and drive carefully and sensibly. There are a lot of road works and crews along that road.”

The journey between Picton and Kaikoura, which used to take a couple of hours, now takes more than seven. And for those travelling up from Christchurch, the trip takes two and a half hours during daylight on SH1 through Cheviot, or three or more hours if it involves taking the inland Route 70.

Whichever route, the town should definitely be back on travellers’ itineraries. “Kaikoura is welcoming visitors,” Steve says, “and we’re doing everything we can to assist”.

This is confirmed by Kaikoura i-SITE manager Mariet van Vierzen, who says all but three of the region’s 47 tourism businesses, including 90% of motels and campgrounds, have reopened.

The rising of the seabed from the earthquake has limited how frequently some companies can operate. The region’s largest tourism operator, Whale Watch Kaikoura, has cut back its sea excursions from 16 a day in summer before the quake to three.

Crucially, morale throughout the community is strong, Mariet says. People are taking a business-as-usual approach and are adjusting well to a “new normal” – but yes, the town needs more visitors. 

“It’s not looking too nice. Last January we had more than 17,000 visitors compared with just over 5,800 this January. But we are positive; we need to be of course,” she says.

“We appreciate the support of people who make the effort to come here. We have so much to offer: stunning scenery, abundant marine life as well as walking and mountain biking tracks.”   

Mariet also recommends travellers from Christchurch take the Alpine Pacific Triangle route, looping up the coast one way and inland the other.

In brief

- From Christchurch to Picton, take the Lewis Pass route (SH7 from Waipara north, SH65 from Springs Junction, SH6 through Murchison, SH63 through St Arnaud to Blenheim, SH1 to Picton). The trip takes about seven and a half hours.

- Petrol, cafes and toilet facilities are at St Arnaud, Murchison, Springs Junction and Culverden.

- From Christchurch to Kaikoura, take SH1 through Cheviot during daytime hours. Returning, consider Inland Route 70 via Waiau and Culverden, detour to Hanmer Springs, before heading back to Christchurch on SH7. This route is promoted as the Alpine Pacific Triangle and also takes in the Waipara wine region and Weka Pass.

By the numbers

$2 billion
estimated cost to reinstate the coastal route and rail corridor.
approximate hours worked by crews and support staff (to February 2017) on recovery work and planning, including work on the alternative state highway route.
people currently employed on recovery work, including work on the alternative state highway route.

Reported by Kathryn Webster and Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue

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