On 16th October 1848, Rūaumoko – the youngest son of Ranginui (the Sky) and Papatūānuku (the Earth) – walked about the Awatere valley in the Marlborough district. The effect was what the Māori call rūwhenua, ‘the shaking of the land’. The rumblings tore 150 kilometers of land up to 8 metres wide, and then reached North Island, where they knocked down houses and sent bricks flying. Thankfully, Wellington then was not massively populated, and only three deaths were recorded. Some people escaped the shakings and spent the night on boats, where they made a mental note to use wood for building from now on.
So, when seven years later Rūaumoko returned and caused the 8.2 quake alongside the Wairarapa fault which produced a ten meters high tsunami, lifted part of the Rimutaka Range mountains by six meters, and raised the eastern harbour shore (where the current CBD is) two meters high, Wellingtonians were mostly prepared. Only one person in the city died (as Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand states, there were less than ten casualties outside of Wellington), and only a few were injured.
More than a hundred years passed, but stability is still a very long way off. New Zealand is a teenager of the geological world, with the freshness and beauty of first youth, but also the growing pains of constant topographical changes, the acne of volcanoes, the rapturous tears of tropical rains and door slamming shakes. It is spectacular and dramatic. Safe? Maybe not, but … ‘A living planet is always on the move’ – writes David L. Ulin, author of ‘The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith’ – ‘In some sense, you might even say that a living planet exists in a continual state of crisis, that this urgency, this insistence, is what defines it as alive’ (p. 265).
The 2008 New Zealand film ‘Aftershock’ shows what would happen if it goes. There is lot of useful information on what to do, and the City Library provides you with a combined hazards map, and a Black List of dangerous buildings to avoid (generally speaking, new buildings and wooden houses – unless they are hanging from a hill on poles – are fine). One of the safest places in town is Te Papa Tongarewa, an excellent museum, and worth being in at anytime. It sits on 135 shock-breaking isolators: and if you are interested in finding out what an earthquake feels like, you can experience one in Te Papa’s quake simulator house.
Many people questioned the wisdom of coming from Japan to another earthquake zone. The first morning in Wellington, when I realized I was at the very end of the world and there was an earthquake kit at the door, I also questioned my sanity. But it turned out to be an excellent decision, and after I resigned myself to living in constant terror I had the time of my life. I have never been so awake and alert: there is nothing to make you enjoy the present moment as much as the uncertainty of whether you will ever be allowed to finish your coffee before the roof falls on your head. ‘Earthquakes’ – says David L. Ulin – ‘do strange things to our psyches, by shattering what may be our most widely held illusion, the inviolability of solid ground. Not only does this undermine our belief in the everyday stability of existence, it also offers, in a way I can’t pin down exactly, evidence of an entirely different vision of reality’ (p. 9).
We first chose the Southern Cross Apartments, then a house in Karori, a green suburbia in the hills. The Karori tunnel, linking Karori with the town, is a 112 years old brick structure prominent on the Black List. Every time I was travelling through it by bus, I was even more alert than usual, listening for the steps of Rūaumoko in the ground below.
But everything was quiet, and all was well. The god of earthquakes and volcanoes, so anticipated in Wellington, was busy somewhere, where he had not been expected at all: in the heart of Christchurch.