I never thought for an instant that I would consider leaving Diamond Harbour and return to Australia to live. But I also never dreamed that on September 4th, 2010, I would be woken at 4:35am by a shallow magnitude 7.1 earthquake centred only 70km from my home.
The night before the earthquake was a Friday and normally I would’ve been at our local pub having a drink with the Diamond Harbour crowd. Friday nights at Godley House had a tendency to escalate into a late night and patrons would often greet the following morning with frayed nerves, pounding head and an industrial strength thirst. At various stages of the day, familiar faces could be seen reporting to the local shop for the widely recognised hangover remedy – a meat pie and a spearmint thick shake. Possibly an ice-cream if things were really bad. As fun as these evenings invariably were, the following day was often spent berating myself for my lack of discipline and running mental replays of the dumb things I’d said and/or done the night before. After fifty years on the planet, I really should have paid more attention to my cautionary inner voice, and on that particular night I surprised myself by resisting the gravitational pull of Godley House and stayed at home in front of the telly.
Thank God! I can only imagine the horror of coping with the following day’s events on a hangover.
At 4:35am I awoke to find my bed violently shaking. Initially I was sleepily irritated with Levi, thinking he must’ve jumped on the bed and was vigorously scratching himself. The vestiges of the most excellent sleep I had been enjoying instantly evaporated when I realised that the roaring sound I could hear had nothing to do with the dog and although he was on my bed shaking, it was for quite another reason. The noise was immense. A booming roar and then a juddering sound as though there was a freight train thundering through the lounge. Heart pounding, I sat bolt upright in bed, knowing that I should probably be crouching under something or standing under a doorway but with everything crashing around I couldn’t make it to the door without a significant amount of risk.
Thrusting my head under the pillows, I helplessly huddled under the covers and rode it out. I was worried about my seventeen-year-old daughter in the next room, but I just had to pray that she was safe and sit tight until it abated. The shaking and the noise seemed to last forever, increasing all the time. Random objects flew around my bedroom and cabinets toppled over, smashing their contents onto the floor. God knows what was going on in the lounge. It sounded horrendous.
Because we lived on a hillside, the lounge was supported by poles, and it occurred to me, judging by all the banging and smashing I could hear, that there was a fair chance that the lounge as we knew it had disappeared completely and all I would see would be the curtains fluttering mournfully in the crisp morning air whilst my furniture slowly made its way down the hillside and into the harbour.
At last it stopped. When I emerged from under the pillows I could hear my daughter attempting to battle her way out her bedroom. She managed to extract herself and picked through the debris on the floor until she made her way to my bed. I found a small transistor radio and we sat up in bed in the dark listening to its crackly transmission, frustrated because the local station wasn’t operational at the time and was playing Don McLean’s American Pie over and over again. What worried me was that if we had had such an enormous jolt in Canterbury, a non-earthquake prone area, what must be going on at the epicentre? Surely there would be some part of New Zealand that had ceased to exist.
Once radio broadcast had resumed we were both surprised to learn that the earthquake’s epicentre was close to the small town of Darfield, some forty kilometres west of Christchurch City and registered 7.1 on the Richter scale with a depth of 10 kilometres. Eventually I found my mobile phone under the upturned bedside cabinet and started furiously texting friends and family. Relief flooded over me on hearing the news that my son was OK and so it seemed, was everyone else. We had no power, no water, broken bric-a-brac strewn everywhere but at least we were all alive and safe.
The clean-up turned out to be a lot less arduous than I had expected. Contrary to my earlier imaginings, the lounge had not disappeared, although the house looked as though it had been thoroughly ransacked. Bookshelves were upturned, and the television had been thrown off its stand and was lying, surprisingly unbroken, in the middle of the floor. We carefully returned it to its rightful position and once power had been restored, switched it on to watch the news. There were some parts of Christchurch quite devastated by liquefaction, buildings down and roads with enormous cracks that had been ripped up by the monumental force but thankfully, and remarkably, there were no fatalities.
There was minimal damage to properties in the Diamond Harbour area, with the exception of Godley House. The proprietors and their children only just got out in time and were not permitted to access the property again to retrieve their belongings. There were huge cracks throughout the building and the persistent aftershocks weakened it even further.
Godley House was built in 1880 and was a family home until 1913 when the house was sold to the Lyttelton Borough Council. The stately old home with its beautiful cottage gardens was later converted it into a guest house, a restaurant and a pub. It would be a huge blow to the locals to lose our favourite pub and meeting place – a community hub that all of us loved it to bits. I thought how strange it was that only a few hours ago I was thinking of popping down for a quick drink and now that wasn’t an option and never would be again.
That night we all slept in my bedroom including Levi who, in a departure from house rules, was on the bed. Even Wanda our cat, had temporarily set aside her disgust at being within a metre radius of Levi and had joined us. The four of us all shook in time with the aftershocks and I don’t think any one of us slept particularly well.
The psychological and emotional impact of the Christchurch earthquakes were far-reaching, and many people moved away from the area as the subsequent aftershocks relentlessly reverberated. Whilst I was thankfully unaffected in the sense that neither I, nor any of my family or friends, had been injured or left homeless, the earthquake had changed everything literally overnight.