The ‘quake was centred about 50km away and 25 km deep; 5 on the Richter scale. Wellington wasn’t a pile of rubble and National Radio even appeared unaware the ‘quake had happened. Here in Aotearoa, on the Pacific rim of fire, you get used to earthquakes. From an early age you’re taught what to do—stand in a doorway, get under a table, and so on—but after years of surviving them and having nothing actually falling on you, you become complacent. You know what you should do, but when it requires getting out of bed you lie there instead, trying to decide just how bad it has to get before you move. It’s as if the land has been crying “Wolf!” all your life.
But one day we’ll get the big one.
At breakfast I listened to Jakob’s Subsets of Sets, compelled by the title of the brilliant 3rd track: “Nice day for an earthquake”. The day had an oppressive, brooding feel; a sense of tension; of something about to happen. If anything, the humidity had increased despite a hot, blustery wind from the North-East. I kept expecting a storm, another earthquake, maybe an eruption from Ruapehu or Ngauruhoe; but the sky remained quiet and strewn with patternless cloud, the ground remained firm and immobile beneath my feet, and Ruapehu, according to the GNS website, was doing nothing more than simmer at level 1. By mid afternoon I’d decided to release some of my own tension, so I wheeled the mountainbike out and set off for No. 2 Line.
I’d expected to feel exhausted, enervated by the weather, but the feel of doing something physical and energetic revitalised me. I won’t say I raced up the steep and dusty gravel road—I was less like a racing sardine than a jogging flounder (a floundering jogger?)—but a steady effort took me to the end of the road without shattering me. From the end of the road I could see out across the Pohangina Valley and over the hill country towards Wanganui; South to the Tararua; North along the line of the Ruahine to the Ngamoko Range where the tops were hidden by cloud rolling over from the East and dissolving down deep gullies, silhouetting ridgelines. In the West, at last, a thunderstorm had formed over the hills, its borders hazy with dark rain, its upper region a mountain of wild, white and black and grey cumulus. I released the brakes and began the descent. No more floundering; now I felt even quicker than that racing sardine, maybe even as fast as a Pohangina Valley blowfly. It’s one of the most accessible ways to get a buzz—powering down a gravel road on a mountainbike on the edge of control, eyes showing more white than a hard-boiled egg, imagination switched off, and the smell of fear in your nostrils after you feel the back wheel twitch on a bend. Despite the wind generated by my speed, I could still feel the nor’easter’s buffeting. I shot around a corner, lifted my head slightly to check the road and BANG!—the wind tore the sun visor from my helmet. Bummer. By the time I’d managed to stop, I was faced with an unwelcome grind back up the road to retrieve it. More exercise than I’d intended, but I’m sure it did me good. It also gave me the opportunity to realise there was a truck speeding up the single lane road.
The highlight of the ride came as I accelerated up out of a dip in the road and rounded a bend where the road levels off for a short way. Up ahead, something crossed the road. Lithe, quick, a ripple of agile energy—then another, a body’s length behind the first. Stoats! A few seconds’ glimpse, then they were gone, vanished into the long, wind-whipped grass on the roadside. I pulled up, swung off the saddle and peered into the dense grass; scanned the close-cropped paddock on the other side of the fence. A sheep stared back at me. Distant thunder growled, a long rumble reverberating around the valley. The image of the stoats seemed to fit the sound—intensely charged and ephemeral, like a strange form of lightning. Nothing moved other than the grasses. No sign of stoats.
I drove into town that evening. Beyond Ashhurst I saw railway lines, deeply rusted but, on top, polished clean and gleaming, forming perfect lines of light; sunlight through the shimmer of a starling’s wings as it arced away from the car. I returned after dark, late, with the headlight beams full of erratic moths and wisps and ghosts of mist rising from the warm tarmac. A bird rose from the side of the road, straight up and into darkness. Over everything—the valley, the Ruahine, the western hills, to every horizon—long clouds stretched in moonlight. Pure drama; the essence of legend. A nice day for an earthquake.
Photo 1: Inspired by the Urban Dragon Hunters, I fossicked through some old photos and found some I'd taken last year at little tarn on the summit of the Ngamoko Range. These are Austrolestes colensonis.
Photo 2: ...and these are Xanthocnemis zealandica.
Photo 3: Thundercloud and rain, Pohangina Valley.