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The Rock

By - 23 Mar 2011 - 3 comments

On 22 February 2011 Christchurch and its surrounding area was shaken by New Zealand's most destructive earthquake since Napier in 1931. The quake was centred on the Port Hills suburb of Heathcote, known to many simply as The Valley. Anthony Russell, Martelli McKegg's employment law expert comes from The Valley. His thoughts on the lead up to the 22 February earthquake and its effect can be read here.

"I come from down in the Valley, where Mister when you're young, they bring you up to do, like your Daddy done." Bruce Springsteen, the River, (1979)

I was at home in Auckland when my brother called.  He said there had just been an earthquake in Christchurch and there seemed a lot of damage.  He said it was 6.3 shake.  I thought ok, there will be damage, but it should not be too bad and did not even contemplate loss of life.  Just to check I turned on TV3 and within a few minutes the local reporter was walking down Colombo Street, approaching the Square from the north.  People were fleeing the opposite way, from the centre of the City. Their expressions spoke of something awful. But what?  In the distance I thought I could see the Cathedral, but there seemed something wrong with the camera angle.  When it finally came into shot, it dawned upon me.  The steeple was gone, collapsed inwards and outwards.  Rubble piled up around it. Then, my thoughts immediately turned to my Mum in Heathcote Valley.

I was last in Heathcote Valley in August for the 150th anniversary of Heathcote Valley Primary School. Heathcote (or "the Valley" as known by the locals) is rather secretively closeted in the Port Hills on the city side.  It is the entry point for road and rail tunnels through to the port at Lyttelton and the exit of the Bridle Path from Lyttelton.   The Bridle Path was traversed in the 1850s by the passengers from the first four ships; the rail tunnel, an engineering feat from the Victorian era; the road tunnel, opened in early 1960s. The Mayor, Bob Parker, was there as a former pupil and spoke fondly of the School and how his parents had just lived across the road from it.  At the time, he was well behind in the polls and most expected him to be trounced by the challenger, Jim Anderton.  But the first quake changed all that.

They had passenger trains running through the tunnel to Lyttelton.  Something that had been halted in the early 70s, just after my family moved to the Valley from further down the Heathcote River in Opawa.  The trains went through to the Port and then came back through the tunnel past Heathcote to a shunting station outside Lancaster Park (as I knew it, now AMI Stadium) and then back to the Valley.  All the time the kids were kept entertained by recreations of the Crunchie ad from years ago, involving an assortment of cowboys, Indians and oddbods.  The kids had, of course, no idea what they were witnessing.

What grabbed you that weekend was the frigid cold. You could not keep it out.  Colder than Queenstown in July my wife reckoned.  So cold, she did not come to the afternoon tea after the train rides.  And dark.  Low dark clouds hung overhead.  Foreboding.  Two weeks later the first quake happened.

A book was prepared for the anniversary "In the Shadow of the Rock". For the dominant feature of the landscape viewed from all parts of the valley is Castle Rock ("Te Tihi O Kahukura" roughly translated as the "Pinnacle of the Rainbow').  It is a reminder of the Lyttelton volcano, now extinct, as it was raised up from the ground during this eruption six million years ago.   It presides over the valley and surrounds. It is an attraction for local climbers wishing to scale its face and a training ground for those who wish to tackle the bigger rocks in the Southern Alps. I climbed up to it numerous times when I was at the school, but cannot remember doing it at all past about 12 years old. After that, as a teenager, other things seemed more important and interesting.

And it became a casualty of the first quake. A huge chunk of its Crown broke off and hurtled down a gully, coming to rest at the bottom.  Yet, miraculously away from the tunnel road, the Valley and its houses.  Largely unscathed.  Lucky.  A bullet had been dodged.  In the middle of the night, centred west of the city and deep. If that was 7.1, then surely Christchurch could navigate anything smaller? And the Rock remained.  Slightly smaller, less craggy, but it remained.

I received a final email from the organizing committee for the anniversary on 7 February.  It mentioned that Castle Rock was now somewhat smaller and that the Valley Inn Tavern was a victim of the September quake.  The Tavern mimicked Castle rock.  It looked directly up to it. It too jutted out prominently. All narrow and angular in the front with its bulk located in the back.  This unusual wedge shape was due to 4 streets meeting in an intersection (that enabled people to flow to the station for transport and the malt works for work).  It seemed like the only 2 story structure in the Valley itself; and it had been around for a long time.  After over a century it was knocked out by the quake in September.  I have been told it was standing, but damaged, after first quake of 7.1 but an after shock, a few days later, provided its death knell.  The pub was irreparable and my mum watched it being demolished shortly afterwards.

But still the aftershocks that had delivered the coup de grace to the Tavern continued.  Through October, into November and then on to December.  On Boxing Day, an aftershock sent  facades of buildings into Cashel Mall and brought an abrupt end to the Boxing Day sales in the city. I rang my brother in Christchurch that day, while he was staying in the Valley. As I was talking to him a further shock rumbled through.  He found it rather unnerving coming from untroubled Nelson.  But Mum and her neighbours regarded it as normal.  A twitchy and aberrant normality.

Then they seemed to die off.  The reports were less from family and friends.  They were still happening, but seemingly less sharp and more infrequent.  The Boxing Day sales were re-launched.  A roaring success on Saturday 19 February, apparently. The wrath of the terra firma overcome.  Then came February 22.

It rose from the floor and sides of the Valley.  Most reports say it was Lyttelton. But if you look at the maps, you can see the epicentre is actually on the city side of port hills, through from Lyttelton and in the Valley.  This is confirmed by the actual data received of the shaking.  Heathcote Valley Primary School had the highest reading for Peak Ground Acceleration of the whole of Christchurch (at 220.6 p%).  In comparison, Lyttelton was 95.6 p%.

Out from the Valley, in a moment, a seismic slingshot.  The hardened volcanic rocks of the Port Hills as the merciless conductor. Accentuating the destructive force as it rollercoasted through them. Catapulting it out into the soft, sandy underbelly of Christchurch.  Sharpening the impact for some; lessening it for others, on its own perverted path.  Annihilation.  Survival.  Saving . Killing. Dependant on nothing.  A whim perhaps.  Time, place, moment.  Never more important.  My keys? my phone? another cup of coffee? do I really want to buy that? Appointments kept; appointments missed.  Being late; being early. Being. Then not being.

Nobody really mentions the Valley.  Its secret intact.  Tragedy still lurks. A tide of refugees from the City, cut off from their homes as the road tunnel closed, climbing the Bridle Path from the Valley to reach their homes in Lyttelton.  A desperate reversal of the trek of the original European settlers.  Rocks raining down on them, like some biblical judgment day, as the aftershocks continued the destruction wrought earlier.  One of them, unable to evade, killed. 

And Castle Rock.  Shattered. Destroyed. A natural victim to add to the human tally.  The work of September finished off in February. Just a base left where the Rock once sat. The Rock may be gone, yet its shadow remains.  Pervasive.  Enveloping the whole City.  All the fortitude and perseverance of those early settlers will be needed to claw from its suffocating embrace.

Everything has changed.  We are back to the beginning.  Go see the Rock.

"All those things that seem so important, well Mister, they vanished right into the air…"  Bruce Springsteen, the River, (1979) 


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Don Donovanreply

Very thought provoking article Anthony. Well written and a sad reminder of the tragic events in CHC since the first earthquake last Sept. I presume your mother is all OK.

Craig Preslandreply

The author replies       Thanks Craig. Yes, she's fine but house a bit trashed inside. She left chch the following day and been staying in Nelson and now, Auckland for a short time.


A well presented item.
I did not attend the 150th as I was not an ex school pupil. Have had a lot to do with with the school though and still do. The 150th was an excellent function I am told. I spent the nights though, patrolling the local streets to make sure your vehicles were kept safe & secure and on the morning of the trains, I was involved with those running them and they certainly brought back memories of my days there with the NZR. Met up with many I had not seen for many years.
Heathcote has a charm in itself. After the shakes, the locals just got on with it, looking after one another, Not hearing complaints about this and that like other certain parts of the city. We had no portable toilets for a week or two.
We lost our 'Local' in the Sept shake and 12 months later we are awaiting the opening of a new one. February we lost our local shop and other buildings, our local Coffee Shop setting up open air seating and kept on trading. Nothing fazes us locals.


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