“The hairs raise on the back of my neck,” Sylvia Withell says, looking down at the massive crater residents have nicknamed the “Portage Drop Out”.
Vehicles can squeeze past the drop – just – but it’s “spooky”, Withell says, even after months of inching her car around it to pick up food and supplies from a boat.
The wooden barriers her husband placed beside the slip as a warning to vehicles were still where he left them three days after the storm in July – one of the worst floods in Marlborough’s history.
The paint he used to mark the fissure, though, was not. It’s by the sea, along with the road’s centre line.
The rain that caused the road to collapse started at 7pm on 15 July and was part of a weather system that flooded homes in Westport and Marlborough, forcing more than 2900 people to evacuate. Hundreds more became stranded after landslides tumbled onto roads and rivers swept away bridges, including the only crossing in and out of Marlborough’s Waihopai Valley.
By the end of 17 July, Marlborough’s civic leaders were comparing it to the Tuamarina Flood of 1983; a deluge still etched in the memories of those old enough to remember it. Marlborough District Council hydrologist Val Wadsworth said video footage and river measurements showed at the height of the July flood, there were 5280 cubic metres of water flowing down the Wairau River each second – just 520 cubic metres a second less than in 1983.
The July deluge triggered more than 100 faults on Queen Charlotte Drive alone – a vital transport link for hundreds of Marlborough Sounds residents, and a popular tourism destination.
Repair crews got stuck in following the flood and four months on, most roads had reopened – if only for a few hours’ a day. But Kenepuru Rd, a twisting mix of gravel and bitumen connected to Queen Charlotte Drive and winding along Kenepuru Sound, was not as fortunate.
Sylvia and her husband Ross live south of Portage, the largest settlement along the road. Four months on, they still have to navigate around the scars left by the flood during their trek for supplies – cracks as deep as a hand, or a slip that had been sitting for so long that a silver fern had started to grow on it.
The “Portage Drop-Out” was the hardest to dodge.
Standing at the edge of the steep drop, with the teal waters of the bay far below, Ross wryly observed: “There’s been a little bit of movement.”
He believed a lot of road had collapsed because the Marlborough District Council hadn’t kept on top of its drain and gutter cleaning, forcing water to exit under the asphalt.
Ross is part of the Kenepuru and Central Sounds Residents Association and said the group had been flagging maintenance issues with the council for “many, many years”. The road received more than $2.1 million in maintenance work in the last two financial years, some of which went towards drain and gutter clearing.
Thirty kilometres on from the Portage drop-out, at Portage Heights, is another major landslide. Sodden soil collapsed onto the road and out from under it. Marlborough Roads worried that fixing it would jeopardise the property above.
Thirteen weeks later, on the day a reporting team visited, large ring marks were visible on the road next to the slip – signs that a drill had been used to test the ground.
“At last, we’re getting some action,” Ross said.
“It’s been 13 weeks since the road has gone. … We have been completely trapped in here for that whole time.”
On the day our reporting team visited, dirt from the slips was being piled on a carpark in Portage. By the end of the day, more than 120,000 cubic metres of shattered rock and debris had been cleared from the roads.
To the right of the pile was a rubbish skip, barged in after the council realised its usual container couldn’t be reached by trucks.
Sylvia said the skip filled faster than it was emptied.
The barge from Havelock had provided a lifeline to the cut-off community, sailing three times a week to Portage.
So too had the mailboat and water taxi services, like the one run by long-time Nopera Bay resident Gary Orchard.
He has followed in the wake of his father and grandfather, plying the waters of the Sounds, and he remembered Kenepuru Rd being built.
He said most of his neighbours did not have a boat, and had to rely on travelling with a friend, hailing a water taxi or catching the mailboat. It was an expensive day out, even with the council’s $25-per-head water taxi subsidy.
Orchard said those that did have boats were clogging up the jetties, making it more difficult for him to pull in. He had struggled to pick up a woman who needed to be taken to hospital after injuring her fingers.
Getting fuel was also a struggle. Without a road to send tankers down, residents had to barge fuel in – which was expensive – or boat it across, which was a “major exercise”.
“The drums have to be filled in Havelock, transported to the wharf with a forklift, then lifted one-by-one onto my boat,” Orchard said.
“Then, once I get home, I’ve got to throw them one-by-one into the sea, roll them up the beach, and tractor them to the shed. Then I’ve got to lift them up with the tractor to syphon them into my tanks, so I can measure the fuel with a pump when it’s going out. It’s at least two days’ work.”
His wife, Ellen, described their life since July as being in a “beautiful prison”.
The first time they saw their family was two months after the flood, when their daughter and four-year-old grandson made the trip out from Nelson. Their daughter, a hairdresser by trade, offered to cut residents’ hair.
“They were lining up out the door. She had a full schedule … They paid her $10 extra because they were so appreciative.”
Semi-retired farmer Helen Dowle has been farming sheep, cattle and alpacas with her husband, Ally, in the Kenepuru Sound for almost five years.
The couple had planned to export some lambs at the beginning of August but, with the road closure, couldn’t do so until September. This caused them to use up more feed than they’d planned, throwing them into a food shortage right as their ewes were trying to nurse hundreds of new lambs.
Their bay was also facing a “critical” shortage of fuel.
“We don’t mind being isolated, otherwise we wouldn’t have bought a place out here. But we bought a place with the expectation that we’d always have road access,” Helen said.
They had to rely on their boat, which used three times more fuel than their car, couldn’t be launched at low tide and, without radar, was dangerous to drive at night. The smallest weather change made it “unpleasant” to be on.
The couple felt they’d been transported back half a century.
“We’re very frustrated by the time it’s taken to get going on it. [The council] seemed to assess the situation for six weeks before they started work on it … Why not give us single-lane access then, one at a time, do the big jobs?” Ally said.
Hopewell Lodge co-owner Lynley Perkins used to love listening to the sound of the rain. Now, it made her nervous, wondering “what will it bring next?”
“I used to worry about little things like sandflies and when I have to cut the grass next, and now I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘How do we survive this?'” Perkins said.
“It’s hard to work out if we’re losing business because of the road closure, or because of Covid-19, or a combination.”
The lodge used to attract a lot of road traffic. Some were clients. But a fair few were what Perkins called “turners”: people who had taken a scenic tour of Kenepuru Rd and, upon reaching its end after 72km, needed a spot to turn around.
“I can remember laughing to Mike [her husband] one day, ‘Sometimes I wish we were just boat-access only’,” she said.
Now they were, and people were still booking in. Perkins was writing to each one to let them know of the road closure. Some were calling her, nervous about the summer holidays.
“I think you move in here with your eyes wide open … This is not going to be the last time that this happens,” Perkins said.
Nor was it the first. She pulled out the book she was re-reading, which recounted the life of Manaroa Bay couple John and Denise Harvey. It talked of a “big flood” in the 1950s that caused 56 landslides, one starting from 600m up.
Raetihi Lodge co-owners and operators Liane and Alan Campbell said the July flood had turned them into a “boat or air access” lodge overnight, requiring a total business rethink.
They quickly realised the water taxi charges would prevent couples and small groups from wanting to travel out, even with the council’s “absolutely amazing” subsidy, so started sailing to Havelock to pick them up. This came at a cost, as did boating food over.
But the Campbells weren’t passing the cost on to their customers. Instead, they were taking it on the chin to keep their prices attractive. The alternative? Bringing down the curtains and heading back to their other home in Wellington.
“We do coffee here for $4.80. It’s probably cheaper than it is in town and it’s coming from Wellington,” Alan said.
Liane said it was the community’s nature to problem-solve.
“There’s a little bird that goes out that tells everyone when we’re heading into town and if people want to come, they can. We’re not the only ones that do that … We all chip in.”
While many residents were on the inside looking out, Nopera Bay residents Dave McFarlane and Dorothy Lewis were stuck outside looking in.
The couple travelled to Blenheim a day before the deluge to check on their family’s holiday home. They had two bags of clothes between them; enough for four days.
“No-one was expecting that much rain,” McFarlane said.
When the road closed, it left the couple with one option: barge their car and trailer back for a few hundred dollars. But they realised if they went home, they would have to barge out every few weeks to make doctors’ appointments.
It wasn’t financially doable.
The couple decided to stay in Blenheim. They have visited their home once to collect more personal items.
Marlborough Roads manager Steve Murrin said one of the biggest issues was that Kenepuru Rd pre-dated modern safety and engineering codes, so couldn’t just be put back together.
His team had also made a point of checking fragile sites after every new weather event, having watched several sections disappear down the slope in the weeks following the storm.
“We are continuing to explore solutions to gain safe access for residents, even if it’s only temporary single-lane access.”‘
The end of the road closure is now in sight. Last week the council announced that residents would be able to drive along the full length of Kenepuru Rd from 30 November, provided they had a permit, and their vehicle wasn’t too long or heavy.
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency top of the south system manager Andrew James said authorities would look at whether to open the road to the public before April next year.
“We’re aware that there may be some disappointment around the short-term outlook for unrestricted public access on Kenepuru Rd, but we’ve made these decisions with public and residents’ safety in mind, and also the safety and efficiency of our work crews working on the ground.”
Marlborough Mayor John Leggett thanked residents for the resilience and patience they had shown while the recovery crews put in the “hard yards”.
For Ross Withell, and other Kenepuru Sound residents, their perseverant nature had been tested over the past four months.
“The frustration was seemingly that nothing was being done … for so long. Now, at last, we’re getting some action. We’re over the worst of the frustration. It’s just a matter of waiting for the rest to be fixed.”
Local Democracy Reporting