Thursday, May 10, 2012

'After The Earthquake' - article in The Surfer's Journal

It’s not every day your life flashes before your eyes. I was walking along a busy urban street in New Zealand’s second largest city, drinking a cup of takeaway coffee, glancing up towards the sky and wondering if I could squeeze a surf in before dark. The wind looked promising, and a few rays of insipid sunlight were trying to squeeze through the cloud cover. Without warning the ground lurched violently. Chunks of masonry sheared off tall buildings overhead, smashing onto the footpath inches away. Along with thousands of others all across Christchurch, I was thrown to the ground. Some, like I, tried to regain our feet to avoid the falling concrete and exploding windows, only to be knocked over again. Others remained foetal on the ground. Shop frontages blew out and then whole buildings started collapsing, like a scene from a bad Spielberg movie that we were stuck in the middle of. But it was the noise, an unfathomable, sonorous roar from deep within the earth that stuck in my mind. It sounded like the world was tearing itself apart. Twenty seconds of terrifying, destructive chaos, time enough to take the lives of scores around me, annihilate half of Christchurch’s Central Business District and damage nearly every building in a city of 400,000. The street I had been walking along was now choked with dust and debris, and completely unrecognisable. My favourite café where I purchased the coffee from minutes earlier was a pile of bricks, along with my favourite bookshop on the other side of the road. And amidst the immediate aftermath of sirens, alarms and cries for help from people trapped in destroyed buildings, I realised that life would never be the same.
At 12.51pm on February 22nd, a cloudy summer’s day with an offshore breeze cooling the temperature, the coastal city of Christchurch copped a 6.3 magnitude earthquake right on the nose. Nearly 200 people were killed and thousands injured. This was our second major earthquake in less than five months. In the early hours of September 4th, a 7.1 magnitude shake – much deeper within the earth’s crust and therefore less destructive – threw us from our beds. Then, the city suffered moderate damage, but nothing compared to the shallower and more violent February quake that followed. People lost loved ones, homes and businesses, all in less than half a minute. For a population as small as New Zealand’s, the second quake brought a city, and a country, to its knees. Once the ground had stopped shaking, with police shouting at us to clear the area and streets gridlocked with vehicles, I decided to leave the CBD on foot. Three hours and 10 miles later, after avoiding craters in the roads and footpaths and watching panicked drivers disappear into them, wading through sewerage and wastewater and silt from liquefaction, seeing slumped bridges, crushed houses, fallen trees and snapped power lines, and peoples’ faces everywhere wide-eyed, blank and lost, I reached home. Surprisingly our house, built on a narrow sand dune peninsula with the coast on one side and estuary on the other, was still standing. But, along with so many other dwellings along our street, it had developed a rather sharp lean. Foundations had torn apart. The front door was blown open, deadlocks exploded outwards. Flooding lapped at the concrete step and, in the back yard, sand volcanoes erupted out of cracks in the ground. Inside, apparently someone had let a rogue bull run-riot. After checking that all of our neighbours were okay, I scratched around in the bombsite for a gas cooker, scooped water out of the toilet cistern and made a hot drink. Power, phone, water and sewerage were down. I found a transistor radio and turned it on to bury the silence. Shelley arrived home an hour later, wide-eyed, exhausted and covered in grime, and we hugged as if our lives depended on it. The next morning there wasn’t much Shelley and I could do other than start a long, slow process of picking up the pieces. My neighbour Phil called by to say he’d been for a walk along the beach. The bar was breaking, chest-high and glassy. Tension released like a flood as I dropped down that first smooth, curling wall with all the promise it held. Phil and I were probably the only people surfing in Christchurch that morning. It felt damn good to be alive. Between sets, we sat looking back towards shore and a huge cloud of dust hanging over the city.
Later that day, the local council started releasing raw sewerage into the sea. With the waste treatment system shattered, it was either the ocean or the streets. Months later, they’re still doing it. Sand and silt have clogged the system and it could take over a year to fix. The coastline is fast becoming a cesspool of sewerage scum, and anyone who enters it likely to contract gastro-interitus, hepatitis or something equally as noxious. The tidal zone smells like the morning after a night of too much Indian food and red wine. Access to the ocean has literally been taken away. You never fully realise the importance of something in your life until you can’t get it anymore, and especially so when it’s right there across the road, reminding you day after day. The new local is now two hours drive away on Banks Peninsula, a remote beach break that gets crowded on a Wednesday mid-morning low tide. Sometimes, weeks go by between sessions.
Surf photographer Warren Hawke lives a few doors down from us on the same finger of sand. Like our place and hundreds of others along the street, his has been earmarked for demolition. ‘Not much to look forward,’ I comment over coffee one morning. Right on cue, another aftershock rattles the ground, and we both grab our cups to avoid spillage. ‘Enough of this, let’s go on a trip,’ Warren replies. ‘There’s nothing better when the shit’s hitting the fan.’ So we do, three carloads of Christchurch surfing refugees driving about as far south as you can get, along narrow, windy roads flanked by chequered farmland, through non-descript towns with high pub-to-local ratios and past endless herds of dairy cows. Our base for the trip is a remote and ramshackle two-storey coastal ‘holiday home’ with complimentary sagging floorboards, mouldy carpet and peeling wallpaper. But there’s a decent log burner, a trailer-load of dry firewood and plenty of low-slung comfy chairs. Surf checks can be made from the upstairs balcony, and entry onto a long sandy beach, and clean ocean beyond, achieved down a rickety wooden stairwell. A cutting southerly announces our arrival and the premature coming of winter. Low-lying cloud clings to farmland across the bay, and thick hills of deep-green forest rise above it. Apart from the smooth curvature of the bay, the coastline is rocky, jagged and unforgiving. Through dull evening haze, a small cluster of fishing vessels huddles in the lee of a distant headland.
Warren had predicted the building south swell which now thrashes against an outside reef, lumpy and as raw as the wind. The swell lines then bend in towards us, before lurching up and dumping messily on the shore. The wind corrugates the bay with an ugly cross-chop, but Warren reckons it will swing. ‘Don’t worry, this’ll clean up,’ he says. Warren has been coming here for decades – last making the pilgrimage a year ago – and is confident of picking the conditions. The rest of us shrug our shoulders, before heading back inside to stoke up the fire. English poet Philip Larkin once wrote: ‘If I were called in to construct a religion I should make use of water.’ Various terms and ideas get bandied about in relation to surfing. Why is it so important? What does it mean? Is it a sport, a religion, or something even more fundamental? I don’t know and don’t give it a thought most of the time. But moments of stress can bring with them extended periods of checking for lint in the belly button. And what I realise is this: I’ve felt the urge to chase waves for three quarters of my life. That’s longer than anything else save the fundamentals. Yes, there are other things that make me feel just as alive. I relish the search for physical and mental challenges that put me in the flow of the experience, things like climbing, mountain biking and writing. But it was surfing that helped me first realise this perspective through which I could suss out the rest of the world. And it’s surfing that I usually turn to when everything else feels confusing or gets too disjointed. That’s why I agreed to travel south with Warren, despite there being so much to sort out at home, not to mention lucky that my wife recognised when a boys’ trip was needed. No doubt the other guys have their own version of this. As Al T says the first evening, while we sit around the fire, drinking beers and staring at the flames: ‘I just need some waves.’
Al Te Moananui’s Maori surname translates as Big Sea. An automatic invitee when the local big wave competitions ran a few years back, Al gets amped about the same time I start thinking about exiting the water for personal safety reasons. A few months before the earthquake, Warren showed me some photos he took of Big Al cage fighting. ‘After the initial exchanges, Al just used the other guy for target practise,’ Warren pointed out at the time. When I query Al on his apparent narcissistic streak, he shakes his head. ‘It’s nothing like that. I’ve just done martial arts for a few years now, and I see this as a good way to test of my skills. You’re in there and it’s all on.’ ‘Fair enough,’ I say. Note to self: Do not take issue with him over who gets the last beer. ‘So, when’s your next fight?’ ‘I’ve got one coming up soon in Timaru. Apparently the guy I beat last time wants a rematch.’ ‘Really!’ Warren adds. ‘He must be a slow learner eh?’
I wake around dawn to the high pitch of a dog yipping somewhere. It ignores my attempt at mental ‘shut the f__k up’ telepathy. The sky is still overcast, and flat sepia-toned light filters through the window. Outside, the dark, sabre-shaped leaves of cabbage trees rustle with the wind in what looks like the right direction. As Warren predicted, the wind has swung offshore. ‘No rush, the banks need more water,’ he says when I wander out into the kitchen in search of Joe. The young guys Luke and Tom don’t care. They’re busy wolfing Weet Bix and bread rolls like alley cats, smiling at each other like they’re privy to some personal joke. Thirty-something’s Jay and Al take their time while Jonny’s still upstairs, sucking paint off the ceiling. After a second coffee and decent portion of Warren’s fry up, I settle for a wander along the sickle-shaped bay. The wind still has a wintery bite to it, reminding me that nothing but a few paltry islets separate this coast from the Antarctic. Apart from a couple of bored-looking seagulls and a lone oyster-catcher ferreting in the shallows, the beach is deserted. In summer, the nearby camping ground proves justifiably popular with eco-tourists, although occasionally visitors get closer to nature than intended. I remember reading in some newspaper that the local Department of Conservation staff resorted to placing stuffed beanbags shaped as sea lions along the shore. Apparently, horny juvenile male sea lions were bursting into tents and terrorising unsuspecting campers. But the article reported that tourists were the only ones being fooled by the beanbags, giving them a wide berth when going for a stroll along the beach. The leftfield beanbag idea doesn’t surprise me. I’ve surfed here a few times in the past, and always found the locals a funny, quirky bunch. By mid tide, the line-up in front of our accommodation is working nicely. Although Al’s complaining about a lack of size, he still manages to revel in the perky, head-high A-frames, slugging any unsuspecting lips and causing facial mayhem. Warren lurks in the sand dunes with his long lens, occasionally doing the sand fly shuffle when the little beggars breach his armoury of clothing.
Fifteen-year-old Luke O’Neill paddles quickly over from the next peak with a funny look on his face; a female sea lion has taken a shine to him. Tall, quietly spoken and with a smile young ladies no doubt go gaga over, Luke is the current national junior longboard champion. But he pretty much rips on anything. Today he’s drawing mature lines on a 5’6” mini-Simmons shaped by Australian import Jay Jackman, and not looking too happy about his flippered companion. ‘I just saw this bow wave and didn’t know what it was at first,’ Luke says, trying to encourage the sea lion to tag on to one of us. She follows him round like a lost puppy, and we laugh at his misfortune. Jay calls out good ‘luck with the first date’ as Luke decides to head to shore for his longboard. Between sets, and having earlier picked up on his Australian accent, I ask Jay what he’s doing this side of the Tasman, especially given that the water temperature’s about 10 degrees colder. ‘My wife and I came over from Sydney for a holiday,’ he says. ‘We loved Christchurch so much that we decided to stay. Sydney’s just too large, you know. It takes forever to get anywhere.’ In need of an income, Jay set up shop in Christchurch’s industrial zone and started shaping under the Sadhana Surfboards label. And through the last three years, his clientele has been steadily growing. ‘How’d your factory handle the quake?’ ‘Not too bad,’ Jay replies. ‘Damage to the building, and all of our boards got dinged to some extent. It could have been much worse, though. At least we’re all alive eh?’
We both stare into space, thinking about what if’s, until young Tom Owens drops into a peaky wave in front of us and sets his rail. This is Tom’s first session on his new Sadhana 6’0” Bonzer, and his grin says it all through another bowling section; a grin so infectious that talk of the earthquake is quickly forgotten. Tom makes wetsuits for a living and bears a striking resemblance to Australian icon Wayne Lynch in his younger days, complete with the hefty dark mop of hair. A few years older than Luke, the two live just down the road from each other and are good mates. Tom spends his weekends doing ding repairs at Jay’s factory. Nursing a hangover, Jonny Wardrop is last into the water. A compact, quietly spoken but scruffy-dressing Cantabrian, Jonny somehow morphs into a clean-cut physics teacher at a swanky religious school. ‘The work is reliable and the holidays are good,’ he explains. ‘Yeah, but physics? That’s pretty dry,’ I comment. Jonny smiles. ‘At least the students in my class want to learn. In some of the other subjects they can’t be bothered. Actually I like teaching physics. It’s all about wave energy and motion.’ ‘I can understand that,’ I reply, nodding but having no idea what he’s on about. I failed basic physics at high school, and haven’t touched it since. Hung over or not, Jonny sorts his board angle equations with precision. For a little guy, he puts up quite a rooster tail. It’s not fair how flexible he appears, and I have to stop paddling to watch.
Bring boys, boards and beers together and, sure enough, bullshit follows. In the evening, Jay regales us with tales of his ‘first time’ with a rather robust girl next to a, presumably, robust letterbox. Then he moves on to another girl nicknamed ‘Handy Smurf’ and has us in hysterics. My jaw aches from laughing so hard. I lean back and take in the combined warm glow from the fire, beers and companionship. The earthquake feels on a different planet. And it’s welcome to stay there. Next morning it’s Al’s turn for a post-breakfast amble along the beach. Sometime later he comes jogging back waving his arms in the air as he draws closer. This is quite animated for Al. ‘The river mouth,’ he says, catching his breath. ‘The right-handers are walling, really bloody walling.’ A mile down the road, we launch from hastily-packed vehicles, suit up, jump the fence, race across the paddock while avoiding minefield-sized cowpats – still steaming – and gather meerkat-like on the highest sand dune. Al’s call is spot on. One after the other, a set fires off across the bank, accelerating into the shallows. The faces are thoughtfully groomed by a gentle north-westerly funnelling down the valley. Warren shuffles along to find a suitable vantage point to shoot from.
Al and Jonny, riding standard shortboard thrusters, position themselves for the outside bombs while Luke and Tom hug the inside racers with Mister Simmons and Mister Bonzer. Jay and I hover in the middle, jack-of-all-trades like, Jay on one of his quad-fin creations and me on a Roger Hall twin keel fish. The sets keep coming.
I love the rhythm surfing allows for: the waiting, paddling, catching, riding, paddling and waiting again balances me in a way that nothing else I’ve experienced in over three decades of trying comes close to. Occasionally there’s mind-blowing intenseness in make-or-break late drops, but usually the feeling spreads in a comforting glow – like when you’re cold, pee in your wetsuit and it feels all warm, but without the stale stink afterwards. And here are a group of guys, aged 15 to 43 with various surfing backgrounds on a range of boards, hooting and acting like kids. Luke’s the only one with an excuse, and he’s probably the most reserved. Jay, Luke and Tom head back in the afternoon, work and school calling. The rest of us decide to stay on, despite a forecast for more gale force southerlies and snow to 400 metres. And this is escape? We hunker down for another stormy evening, stoking up the fire and listening to the wind. Warren outdoes himself at dinner, making Sheppard’s Pie, though I guess it’s not surprising given his comments towards the ‘good looking’ southern sheep which can be seen out the kitchen window. ‘What defines a good looking sheep?’ Al feels obliged to ask. ‘Clean, not too many dags, preferably off to the freezing works soon.’ Al walks away, shaking his head. You can never travel far or for very long in rural New Zealand without a sheep joke cropping up. Jonny and I look at each other, smile, and take another swig from our beers. Yes, we know we’ve got to head back to Christchurch soon, to continue picking up the pieces. But for now, this’ll do all right.

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