I think we can all agree 2016 was a crazy year. Trump, Brexit, the Syrian crisis, the Panama Papers, celebrity deaths. Every year is eventful, yet there seems to be a feeling of incredulity over 2016.
It’s been a rather eventful year for me too. The final flourish was being caught in the middle of an earthquake in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Just after midnight on the 14th November, I was shaken from a light sleep. After enduring about a minute of violent tremors, my dorm-mates and I rushed outside and drove inland to escape the potential tsunami.
It wasn’t until 8am that the tsunami warning was rescinded and we felt safe enough to return to our hostel. We then discovered the extent of the quake and heard of serious damage to all three roads out of Kaikoura.
Over the next few days, nearly a thousand tourists were evacuated by boat and helicopter. Naomi and I were stuck with our car, waiting for a road to reopen. The aftershocks continued, water was scarce, the sewage system was broken, and the town was facing a summer without tourists - it’s primary source of income.
Two weeks later, we left in an escorted convoy along the patched-together Inland Road. We were relieved to leave, but our thoughts were with the residents of Kaikoura. For them, a barren summer loomed.
I have never experienced anything like this. I was scared, it felt surreal, but I learnt a few things.
Firstly, people are generous and resilient. The morning after the earthquake, we were still parked in a farmer’s paddock with twenty other cars, waiting for the tsunami warning to end. The farmer invited us into his home and served hot drinks and snacks. His house was chaos. Every single item had been thrown onto the floor, smashed glass everywhere. And yet he took the time to chat and provide food and drinks. This was the first of many acts of kindness we were to receive.
A few days after the quake, we were taken in by a family and given a bedroom. Our hosts were busy and scared, but delighted to have people staying. The whole experience was a reminder of how kind people are, despite what the constant barrage of negative news may have us believe.
Times of difficulty not only expose the importance of human connection, but also the insignificance of stuff. As soon as the initial tremors stopped, we all grabbed warm clothes and a few belongings and rushed outside. I took my waterproof, head-torch, wallet, car keys, and Kindle(?!). I left everything else. In the stress of the moment, it felt like we might never see our stuff again. The hostel could’ve collapsed, or been carried away by a tsunami, or even looted. But we didn’t miss what we’d left behind. It didn’t seem important.
Simple routines, on the other hand, did prove to be important. We walked to the local supermarket each day, and strolled to a port-a-loo each night. We fed two lambs that our hosts looked after, and washed our clothes by hand. We bought ice-creams and ate them on the high street. Activities like these helped us to relax and returned a sense of normality.
Our time in Kaikoura - without clean water, proper toilets, or frequent showers - also reminded us to appreciate basic necessities that we so often take for granted. One quickly adapts to new situations, especially when life returns to normal, but it was a brief lesson in gratitude for things like sanitation and security.
Most importantly, we learned that nature is powerful and we are small. The overwhelming feeling I remember from the earthquake (and each aftershock) was a lack of control. The ground was sliding and shaking beneath me and there was nothing I could do. We are just one small part of the natural world. We’d do well to respect it more.
I’m now ending 2016 on a peaceful campsite with views of a brilliantly blue lake and snow-capped mountains. We’ve been hiking, reading, Netflixing, and drinking. A fine way to bring in the hopefully less turbulent new year.