Crews race to re-open Kaikoura's crucial Inland Rd
Roading crews are racing against the clock to re-open the Inland Rd, a crucial lifeline into earthquake-stricken Kaikoura. Reporter Oliver Lewis took a ride the day before the 5.7-quake temporarily halted repairs.
A cascade of water rushes down the sheer rock face, dislodging small boulders and sending them tumbling to the strip of road below.
The helicopter veers away, trailing an 800-litre monsoon bucket as it flies off over a particularly munted stretch of the Inland Rd in search of more water.
Munted might not be the technical term, but Downer New Zealand South Island general manager Scott Ford thinks it fits the bill.
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As the man in charge of reopening the road, Ford is well-aware of how important the lifeline is for getting supplies into Kaikoura.
"I was born here, this is my home town, but I'm also the general manager of Downer so I understand the risks, what's acceptable and what's not," he says.
Driving in from the Kaikoura end, the risks soon become obvious: Big cracks in the road surface and slabs of pavement that have subsided near the edges.
But compared to what it was like last Wednesday, when Ford arrived back from the United States after running the New York Marathon, it is looking far better.
"This is Rolls Royce compared to what it was," he says, gesturing out the window of the Toyota Hilux.
"But it's going to get bumpy from here on out, every gully we go into is going to be that bad or worse."
Since they hit the ground last Monday, Downer have sent in 14 roading crews as well as extra sub-contractors to get the road open.
The workers, around 80 in total, are putting in 12-hour days and the administration staff in Kaikoura, working out of Ford's grandparents' house, are doing the same or more.
All of them have been racing against the clock to try and make the road serviceable for later in the week, when it was hoped permitted members of the public would be able to make their way out.
It was supposed to open on Thursday, but a "severe" magnitude-5.7 quake, centred near Greta Valley on Tuesday night means the road will have to be re-assessed to see whether the 30 people who have already registered with Kaikoura Civil Defence can get out.
Leaning out the window Ford has a chat with one of the workers, joking to the man to hurry up and get the road fixed.
"Don't be fussy, be fast," he says.
This prioritisation approach has seen many of the less severe cracks simply filled over, but those that stretch to the middle of the road are more of an issue.
They have to be cut out by diggers, filled with river run (rocks taken from the nearby rivers) and then topped up with aggregate to be compacted.
"In a lot of places the outside has slabbed off, slipped and taken off down the hill so we've got to back it up and make it safe," Ford says.
The process, called benching, is just one of the methods to repair the damage caused by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake.
In one spot, just past the bridge over the Conway River, Ford estimates around 3000 cubic metres of rock came down over the road, wiping half of it out.
Using material from the slip, contractors built up the steep embankment overlooking the river valley, broadening the road to keep vehicles away from falling debris.
Helicopters, called in by Opus, brought in monsoon buckets of water and poured them over the slip face to dislodge loose rocks.
Abseiling teams were also brought in, hanging from the top of the steep cliff to wedge off rocks using crow bars and compressed air bags.
Eventually, the stretch of road Ford is having the most concerns about comes into view, on the south side of a rise called Whales Back down to Lulu's Corner, before Lyford.
Rocks hang suspended in a wire fence above the road, while others have obviously crashed down the rise, coming to rest in muddied tracks in the paddock below.
In front of us a road worker stands talking into a radio to some of the abseiling team working in a strand of pine trees beside the road.
Every so often a rock comes barrelling out of the thicket, coming to a rest on the cracked surface with a resounding thud.
"It's like curling in 3D," a voice crackles through the radio.
After getting the all-clear, Ford drives on, making his way around the cracks before coming to a point where the road narrows to a single corridor.
Thousands of tonnes of rock line the left-hand-side, so many the original assessment was they would not be moved before the road re-opened.
To keep people safe when they start coming through, Ford says there will be strict traffic management systems in place, limiting the number of cars going through at a time.
He also wants a geotechnical engineer stationed nearby, observing the road and making sure the danger from falling rocks is kept to a minimum.
"No one's going to thank you if you open the road and rocks come down and take out a vehicle," he says.
"But there's a certain level of risk you're going to have to accept, because the need is greater."
On a map in their Kaikoura office, someone from Downer has given the inland road a new name: the Kaikoura Emergency Access Road.
Making sure it can open is the priority, but that is only the beginning of the job at hand for Downer and the other contracting companies.
Ford says he knows the roads around the district like the back of his hand.
The damage to the inland road is not as catastrophic as State Highway 1, but he knows the repair process will not be a sprint.
Culverts taking water under the road will have to be cut out and repaired, cracks will need to be fixed and the road will need to be sealed and returned to normal.
"People know what they know and they don't know what they don't," he says.
"It can seem like a pretty simple game, roading, but it's not until you do it that you realise how much there is to it."