No place in the world is completely safe for us humans. If there’s no crime, no terrorism, no disease or poverty, and no dangerous beasts, there’s usually some other menace; in the case of New Zealand, it’s those pesky natural disasters.

Top 10 Fox Glacier campsite
Our camping spot (one of the Top 10 chain) at the township near Fox Glacier

Earthquakes, volcanos and tsunamis are a part of everyday life here. Most places we’ve stayed have a display of guidelines advising what to do if one of these phenomena were to occur.

No place is this more palpable than in Christchurch, which was shaken to its core in February 2011 by a gigantic earthquake that flattened the city and claimed 185 lives. Nearly seven years on, the place is still a building site. Cracked and derelict buildings stand about forlornly, and you can peer through barred-up shop windows to see old open newspapers from the day of the quake. Staring across one of the many flattened open spaces is a cathedral rebuilt with temporary cardboard tubing. Many residents are still waiting for insurance decisions on their properties.

The reality is that 15,000 earthquakes happen every year in New Zealand, and everybody is well primed in how to react. We’ve visited some of our friends who have moved over here, and they educated us well: get under a table, don’t go into the streets or near tall buildings, move into open space if you are outside.

And yet, New Zealand feels so much like home that as an English tourist travelling through, you don’t really feel the threat. After leaving severe-security-alert London, spending five months in South America cautious of the crime risk, and looking ahead to the snakes and spiders of Australia, it has felt like a breath of fresh air to us. For a few terrifying moments in the middle of the night on our South Island road trip – albeit a false alarm – we were reminded that nowhere is safe.

Hearing the sirens in the middle of the night

The West Coast highway is among New Zealand’s most beautiful areas, and also the most remote. There are huge distances between townships (signs warning “last petrol for 200km” are not uncommon), and very little phone or internet signal.

After a day of driving and photo stops, flanked by beaches to our left and mountains to our right, we arrived to stay a night at the small village next to Fox Glacier. After an evening walk out to see the glacier, we settled into our tent to catch up on some sleep.

That was going well until a few minutes before 2am, when we were abruptly awoken by a long and very loud siren. Think of those chilling, deep, slowly ascending and descending tones of the air raid sirens used in World War II – that exact sound.

“What the fuck is that?” we whisper-shrieked simultaneously, and then froze to the spot as the siren wailed on. There didn’t seem to be any commotion around the campsite, but we didn’t have a clue what to do. At least we were as in-the-open as we could possibly be if an earthquake was afoot, but what if…

“Is it a tsunami alarm?” Lisa nervously suggested, and sure enough, we could both recall that sirens are used to alert to an imminent tsunami threat. Neither of us said it, but we were both also thinking about the surrounding mountains with their rockfall and avalanche possibilities.

Looking back at the scenario less than 24 hours later, this thought process seems a bit overblown and illogical. An earthquake wouldn’t require a siren or any other alert to draw attention to it. We were well clear of nearby mountain danger zones, and we were far too high above sea level to be at any tsunami risk. But in that moment, in the middle of the night with war sirens blaring, one does not necessarily behave rationally.

What those sirens in New Zealand really mean…

There turned out to be a simple explanation, of course. “It’s to alert the local fire brigade to an emergency,” the campsite receptionist explained to me in the morning. “They all live around the village, and the first of them to get to the station turns the siren off.”

Sure enough, after a couple of minutes the siren had stopped, but it was a good twenty minutes more until we had completely calmed down and felt sure that there was no danger. I did some frantic googling in the tent to investigate, and found out what the receptionist confirmed.

As it is not feasible for the remote small towns and villages to have full-time fire and emergency services, local volunteers are trained. With communication options limited, the most effective way to bring them quickly to the scene of am emergency is via a loud siren, with the unfortunate side effect of waking everyone else up in the vicinity. Or at least you would think…

“We just sleep through it now,” the receptionist continued. “We’re used to it.”

Fox Glacier Peak Viewpoint
Fox Glacier from Peak Viewpoint – we thought this was better than seeing it up close.

Naturally intrigued, I asked if she knew what exactly had happened last night, but she was none the wiser and explained that it could have been almost anything. “It’s not just fires,” she said. “It could be a medical incident, a road accident – the volunteers have to cover all these things.”

So we go down in history on the long list of tourists frightened witless by the fire brigade sirens. Oh well… at least we know for next time! But even though it was a false alarm, having that moment of panic really brought home to us the very real dangers of travelling in New Zealand. Seeing the glacier again the morning after from Peak Viewpoint reminded us that it’s absolutely worth it.

36 thoughts on “Sound of the sirens: a night fright in rural New Zealand

  1. Hike AsaKite says:

    I was hiking on the local trail near the town, whilst feeling pretty “elevated” ?? … this siren went off and ripped through the silence that was the local forrest, I absoloutely freaked the fk out! Hahaha thank you for this write up, I’ve wondered for years about what the sound was!

  2. Ashleigh says:

    I know this is an old post, but this very moment me and the hubby were just two Brits doing a leisurely walk up Mount John at Lake Tekapo, and off goes an air raid siren, so loud, something I had only ever heard on World War films.
    “What the fuck! Are we about to have a Tsunami? Or earthquake!?” we said to each other.
    Shitting ourselves, we went straight on Google and your post was the first thing I clicked on. We both howled out loud.
    Thank you putting for my mind at rest, two years later 🙂

    • Alex Trembath says:

      That’s hilarious – it’s terrifying isn’t it?! Glad the post was helpful to you 🙂
      Hope you’re enjoying your travels!

  3. rachel anschicks says:

    It’s NYE here in NZ and my husband and I also just heard sirens. Our first thought was an earthquake, but as moments passed without any earth shaking, I came across your post. Thank you!!

  4. Ella U says:

    Oh thank goodness. I just heard a siren about 10 minutes ago and I thought there was a big earthquake or something. We’re just visiting Tekapo for a short holiday, so we had no clue what was going on. Glad that this was not unusual, and I could find your article!

  5. Sina says:

    Omg your article is a lifesaver! Lol Also got woken up little after 3am 😴😨 Looked outside our hotel window. . Calm as anything outside 😂

  6. Karin says:

    Amazing that 4years down the track your article is still putting minds at ease😅. Just heard the sirens while holidaying in Kaikoura. It’s Boxing Day so I recon the volunteers were a bit slow in responding as it went on for ages😂

  7. Lou says:

    I’m a kiwi. Sorry you all had such a frightening experience. Even some city kiwis get a fright. I will try to proactively warn visitors to reduce stress levels. Come back and visi when the world opens up again !!

    • Alex Trembath says:

      Thank you for your comment Lou! We’re hoping to come back again very soon. In fact, some close family may be moving to NZ in the near future, so regular visits will be likely. Can’t wait!

  8. SB says:

    We are tourists and were jolted out of bed at Raglan at 2am with the siren. My first thought was “sh1t! Tsunami! Run uphill!” After paniced fumbling we came across your explanation. Whew! 😀

  9. Carissa says:

    I was just telling a friend about the same experience I had whilst staying near Fox Glacier, and was looking up information about the sirens as they didnt believe me when your post came up. Turns out my experience was your experience – I was in the same place on the same night as you in 2017 and only came across your story today (2022). Thank you for the trip down memory lane, and for proving I was right :p

    • Alex Trembath says:

      Wow Clarissa – that’s incredible to hear you were there as well at the same time! Love to hear stories like this 🙂

      And glad that the article helped settle the debate, haha!

  10. Monika says:

    Haha….I live in Cambridge NZ and the siren is in the next street….ii sounds like it’s in my back yard but I still sleep through it. ….you really do get that used to it.

  11. Helen says:

    You were the first result that came up as an alarm went off in Te Anau just now…!! Thank you for explaining, we freaked out too!

  12. Michele Wrathall says:

    June 2023, have lived in Mosgiel for nearly a year and heard the siren go off as I took my dog on her evening constitutional. Dark windy night with clouds whipping across the sky, hiding the moon and then the siren. Scared the wits out of me. Came inside and googled to find the explanation. Very relieved. Thank you.

  13. Tootz says:

    Thanks for sharing, it’s currently 2am and we are visiting/staying at Franz Josef and the alarms have just woken us up came to google it and found your blog thanks for sharing makes a lot of sense! Feel less worried as I had the same assumptions as you guys at first.

  14. Claudine says:

    We were woken up by the siren close to 2 am at Franz Josef. After an earthquake hit Morocco on Sept 9, and NZ being the direct antipod, the siren was really scary for us. Thanks to this article, we managed to calm down and go back to sleep

  15. Ron says:

    Thank you for your article! I was woken up by the sirens around 3:30 a.m. in Kaikoura and it was scary as hell. It sounded pretty serious and the only thing I could think about was an incoming Tsunami warning. Thanks to your information I could calm down and have a little more rest at this night. 🙂

  16. Michelle says:

    Jan24 – Fox Glacier 5 am : tsunami! Run, wait maybe it’s an earthquake… no movement, where r we? It must be an avalanche… thank goodness for google and your post 🫣. Loving NZ but some info on those sirens would be awesome, my husband was getting us up to evacuate not knowing what to do or where to go.

  17. Jo says:

    Yep, just before 2am here in Kaikoura. Immediate thought being right next to the South Pacific that it was a tsunami. Dressed whole family and got out but no one else to be seen anywhere! Googled and came across this thread. Definitely need the info given to tourists. It’s a story to tell at least 🙂

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