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.
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.”
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.