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Mud and water forms a sinkhole at Omarunui Road in Hawke's Bay.
Image: the sinkhole at Omaranui Road, Hawke’s Bay. Photograph by Florence Charvin.

BooksApril 2, 2023

When the water rushes in: a dispatch from Hawke’s Bay

Mud and water forms a sinkhole at Omarunui Road in Hawke's Bay.
Image: the sinkhole at Omaranui Road, Hawke’s Bay. Photograph by Florence Charvin.

Part two of writer Marty Smith’s reporting from her flood-damaged home.

Read part one here.

Sunday 12 March, 21 days after the floods.

Google Maps shows a pale blue line for the flat-lined bridge between Taradale and Waiohiki and sends you instead over the Expressway to Merge Like A Zip, then onto Links Rd to drive along the course the river ran down. 

Omarunui Rd is open and at the golf course end the mud lies in slumps on the greens and Maree’s native nursery is washed clean of all her small plants in pots. The houses up on Breckenridge Heights sit pristine above a roadside scattered with lumps of ruined things in rough piles and a rough hand-sprayed sign saying  Private Property   We don’t call 111 

The grass is fresh and untouched and, 100 yards on, trees wear muddy skirts. The mud line on the shelterbelts is above head height in a monstrous moonscape of grey-drying mud smothered on with a giant brush. The red-stickered houses squat silently embedded; there is neither animal nor man nor any buzz of orchard machinery in the deep silent plaster of drying mud. 

There’s no gap for vehicles between the orange cones; they’re right across the road that leads to the bridge and its snapped-off stumps. The earth-moving machines are silent; there’s no sign of Pearl and her digger building back the abutments beside the house that hangs out over where the river carved its garden into a cliff.  

Mud and water forms a sinkhole at Omarunui Road in Hawke's Bay.
The sinkhole at Omaranui Road, Hawke’s Bay. (Photo: Florence Charvin).

The Hub is set up in the packhouse shed of the half-drowned Vicarage winery at the start of Omarunui Rd – or the end, depending on which way you look. The vineyard traffic is farmers and their families coming and going in dribs and drabs to pick up pieces to take back to wherever they washed up.

It’s best bright early autumn, sun shining out on the rotted rusting vines. Silty sand puffs up in fine dust wherever people step and paspalum pokes its tough little shoots up the mud under the police caravan parked with its awning. A policeman in dark overalls stands patiently waiting, and he’s got combat boots on. And a vest covered in THINGS.

There’s no one on a Sunday and it’s too hot for policemen in heavy protection to stand around in the sun with not much to do except pass time with the fire department lady. He’s out of sight in shade when I pull in and park. 

The fire lady is all kindliness as she comes across the dust; she finally has a body to tend to. I see no reason to tell her there’s no digger, so I get out and crane my head to hear only whistling birds floating above vine leaves lifting in the breeze.

The cop clumps down the caravan steps, he wants to help as well, and I’m checking out his vest, then he’s right within my range, and I’m drawn straight to his chest like a little clamping magnet. 

It’s a stab vest, surely. The different shaped pockets clearly have purposes, and they’re right in front of my eyes.

I point at one and say, “what’s that for?” I lift my sunnies and peer, because I can, and I have excellent near sight.

The fire lady is extremely interested and moves in beside me and I’m as close as I can get without touching. I point in careful order, not to miss a weapon out.

“It’s a tourniquet,” he says, pulling it out and holding it up so we can see the parts. “Got to be able to rip it open one handed.”

We get even closer.

I say, “For someone who has been hurt?”

“No, for me,” he says, “in case I get shot.”

He rips the top off in a hurry, one-handed, stretches out the springy bandage and begins to bind the meat.

“How tight?” I say. “How long for? When do you let it off? What about tissue loss?

“Better than bleeding to death,” he says, smacking it back in its slot.  

“What’s that one for?” I point at a short, slender stick, stuck onto his velcro strips.

He draws it out, making us wait. He points the end at us so we can see the orange circle. “Analogue torch with an orange light in case of power failure.”

The next one is fatter; heavy black metal dull at the edges, it’s seen a lot.

“Red light,” he says. “It’s digital. Use the orange one when you can’t use the red one.”

“What’s in there?” I point at a triangular shape.

“Handcuffs!” he cries, pulls them out quick-smart and – Snap! Snap! – he clicks at my wrist, but he doesn’t lock us up, he puts them back.

I pass on the taser, it’s hardly sporting and it’s a nasty colour.

“What’s that?” I point to the empty holster. He was never going to let us have a pop at the birds in the orchard but it’s a shame not to see a gun up close.

“For the Glock,” he says. “Have to have them on different sides.”

“What’s that for?” I point to the pencil-shaped one in a slender pouch.

“It’s the baton,” he says, and he gets it out to show us.

He doesn’t snap out the heavy joints, he only slides them carefully, but he does tap the solid knob on the end of his hand. The fire lady and I are enchanted. We discuss the relative positions for disablement, taking into account that we are short and they are often big and tall. She thinks it’s good because we can go in low and topple them.

“Take them out at the legs,” I offer, but I can see difficulties in getting in close.

“You’d have to keep clear of the torso,” I say. “You don’t want to damage them permanently.”
She nods, and gestures at her chest, “yeah, you have to avoid the torso.” Her eyes light up. “The shoulders!” she shouts. She lifts her elbows and dangles her fingers towards her neck and shoulders, waves them daintily down at the smash site of her shoulder sockets. She blows up her chest to shout. “The shoulders! They can’t do much if they can’t use their arms!”

“What’s that?” I ask, pointing at an ordinary biro.

“It’s for writing,” he says with a triumphant grin, pulling his vest forward theatrically, reaching behind like Sherlock Holmes. He whips out a notebook with a flourish. It’s leather and black, he flips the top and pretends to write.

“Old-fashioned writing’s the best,” he says. “They don’t like it when you start writing things down.”

I’m very interested in notebooks, but he puts it away before I get a good look. It’s like Dad’s black tallybook that he snapped shut with an elastic band, and now I want one too.

I like to know details so I tell him: “We lived way out in the middle of nowhere. There was always a shotgun behind the door. Dad was a marksman in the army and he told us, ‘Don’t shoot them in the chest, that’s murder. Shoot them in the foot, that’ll slow them down.’”

We all agree that it would slow them down efficiently. We think it would probably be OK.

Back in the badlands, in the Red-Sea parting through the monstrous mud, Kayla from Whakatāne is standing in the shade of a brown tree, operating STOP-GO. She waves and bends down to window level so she can smile her sweet smile but I have to GO with a truck in behind, and I’m looking out for Joe. 

I wanted to check whirlpools and the barricade across the road to the Puketapu Bridge, of orange plastic blocks locked together behind a barrier of dumped mud to stop someone driving straight into space.

Flo and I lifted the wire and went round the edge with the Council lady and tiptoed to the start of the concrete path that countless kids spilled down as they raced to the river. It was solid and safe and soundless under mud. The Council lady stared absently through the leaves as they lifted and fell, and then she spotted some crumpled undies.

She drew on her fag, noting, “they wouldn’t be the first.”

“They’re fresh!” said Flo, surprised. “They hav-EENT got MUD on THEEM.” 

It was eerie walking without sound under the beeches as they fluttered in the warm breeze, with saplings laid down brown and willow buds coming out green in the mud. The river ran low and fully brown and gurgled sweetly down in its new-made grooves. 

It was hushed. Water roared through and above our heads. When we looked up we could see where it roared in the trees, then cathedral-quiet when we looked through the leaves and looked and looked at the massive central support columns lying on the berms, battle-weary and broken down in the sand.

Joe was leaning on the bonnet of his ute when we pulled in off the mud to park in the ruts of the deeper mud.  He was wearing a hard hat and fluoros, and socks with peach coloured slides.

Do the slides make it easier to walk on the mud?”

“Nah, my boots are contaminated and they stink and I can’t have them in the ute.”

Joe’s the site manager for the whole lot, and he’s Pearl’s boss as well. He was drawing a site plan on a piece of A4 with a biro, on the bonnet of his ute.

He looked up and stared at the huge fallen trees, rootballs trailing behind and huge logs and small logs and smashed twisted branches and apple trees turned into matchsticks and said, “People think it’s slash. It’s not. It’s all fresh.”

Trees are uprooted on Omarunui Road in Hawke's Bay.
Image: uprooted trees and knots of roots on Omaranui Road. Photography by Florence Charvin.

All we could do was stare at it strung out along the new shingle bank above the deep sinkhole sunken under the rip of the stopbank breach, all tied up in piles of mud and metal and fences.

“When water comes out in force,” he said, “it hits a corner and it drills its way down and finds the weakest point in the ground, and it pokes its nose through and it forces its way up. Water will go where it wants to.”

He stared broodingly at the massive mess, and said, “It washes through and it comes back. Same as up Swamp Rd.” 

He barely glanced at the big NH 90 Defence Force helicopter beating up and down just behind the trees, they do it all day long. He gazed back at the carnage and said frowning, “How would you even know where to start?”

Keep going!