Holidaymakers in Marlborough rescued by mud-covered fire chief after night of landslides around them

A Christchurch couple had to message emergency services through a friend in Auckland after a mud slip caused by heavy rain took out two baches beside them in the Marlborough Sounds.

Christchurch woman Lucy Clark and her husband Alastair thought their “mini break” in Pukenui Bay, off Queen Charlotte Drive, would be “wonderful” until the weather went “wild”.

During their first day at the bach, their neighbour, a long-term resident, told them the heavy rain that had been battering the upper South Island on Friday night had caused the road out to collapse by a metre, trapping them in the bay.

Later that day, at 10pm, the couple heard noises to the right of their bach “like gun fire, rocks crumbling, water rushing”.

The noise got “worse and worse” until the couple felt forced to investigate at 1am, on Sunday morning.

“It was so dark. We could hear it, but not see it. Rocks were being thrown against the baches, glass was smashing. My husband went up to the main access road but all he could see was movement. It was too scary for words,” Clark said.

By this point, the bay’s mobile coverage was down.

“We were feeling quite desperate. We felt we were alone. There wasn’t anywhere we could go. It was really awful.”

Clark tried messaging the Marlborough District Council, its civil defence team and police using Facebook. When no-one replied, she messaged a friend in Auckland who was online.

“At first she thought it was a hoax, until I convinced her it was me and that we were in trouble. She got in touch with the fire brigade, who connected her to the brigade in Linkwater [Marlborough Sounds], who activated an alarm.

“But they quickly realised it was way too dangerous to rescue us … They said they would talk to us in the morning.”

The next morning, on Sunday, the Clarks were “devastated” to see a 15-metre-wide landslide had “taken out” at least two baches in the bay. One was completely covered in debris.

“A man from one of the baches had escaped to our neighbour’s bach during the night … We were trapped. We could only shout across the mud at them,” Clark said.

The Clarks put most of their belongings in their car, knowing they would have to leave it when they were rescued, and packed an emergency bag and waited. Help arrived at 9am in the form of Linkwater’s chief fire officer Simon Lamb.

“He was covered in mud. Simon said, ‘I’ve come to walk you out’, and we said, ‘We’ll go wherever you take us’,” Clark said.

They had to “scramble” through mud to reach the bay’s shore, before being walked to Belvue Bay. The Clarks were then taken to Linkwater’s Smiths Farm Holiday Park on a ute.

On Monday morning the couple hitched a ride with some fellow Smiths Farm Holiday Park visitors and secured tickets on the InterCity bus running between Picton and Christchurch.

“The rental car companies have said there are no cars in Picton because people haven’t returned them. This weather has had far-reaching effects … The people of Marlborough are amazing. Everyone we met helped us without question.”

Lamb, a resident of Queen Charlotte Drive, said the Christchurch couple were two of five people he walked out of Pukenui Bay. The other three were a couple and their son.

“As soon as there was light, we went there.”

He said the slip happened at 1.30am on Sunday morning, leaving a walk along the beach at low tide the only way out.

Johnson’s barge operation manager Jonathan Everett said the company had helped Leslie Bros Contracting sail a digger to Belvue Bay on Sunday to start clearing slips.

Smiths Farm Holiday Park co-owner and Marlborough Sounds ward councillor Barbara Faulls said a campervan owner who sought shelter at the park on Sunday was quite shaken.

“In all the time I’ve lived in this valley, this is the worst I’ve ever seen the roads. The sheer amount of slips on the hills around the valley is just phenomenal. It’s utter devastation.”

Faulls recorded 270mm of rain in about two days.

Marlborough emergency services manager Brian Paton said while Marlborough Sounds residents were used to being stranded, often keeping back-up supplies, tourists were not.

“There are people who have booked baches who won’t have taken an extra two weeks worth of food with them because they planned to come back at the end of the school holidays.

“They’re the ones that are probably going to need our help.”

Paton was unsure how many vacationers were trapped in holiday homes, but said “a lot” had contacted his team.

The Civil Defence team was undertaking reconnaissance work on Monday to determine how many people were in need of assistance, with the aim of running welfare flights in the coming days.

“At this stage there are some communities in the Marlborough Sounds we haven’t heard from, so we’re proactively trying to contact them.

“There are probably a lot of places with no power or telecommunications, so they can’t talk to us and we can’t talk to them.”

Paton said they would prioritise opening roads, before getting power up and running, and then mobile coverage.

Marlborough Tour Company chief executive Abbe Hutchins said Cougar Line’s skippers and crew had worked throughout the weekend to deliver groceries and evacuate families and travellers from the Marlborough Sounds and the Queen Charlotte Track.

Cougar Line had also transported contractors into the Sounds so they could get to work on restoring services.

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett said on Monday that the region’s emergency response team was now focusing on recovery.

“Our communities are resourceful. We know many of them have already connected with their neighbours and are providing each other with support while the agencies involved in our response reach them,” he said.

“Recovery involves getting a full assessment of the damage, clearing and repairing roads, and restoring power and telecommunications lines around the region. Our teams have been in the air today doing as much aerial reconnaissance as possible.

“The good news is that our helicopter survey beginning with the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds this morning – which included Endeavour Inlet and Arapaoa Island – found far less damage to buildings than we were expecting. Aerial reconnaissance of the Pelorus Sound is underway now.”

Coastguard, Department of Conservation and the council’s Harbours boats were out on the water checking in with individual bays and communities in the Queen Charlotte Sound, Leggett said.

“Although there is a lot of work ahead of us, we are a resilient region and we will get through this. We will continue working with the many Marlborough-based agencies, organisations and iwi to get our region back up and running.”

Spark cell phone coverage was restored to Picton on Monday morning. The council’s rivers team continued to make emergency repairs to patch three breaches and one near-breach of the stopbank system.

Traffic management on QueenCharlotte Drive

• Closed 9am to noon.

• Open noon to 1pm.

• Closed 1pm to 5pm.

• Open 5pm to 7pm.

• Closed 7pm, with manned checkpoint until 9am recording vehicles and resident entry only.

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