When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the coastal town of Kaikoura, New Zealand two minutes after midnight on Nov. 14, 2016, many travelers were stranded at Hopewell Lodge in Marlborough Sounds. Tremors continued throughout the day and walls of rain pummeled the little ensuite huts on the northern tip of the South Island. Coastal roads ruptured and local streets were flooded. The normally crystalline sea water became brown and milky in tumult, and tsunami warnings prohibited all water activities.
Groups of different nationalities congregated in the Hopewell common room to pass the time as rain pummeled the shore outside. A young German couple played quietly with their toddler while backpackers read well-worn books by the fireplace. Four Australian women hiking the Queen Charlotte Trek played endless rounds of cards while awaiting the reopening of the trail.
Alex Leichtman, 37, had hoped to pass through Kaikoura just days after the earthquake hit.
The Chicago resident was returning to New Zealand 17 years after her first visit as a student writer for Let’s Go travel books.
“I spent about four months here the first time, […] and I just really loved the backpacker culture and the beautiful scenery and everyone was so friendly,” Leichtman said. “So I’ve come back a couple of times since.”
During her month in New Zealand this time, Leichtman planned to spend most of her time in the South Island revisiting the places she covered when she was 20 years old. One place in particular she remembers is a museum in Napier that simulates the shocks of an earthquake.
“When I was in that little cabin and woke up in the middle of the night, I thought ‘This kind of reminds me of Napier.’ That’s because I’m in an earthquake,” Leichtman said. “It’s just like someone kicking your chair.”
The South Island continued to experience thousands of aftershocks in the days following the initial tremor. Prime Minister at the time, John Key, said repairs would likely cost at least two billion NZD. Two people died as a result of the earthquake.
There were no casualties at Hopewell Lodge and little structural damage besides shattered mirrors and pottery, but wild winds and hissing rain battered the windows for many days. The chaotic and ominous weather kept everyone inside.
Kate Franklin, 30, was on a weekend trip with her boyfriend when they were trapped at the remote resort.
“We were considering maybe staying anyway,” Franklin said. “It’s not a bad thing I guess. It’s nice being out of your normal bubble of life.”
Franklin is originally from London, England, but she has been traveling for more than three years now. She spent a year working in Vancouver and the Panorama Mountains in Canada, then spent a year working on a feedlot and traveling around Australia before arriving in Auckland, New Zealand in last fall.
“When I said to my parents that I was going traveling and I said to them I’m probably not going to come back for five years […] I don’t think they believed me.” Franklin said. “They’re starting to realize now I’m in my fourth year that I probably wasn’t lying.”
Franklin lives and works in Methven near Christchurch, the sight of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.
She plans to stay at her current job for another year and then apply for residency in New Zealand.
For now Franklin is stuck at Hopewell, reading books by the fire and eating cinnamon rolls in the hum of the common room.
“It’s a good place to get stuck,” Franklin said with a laugh.
Leichtman had a similar positive outlook. She was in New Zealand during another uncertain time: the Y2K transition. There was concern that banks and computers would shut down at the turn of the 21st Century, Leichtman explained.
“I thought New Zealand was a great place to be,” Leichtman said. “Plenty of freshwater, more sheep than people, not a lot of violence and beautiful open areas. If you have to go live off the land, you might as well go do it in New Zealand.”