Earthquake refugees from a not-so-distant land

The story of how my family and I came to live in Australia

I’m Tony Davys, an avid Kiwi outdoorsman. Five years ago, my family and I were thrust into the wilds of Australia by the forces of nature. Sounds dramatic doesn’t it. It was. My wife Helen and I were the owners of Overland 4WD Rentals in Christchurch, but our World changed abruptly in September 2010 when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake tried to shake our house apart.

I had described the event many times, usually sitting around a campfire late at night, but it took me nearly 10 years to actually write it down.

The last thing you expect at 4:35am on a frosty September South Island morning is for a train to hit your house, your bedroom where you are fast asleep. Especially when you live on a quiet 10 acre block a long way away from the nearest railway track. But that’s exactly what it felt and sounded like. 

When a big earthquake hits, there is no warning. No gentle rocking or subtle noise to alert you of the impending shake. No, when it starts, it’s on. Like a freight train has hit your house doing 100 km/h. The noise and ferocity really do have to be experienced to be believed. We were awake in an instant and our first reaction was “the kids!” 

The power was off before my feet hit the floor and I staggered blindly into the next room where our 1 1/2 year old twin boys were in their cots. Scooping one under each arm I headed for the safety of the doorway, something drummed into all Kiwis from a young age. The only problem was I couldn’t find the doorway. I had come through it only seconds before but it was gone. As Helen pushed the door open it dawned on me that much of the contents of the twins’ wardrobe had been shaken out, closing the door out into the hallway. 

Handing Helen one of the boys, we hunkered down in their doorway with knees interlocked to ride out the storm. The initial 7.1 quake went for about a minute but because we were so close to the epicentre, the actual earthquake did not stop for 30 minutes. It is difficult to describe what it felt like. The shaking changed constantly in intensity. I remember thinking that the house couldn’t possibly stand up to the ferocity of the movement. There was no panic, rather an awe of what was going on around us. Fortunately, the boys went back to sleep on us. 

The one thing that stays with you though is the noise. The Earth roared. Because the ground under us was made up of thousands of years worth of alluvial river rocks from the great Canterbury rivers, the sound of the rocks grating together made an incredible rumble which became louder and more intense as the waves of the quake travelled under us. 

Half an hour is a long time to wait for a quake to pass. We had no concept of the time right then but we knew it was long. It wasn’t until we felt safe enough to move that I found a headlight and checked the time. In doing so I walked through a veritable mine field of broken glass in total darkness. As I turned my light on in the kitchen I could see broken glass all through the kitchen, dining and lounge rooms. How I hadn’t got the slightest shard of glass in either foot I will never know. Just lucky I guess. 

Fortunately, our house was liveable. Somehow it had survived mostly intact and weather-proof. No one died in the September quakes. The damaged parts of Christchurch were gradually repaired. 

For 4 months the aftershocks came every day. Sometimes 10 -15 over magnitude 4 a day. The ones at night were annoying. They would often be spaced so that you were just nodding off to sleep as the next one came. The whole town looked like zombies after a night like that. Often aftershocks would sound like a truck coming down the road. You would brace yourself for the impact, never knowing how big it was going to be, always feeling a bit silly when it was actually a truck coming down the road.

But life was getting back on track. It all could have been worse.
And then 6 months after the first big shake, it did get worse. A lot worse.

Christchurch city took a direct hit from a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. People died and the city was in ruins.

I remember being in a stunned state of shock after that earthquake. I arrived home from the airport after being stuck by traffic fleeing the city about 2 hours later. Quite differently from “our” quake, this time we still had power. Helen and I sat in front of the TV and watched it all unfold for a day and a half. We couldn’t believe it had happened again.

We didn’t know it at the time, but this spelt the end of our business. People stopped coming to Christchurch and hiring our 4WD vehicles. It was like someone turned off the money tap. We tried to hang in there for a further four years, hoping that things would come right. They didn’t.

Mentally, this all took its toll. I remember bailing out to the mountains on several occasions to try to reset my brain. Being away in the mountains let me detach from the real World for a while so I wasn’t overwhelmed by it all. I have to admit to feeling trapped under a metaphorical tangle of debris for about 3 years and it sometimes became a pretty dark place. I have to now apologise to Helen and our boys for “running away” all those times and also to some good mates back in NZ for having to put up with an often moody and unpleasant companion.
Queue a life-changing conversation…

I had known Vic and Julie Widman, owners of Great Divide Tours and Training, for a number of years. They would hire my vehicles for their Australian clients and come over for South Island high country tag along tours. One day at Christchurch airport, we were discussing how bad things were in Canterbury, when I jokingly suggested I should come to work for them in Australia.
As it turned out, the joke didn’t last long and three months later I was in Sydney on my way to the Big Red Bash on the edge of the Simpson Desert with Vic. This tour, along with two others to Arnhem Land and the Flinders Ranges that followed proved to be the longest job interview in history. 18,500 km later, what was initially a Winter job in Australia leading tours, turned into a full time position tour guiding, driver training and caretaking the driver training centre in the Southern Highlands, an hour from Canberra.

Those four years saw a huge change in my family’s life. Moving countries is a big deal in itself, but combine that with me being away for up to 5 months of the year leading tours really goes to show how strong our family is. Helen is my rock.

Working for Great Divide Tours allowed me to achieve a boyhood dream of exploring some of the really remote parts of Australia. Actually, it was much more than that. As far as most people tell me, I’m “living the dream”. I have seen more of Australia in four years than most people would see in a lifetime. A dozen times to the Victorian High Country, twice to the Kimberley, four times to Arnhem Land, four times to the Flinders Ranges, several central Australian trips, twice to the amazing Canning Stock Route and once (so far) to Cape York.

The past year has seen us strike out on our own once more and start a business in Rockhampton, right on the edge of the tropics in Queensland. Helen has gotten the chance of another career in a science based industry, the boys are at a great school and the business is now taking shape and looking very positive for the future thanks to the amazing support from the local community and Government organisations.

You might think that a story that begins with the destruction of an earthquake or two would be a tale of woe, but I can honestly say that our life has been nothing if not interesting.

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