What Cyclone Gabrielle took away, and what we’re left with.

It wasn’t fancy, I guess, but we liked it. My late father-in-law Peter Siddell built this bach, or beach house, more than 50 years ago now, from a garage kit-set. It was tucked away in the bush way out in West Auckland at Karekare a relatively short walk from the beach, and somewhat hidden from the world down a narrow plant-lined path. 

Now it sits red-stickered and smashed, like so many other houses and baches after Cyclone Gabrielle’s wrath last week. At least 11 people are dead and countless lives shattered, in ways big and small.

For decades, this unassuming bach, or beach house – no TV, no phone, a rather rugged outhouse toilet – was the centre of one family’s life. As children my wife and her sister spent weeks at a time out there, only going back to the city occasionally, sunburnt and sandblasted by long days on the black sands. It wasn’t a flashy place – it was a space to doze and read magazines in between beach adventures, to while away the long summer nights under starry skies. 

My in-laws Peter and Sylvia held frequent parties, the bush ringing with laughter and the sound of clinking wine glasses. You could see Karekare’s grand ominous rocky outcrop the Watchman from the deck, and before the dunes shifted and trees grew, you could see the sharp lines of the Tasman Sea against the horizon. 

When I first visited New Zealand with my new wife in 2000, the bach she’d talked about so much was one of the first places we visited. 

After my in-laws died in 2011, the bach passed to the next generation. It became a bit quieter without Peter and Sylvia there, but was still regularly used. The grandchildren grew up and became old enough to go out for a night with their mates. It may have been a little less busy than it once was, it may have been starting to take a lot of work to keep it in good nick, but we still loved our little humble bach.

Then sometime on the evening of February 13, Cyclone Gabrielle smashed through Karekare and the rest of the country, and tonnes of mud and trees slid down the steep hills, knocking our old bach aside like it was made of cardboard. 

It is a story repeated hundreds of times around Aotearoa this week – a family place, a special taonga, taken away in a rush of water and wind. 

We are so very lucky compared to so many others, we know, and whānau all over are feeling that strange and empty kind of pain a disaster like this carves out of ordinary life. 

We can’t get out to see our bach yet because of the dangerous closed road conditions, but we’re starting to get an idea of how devastating the cyclone was for the Karekare community.

In photos seen from above, twin slips gave way on either side of the bach, endangering it and other houses around.

We don’t know yet what will become of it in the end, but it doesn’t look good. Photos captured by neighbours show a building knocked askew, the sturdy deck timbers warped like they were rubber by the sliding foundation. The musty long-drop toilet we kept meaning to replace has seemingly been wiped from the face of the earth. The makeshift bath has fallen away from the house. Yet weirdly, some tiny pots on a bench on the slanting deck haven’t moved at all, and the windows appear intact. 

Karekare is a tiny place that’s only a permanent home for 300 or so people, best known for having several scenes from Jane Campion’s The Piano shot there. Like a lot of people, I’m over much of social media these days, but community groups online have proved invaluable for getting information out from the closed-off coast. 

The people stuck out there have gathered for cheery barbecues, as the mud is swept up and the cracked and battered places surveyed by engineers and insurers. They have rustled up ways to get children to school somehow despite shattered roads. 

One woman lost her beloved home, but in the middle of the crisis she reached out to offer some of the donated clothing she received to others. 

“Karekare has always been the best place in the world, and it is the people that make it next level amazing,” she wrote on the local Facebook page. 

It is true these are just places and things, and the horrifying loss of life in Gabrielle is by far the worst thing about the cyclone. Muriwai, just up the coast, is still grieving the death of two volunteer firefighters. Everyone is starkly aware things could have been even worse. 

But each place and thing that has been lost in the cyclone also has meaning for people, whether it’s a grassy back yard children have played in for years, a beloved tree that shaded people as they dozed in the sun, a battered old chair that was a comfortable companion every evening for someone. 

Any kind of natural disaster, whether it’s flood, fire or earthquake, takes away things you felt were certain in life. 

I don’t quite know yet what it replaces them with, but I keep finding myself thinking of that rustic little bach, now abandoned and the days of wine and parties for it probably over. I think of my son’s first visit there when he was barely a year old and of a photo taken circa 2006 of my late father-in-law with his three grandsons on the porch, reading a book together.

My son grew up playing on those beaches, those black sands, summer after summer. My son’s now a university student and it sometimes feels like everything has changed since that photo was taken. 

But those moments – for us, for all the victims of Karekare, for all those wounded by Gabrielle – are still there, floating somewhere, and I like to think that no storm can ever really take them away for any of us. 

The day the water came to Auckland

January is supposed to be a slow news month in New Zealand, with half the country on leisurely summer holidays, schools closed, and the beaches full. 

Not this January, where in the last two weeks of the month we saw our world-famous prime minister suddenly resign and replaced by a guy named ‘Chippy’ and as if that wasn’t enough, my city was hit by the worst floods in living memory. We’ll be cleaning up the damage from this slow January for some time.

My suburb out in West Auckland of Titirangi was ground zero for a lot of the damage, as I wrote over at RNZ. We’re still coming out of the storm, but it’s been pretty awe-inspiring and terrifying to see. The photos and video pouring in to newsrooms were astonishing. I’ve covered a LOT of disasters and chaos in my journalism career but I’ve never had one where I had to stop in the middle of work to keep my basement from floating away on floodwaters. 

We are lucky, of course, compared to many here in Auckland. We lost power and water for a while and things are wet in the basement, but four people have died, and hundreds of homes are ruined.

On Friday when the storm hit, it surprised everyone by being far, far greater in magnitude than your usual Auckland rainstorm. Our basement has flooded before, but not like this, where a literal torrent of water rushed through. I’ve never actually felt scared for my home and myself before, but as I was out there in knee-deep water frantically shovelling dirt and clay to redirect the water rushing under our house, I had a few moments of that stark primal fear that you only get when you realise that you are caught up in something far beyond your control. I also thought getting knocked unconscious against my own house in a rainy narrow ditch and drowning would be a bloody stupid way to go.

Just 500m or so down from our house, a massive slip closed off the road and has left a house above precariously close to coming down too. Across the street half our neighbour’s garden just dropped down the hill. All around our neighbourhood are giant slips and open cracks in the earth that look far more like earthquake damage than anything else. The beach we often go swimming about saw its entire yacht club collapse. 

My old friend and co-worker Cathy ended up in The New York Times talking about how her land just started slowly slipping away.  

Thirty years ago I joined an environmental club at my university and wide-eyed and optimistic we hoped to make things better for the future in our very tiny way. Thirty years have passed and that optimism is gradually draining away, like the flood waters down my street, because of an ossified political culture in many countries, greedy businesses and a world far more interested in pointless culture wars and distractions. People are still denying climate change or screaming conspiracy theories every time something like this happens. Hell, I’m not just pointing fingers – I’m part of the problem, too. My little suburb is hardly alone in extreme weather events the past few years. 

This was not your typical midsummer Auckland rain, and indeed it was Auckland’s wettest day in history. This is climate change, new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said. This is the future we’ve all spent the last 30 years dithering about, worrying about, pretending wasn’t going to happen and ultimately, we’re all beginning to understand, doing nowhere near enough about.