Murchison and Īnangahua quakes - roadside stories

Dramatic landslides, rock falls and waterfalls are the legacy of the two massive earthquakes that hit the Buller region in the 20th century. Lives were lost at Murchison in 1929, and again at Īnangahua in 1968.


Archival audio: Murchison – interviews with 10 people who remember the Murchison earthquake.

Narrator: The Buller region experienced two major earthquakes during the 20th century. On 17 June 1929, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck in the middle of the morning. It was felt all over New Zealand, but the worst hit region was Murchison.

For days preceding the earthquake, booming noises had been heard in the hills around the town. The earthquake itself was exceptionally noisy – rumblings were heard in New Plymouth, over 250 kilometres away. It was caused by movement along the White Creek faultline west of Murchison. Along this fault, land moved upwards over four metres.

A neighbour of farmer Charles Morel saw a gigantic slice of hillside slide towards the Morel farmhouse.  

Male neighbour (actor’s voice): Charles Morel was working a dray horse when the quake struck.  He and his wife raced towards a higher terrace, but were caught in the slurry and wreck of their house. Mr Morel was cut badly and died of blood loss. His wife suffered a broken ankle and bruising. The horse was buried by the slip and only its head was showing above the mud. I put it out of its misery.

Female resident (actor’s voice): At the Mātakitaki Bridge, rocks falling looked like flames and I really thought it was the end of the world. Later I realised that the smoke and flames were from the huge rocks hitting against one another.

Narrator: Bob White was a pupil at Whale’s Flat school during the 1929 Murchison earthquake.

Bob White (actor’s voice): I saw a huge slip hurtling towards us. I yelled and we got to our feet and endeavoured to run back toward the building but the slip overtook us and went straight through the school. We were saved by some poplars and a chestnut tree.

Narrator: Of the 17 people who died in the Murchison earthquake, 14 were killed by landslides.  

In the early morning of 24 May 1968, the Buller region was rocked by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake centred near Īnangahua Junction, a small community 40 kilometres east of Westport. Residents were woken by shaking violent enough to throw them out of bed.

Ruth Inwood (actor’s voice): Our fridge was flipped on its side, a heavy three-seater sofa was thrown across the lounge, ceilings were ripped open, windows exploded out of their frames, cupboards were completely emptied, broken ornaments and crockery littered the floor.

Narrator: Locals were dismayed to hear radio broadcasts mention only mild earthquakes. The rest of the country seemed unaware of Īnangahua’s plight. All roads were blocked and there was no telephone, or electricity to send radio messages. Hours later a driver contacted Gisborne on his truck radio. By late morning helicopters arrived to survey damage.

Slips caused by the earthquake blocked the Buller River, forcing the evacuation of Īnangahua. The rising water backed up for seven kilometres, raising the river 30 metres above its normal level. If the landslide dam had burst, the river would have flooded Īnangahua and Westport. The river eventually overflowed the landslide debris, but eroded it downward gradually without causing serious flooding.

One of the three people killed in the earthquake was Rona Jackson, wife of farmer Fred Jackson.

Fred Jackson: The quake was worse than the 1929 one. I helped my wife out of bed and got her to the front door. Then I went back inside for my mother-in-law.  While I was trying to find her, a big rock slide came down. Some of the rocks were as big as the house. When I came to, the house had slid about 150 yards down the hill.

Narrator: Evidence in the landscape of these two massive earthquakes, including giant blocks of loose rock, slips and waterfalls, is still apparent today.

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