Racing Tropical Cyclone Gita to New Zealand

The Storm and the Airplane Head for New Zealand

The enormous Polynesian man sitting next to me on the airplane was visibly worried.  Just a few days ago his home islands of Tonga had taken a direct hit from Tropical Cyclone Gita, the strongest cyclone in its recorded history.  He was trying to make his way home from Utah to survey the damage and check on family and friends.

Gita had been menacing the South Pacific for weeks.  Starting out as a tropical disturbance near Vanuatu, Gita moved east towards Fiji and then Samoa, gaining the strength of a category one tropical system on the way.  Gita then doubled back to the west on a more southerly track and exploded into a monster category four storm before crashing directly into Tonga.  Leaving Tonga bruised and battered, she continued west-southwest for several more days then began a giant arc to the south and then southeast somewhere off the northeast coast of Australia.  From there Gita set her sights on the midsection of New Zealand.

Tropical Cyclone Gita’s full track through the South Pacific.  Source

We knew we were going to meet Gita upon or arrival in New Zealand.  For days, as we prepared for our big trip, I tracked her path of destruction online and listened to all the latest projections from concerned Kiwi weather watchers.  We were scheduled to land in Wellington, on the south end of the North Island, on February 21st, the same afternoon of Gita’s forecast arrival.  Spaghetti charts were showing storm path projection lines all over the Wellington area.  It didn’t look good, but I believed we had a chance to get into and then quickly north out of Wellington and away from Gita just in time.  The race was on.

Spaghetti forecast map for Tropical Cyclone Gita.  Source.

 

Gita’s eye and winds as she approached New Zealand.  Source.

Last Flight to Wellington

After thirteen hours over the Pacific we arrived in Auckland on a beautiful sunny morning.  A few puffy clouds accented a light blue sky over a bluer Waitemata Harbour.  But, we had one more flight to catch.  Wellington.  Television screens in the airport terminal showed a powerful ex-tropical storm already beginning to lash the northern tip of the South Island.  It was clear now that the center of the storm would pass not far to the south of Wellington within hours.

As we trudged through the meticulous New Zealand biosecurity process we were surprised to see that our Wellington flight remained on schedule.  With little time to spare we made it to our flight and left sunny Auckland to fly right into Gita’s approaching outer edge.

An hour later our plane touched down in a gray and rainy Wellington.  Shortly after de-boarding the airport PA system announced, “all flights in and out of Wellington now canceled due to Tropical Cyclone Gita.” Ours was the last Wellington flight out of Auckland before Gita shut things down.  We had won the first leg of the race, but now we had to drive north out of Wellington just as Gita began closing in.

A Pinball Shot from the Vortex

Driving on the left takes a little getting used to.  Years ago in the Virgin Islands I had picked up a rental jeep and immediately made a left turn into the wrong side of the road and had to jump the median to avoid angry oncoming drivers.  In New Zealand I had to re-orient myself to left lane driving in a wind-blown rain on surprisingly busy and narrow Wellington highways.  The giant windshield of our campervan kept fogging up, and until we figured out that we had to turn the air conditioning on to clear it, L was climbing onto the dashboard every two minutes to wipe away a tiny space for me to see into the traffic on NZ Highway 1.  It was a hairy drive.

But, like a piece of debris spun out of the vortex of the storm, we broke through the rain-wall within an hour as we drove north into the green North Island countryside.  Not far to our south Gita’s eye was now crossing the northern end of the South Island and the conditions in Wellington were deteriorating rapidly.  We were high and dry now, free from the rain, but not the wind.

It was the strangest kind of wind I’d ever experienced.  It would be perfectly calm and then the air would explode in all directions from nowhere.  I had seen my share of gusty winds growing up in Colorado’s Front Range.  But, I had never experienced this level of randomness.

Pigs and Chickens

It wasn’t long before we came to our first blow-down.  A car was stopped ahead, southbound, with its flashers on.  The driver was out dragging big leafy tree branches off the road.  We pulled to a stop and I got out and helped.  We soon had it cleared well enough, waived each other a thanks, and got on our way.

Our pretty two-lane highway passed mostly through open sheep pastures, but periodically dove into a tunnel of tree canopy.  I would gun it through these tunnels as wind-snapped tree branches rained down like spears.  We never took a direct hit.

After clearing a couple more minor blow-downs our luck ran out.  We crested a big hill and saw some stopped cars and a group of people standing around a giant horizontal log.  A huge tree had blown down right across the road and there would be no moving this one.

But, then something peculiar happened.  The first stopped car made a right turn off the highway and drove right into a private driveway!  And, then the next car did the same.  As we approached, a friendly looking woman pointed us in the same direction and we found ourselves driving right through the middle of someone’s farm.

Pigs to the right, chickens to the left, we proceeded slowly around the back of the house, around the barn, past a beautiful orchard of pear trees, and came back out to the highway on the other side of the blown-down tree.  Another nice lady met us there as we pulled up. “Nothing coming that way,” she joked as she pointed in the direction of the fallen tree.

See our dash cam view of the farm drive below:

See our full New Zealand video here.

We laughed, thanked her, and then proceeded on our way.  This would be the first of many wonderful examples of Kiwi hospitality and friendliness we would experience on our trip.  The people were as much a breath of fresh air as the stunning natural beauty of New Zealand.

A Perfect Riverside Refuge

The beautiful winding two-lane continued through more pastures and spear-tossing tree tunnels until we finally came to a discreet sign that said “Vinegar Hill Campground.”

Vinegar Hill Campground is a peaceful green meadow at the bottom of a little river gorge.  The campground was nearly empty, so we had our pick of great spots right along the green Rangitikei River.  A 300-foot bluff on the other side of the river blocked the gusting winds that were shaking the trees atop the ridge like rag dolls.  As the winds raged above, it was almost totally calm down by the river.

Our sweet “Jucy” campervan below the bluffs at the Vinegar Hill campground.

Gita threw us one last haymaker that evening.  As I was unpacking the van and L was in the campground shower, the serenity was broken by loudly cracking and crunching wood.  I looked up to the bluff just in time to see a gigantic tree violently toppling over.  It dislodged a dump truck sized ball of earth that came crashing down the bluff and into the river.  A huge cloud of dust and debris blossomed over the river like a bomb.  A few moments later, L emerged wide-eyed from the shower.  She said the crash sounded so loud in there that she thought the tree fell right next to the shower stall.  It was 100 yards away.

That would be the end of Gita for us until several days later when we would see the aftermath of some landslides and road damage in the northwest part of the South Island.  The next morning we woke, well rested, to a beautifully calm and sunny morning in New Zealand.  Onward towards Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park.

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