Nearly a thousand tourists stranded by flooding in a tiny New Zealand alpine town woke on Monday to clear, sunny weather, but little other good news: there was still no way in or out by road.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen the sky in about six or seven days, so that’s nice,” said Khira MacWatt, from Aberdeen, who is among those stranded in Franz Josef, a picturesque town nestled into a glacier on New Zealand’s South Island, after bad weather caused major flooding.
The tourists are in for a long wait: road workers hope to clear the southbound highway, leading to Haast, by Friday, transport officials said. But slips on the road north – towards the town of Hokitika – could take until January to clear.
The town of a few hundred people does not have a major airport. But about 40 tourists had paid for private helicopter or ski-plane flights out of the town on Monday morning, said Adam Joyce, the chief executive of Inflite, the company that owns the local planes, which are usually used by its skydiving operation.
“There’s more than we can keep up with at the moment,” Joyce said of the demand to leave the town.
Not every tourist was able to leave – tickets cost $599, and some had vehicles, such as campervans, that they could not abandon. But those who did, Joyce said, would be flown to the village of Mount Cook with buses provided to the tourist hub of Queenstown.
Tourists’ woes did not end there; because of other road closures in the South Island due to flooding, some who got out would still struggle to return to the cities where their international flights were due to depart from.
MacWatt said her boyfriend was considering parking his car – which he owned – in the town until he could come back and get it “in about a month” if the pair was able to leave, and they were waiting to hear more from officials on Monday afternoon. They could not afford commercial helicopter tickets out of the town, she said, and planned to ask whether the government’s civil defence agency could evacuate them.
After sleeping in the car for two nights as thunderstorms raged around them, the pair had “upgraded” to a hostel on Sunday night, MacWatt said, and had made friends with others in the same predicament.
“Everyone’s just been playing card games and going for walks,” said MacWatt, adding that there were beautiful trails nearby. “But we’ve done them all now. There’s nothing else to do.”
The pair had basic backpackers’ insurance and could not afford more costly attractions in the area while they waited.
At the local store, the Franz Josef Four Square, Raj Kumar was expecting a delivery of food in the coming days. For now, the shop was out of bread and fresh milk, as well as pasta and meat, but still had “plenty” of chocolate for sale.
“Everyone’s had the same idea,” said MacWatt, of the shortage of dinner ingredients. On a month-long trip to New Zealand, she did not relish the prospect of spending several more days in the same small town.
“It’s quite sad and quiet, everyone’s very down,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re missing international flights and excursions that we’ve paid for.”
For local businesses, too, there were questions about the town’s infrastructure. Franz Josef has just a few hundred residents but plays host to half a million tourists a year. It is earthquake and flood-prone, and the town is cut off “about every second year” by road, usually in autumn or winter, said Kumar, from the local store.
Joyce, from the plane charter company, said the damage already done to the town’s tourism season – December heralds the beginning of summer in New Zealand – was “catastrophic.”
“The infrastructure is poor to say the least, money needs to be spent or this is going to happen again,” he said, adding that the company would much rather be running its usual scenic trips than evacuating stranded tourists.
For those on the ground in Franz Joseph, more immediate matters occupied their thoughts: MacWatt said it was her boyfriend’s birthday, and their plans for a night in Queenstown would be replaced by another walk, some pizza, and a trip to the local bar.
“There’s not even a liquor store in this town so we can’t even get a nice drink,” she said. “It’ll have to be a beer.”
Elsewhere in New Zealand, evacuations were ordered in Timaru district, between Christchurch and Dunedin, where flooding was endangering houses and had cut off state highway 1.
A number of South Island weather stations recorded more than 250mm of rain on Saturday alone, including in Queenstown and Wanaka. Milford Sound recorded 608mm in December’s first week.
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