Topic: A Honeymoon on the Coast by Debbie Hall

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here. 

The service car wound its way around Gisborne's East Coast road, its engine howling in protest as it hauled itself up each precipitous hill.  There would be a momentary stillness as it crested each rise, followed by a high-pitched squealing and the faint smell of hot rubber as the driver manfully gripped the wheel and steered the wilful bus down the other side. 

On the back seat, as the bus teetered on each rise, the young couple watched the Pacific Ocean reveal itself twinkling turquoise in the early morning sunlight as it lapped gently onto the rocky East Coast bays. Tunny leaned back on the scuffed green leather back seat, and pulled his new bride towards him.  As she nestled her head on his shoulder, her brown curls pressing against his cheek, he imagined Fred's astonishment when he and Novena arrived on his doorstep.  

Fred Hall and Donald Tunnicliffe had served together in the Royal Air Force. Fred had been a competent pilot of Lancaster bombers, and Tunny, as his rear gunner, had been grateful for his skill during their sorties from Scotland to the Norwegian Fjords.

“All right in the back there?" the driver shouted. He winked knowingly in his mirror at the couple. “Not much farther now. Tatapouri is coming up, and your stop is just after that.”

Tunny and Novena leaned over to the right window and looked down on the rocky bay below.  Above the shoreline sat a double-gabled wooden building, its corrugated iron roof bearing the legend The Tatapouri Hotel. 

Tunny began to lift down their old, brown leather suitcase, while Novena gripped her handbag and white cardigan.  They swayed down the aisle and held onto the straps beside the driver, as the bus vibrated on the loose shingle.  The road began to flatten out now and hug the coast, as they neared their destination.

“There she is!" the driver yelled, somewhat unnecessarily as they were still standing beside him. “Turihaua Point, and that's the Halls’ house, down on Pouawa Beach there."

His jubilation matched their own at finally reaching Fred’s home.  Set down on the metal, they waved at the back of the disappearing bus as it laboriously made its way back through the gears.  Then, picking their way through the long grass, they went through the fence and down to the beach where the wooden fisherman's cottage, draped with nets and craypots, sat tucked below the road.

 

Sitting at the kitchen table, Tunny was shaking his head in disbelief as Mr and Mrs Hall prepared breakfast for their unexpected guests.

“We’re so sorry, Mrs Hall,” said Novena. “Tunny just asked where the Halls lived. He didn’t mention Fred specifically.”

“Don’t you worry, dear, it’s lovely to have you here. Our Fred will be tickled pink when he finds out, won’t he, Albert?”

Mrs Hall cracked two large eggs expertly into the battered cast iron frying pan.

“Won't he, Albert?" she loudly repeated.

“You’ve picked a cracking day for a drive up the coast,” said Albert. “I’ve never seen the sea so flat.”

Albert tossed some bacon rashers into the pan where they popped and splattered companionably alongside the eggs.

Mrs Hall lifted her eyebrows at her guests in a long-suffering manner. Outside the door, birdsong and the rhythmical lapping of waves on the shore lent a peaceful air to the sounds of the kitchen.

Tunny and Novena smiled to one another across the table, happy to have found Fred's parents, if not Fred himself. 

Suddenly there was an eerie silence. The birds stopped singing and a strange and insistent sound could be heard in the far distance.  It started as a distant rumble above the sounds of breakfast cooking, and slowly gathered power and momentum, becoming louder and louder.

The old couple, busy with crockery, appeared oblivious. The apprehension on Tunny's face turned to stark alarm, and he and Novena leapt up from the table in fear as the rumble grew to a roar.  Pushing the table from his path, Tunny raced across the kitchen and out the door.  

He was greeted by a terrifying spectacle. Heading towards Turihaua Point was a towering wall of water, boiling and churning as it bore down on the coast and the Halls’ cottage, perilously exposed on the beach.  Horrified, Tunny saw where a young man, blind to the unfolding catastrophe behind him, knelt on the ground adjusting a primus stove

“Look out!”

 

“The earthquake that occurred offshore at Poverty Bay on 26 March 1947 at 8.32am generated one of the largest tsunami in New Zealand’s historical record.”

 

The first, vast wave slammed into the shore, sucking the two men into a torrid black maelstrom of swirling sand and seaweed.  Tossed like a cork in the blackness, Tunny tumbled violently, until he became ensnared by a submerged barbed fence.

As the pressure built in his head, he desperately attempted to free his leg, flaying his limbs frantically. Trousers and leg suddenly tore, and Tunny was sucked, lungs bursting, up through the churning white foam, and spat, gasping, out onto the road. 

Coughing and vomiting up sand and sea water, his leg bleeding profusely, he pulled himself to his feet, only to be struck down again, by a second smaller wave.  Heaving himself back up, he watched in disbelief as the tidal wave hurtled ‘many hundreds of yards’ into the hills.

 

"That there was no exaggeration in early reports of two crests of at least 35 feet in height, rolling in on the East Coast beach opposite the disturbance, is proved by marks left by the receding wash".

 

From the grass bank across the road an unsteady figure waded through the water.  It was the young man with the primus stove, Mr Hall's young nephew, Roy Winkfield.  Eyes white with terror through his silt-covered face, he staggered towards Tunny. Together they watched as the wave on the hillside began to recede, bringing with it flotsam of posts, firewood and branches.

 

"The force of the wave was enough to break off large fence posts at ground level.  Seaweed was found in overhead wires.”

 

 The tidal wave, as if being drawn backwards by a giant hand, united with smaller advancing waves, and picked up the Hall’s outbuildings as if matchwood and smashed them down into the water. The resulting lethal debris of broken boards and twisted iron was sucked into the great wave, which began to churn its deadly cargo around the Hall’s cottage. 

The immense pressure of the body of water as it crested the roof peaked, and with a splintering groan the boatshed was wrenched from the seaward wall of the kitchen, leaving behind a gaping hole. The kitchen's weatherboards began to splinter free and disappear on the receding wave, to join the sad remnants of the day.  Finally, standing alone on the beach, forlorn and battle scarred, saved only by its concrete foundation, the tiny kitchen sat in ruins, surrounded by the debris of its former life. 

Tunny could scarce believe that only minutes before he, Novena and the Halls had been gathered in that very room.

With heavy hearts, Tunny and Roy began to wade through the mud and debris towards the ruined building. Abruptly they pulled up. A noise could be heard inside.  Unbelievably, an arm appeared through the splintered weatherboards.

“We’re all right,” quavered Mr Hall from inside.

 

“Mr Hall, in the kitchen, was immersed to the neck and clung to the mantelpiece with one hand while he grasped his floating wife with the other. Mrs Tunnicliffe clung to his back”.

 

As the battered green army jeep climbed the hill, Tunny and Novena turned in the back seat, and looked down for the second time that day on The Tatapouri Hotel. Their driver, Max Newman, thrust a straw broom out of the window, just missing Albert’s nose, and waved it down in greeting to the young girl mopping water off the veranda.

“Well, I’ve seen some sights, but I never thought I’d see the day when The Tata had live fish behind the bar. That’s the freshest fish and chips they’ll ever have, eh, Albert?”

Albert chuckled appreciatively, and turned round and winked at his wife, sitting beside Tunny, Novena and Roy in the back seat. The four looked like derelicts, caked in silt with matted hair and torn clothes.

“Our bus tickets back to Invercargill were in my purse, Tunny. Goodness only knows where that is.”

Novena was still trying to take in the enormity of the situation.

“Well,” said Tunny, “I think we can safely say you’ve seen the last of that.”

 

"The salvage of wreckage of the home of Mr and Mrs A F Hall, Pouawa, which was wrecked yesterday morning in the tidal wave on the coast, occupied the full day, and debris was collected over a wide area under difficult conditions…The searchers were fortunate to find two missing purses in the sand.  One of the missing purses contained seventeen pounds, and the other a smaller amount.”

 

REFERENCES

 

Tunnicliffe, D.                                    Memoirs

                                                                Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

                                                                http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/tsunamis/page-3

 

The Gisborne Herald                     26 March 1947

                                                           27 March 1947

                                                           31 March 1947

 

Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

www.tandfonline.com

 

Tairawhiti Museum

www.tairawhitimuseum.org.nz/exhibits-galleries/collections/photography

www.info.geonet.org.nz/display/tsunami/gisborne+tsunami,+25+March+and+17+May+1947

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/CZS2-47N8

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