No chasing storms here, this unusal one landed on my doorstep.
Caroline Bay and Port of TImaru beyond, under centrimetres of snow.
Caroline Bay is rarely so inhospitable, even in winter. On Monday 12 June 2006 you could swear our little paradise was towed to the Antarctic. It had been a balmy 18 degC the day before.
The reports that rang out early that morning could have been rifle fire. Tearing crackles and fizzes suggested fireworks away in some distance place indispearsed with Intervals of eerie silence. Under an orange glow a surreal scene of destruction appeared. Shrubs and trees in chaos everywhere! Then darkness blinked sporadically until street lights flickered back into life. It could have been a bombing blitz except for flakes of silently drifting snow piling up on everything.
View at 4:00 am from our window of our garden showing the snowstorm in progress..
A camera pointed out the window could not do justice. A predawn investigation became a compelling self-assignment. It snows almost everywhere but Timaru so this was very special opportunity. Thoughts of using the Landrover led to a sober realization of far deeper snow with roads blocked by trees and worse… live power lines fallen to the ground - so collapsing was weight of this unusually wet snow.
Branches of our old Kowhai tree drooped low over our gateway serving a warning not to go further. Thick cords of snow sagging between powerpoles in the next street quickly convinced me of my need to walk only in open places.
The overwhelming snow demanded a very simple approach to photography, just one lens and a tripod. I selected my 24-105mm zoom lens and headed out.
Alternative streets lights were flicking on and off as I stomped in the snow towards the historic lighthouse nearby. There were periods of total darkness. Widespread power failures were certain. Photography seemed as ridiculous as my thoughts of a civil emergency. Photography instinct overcame any sense of priority to rush home and prepare for a long huddle at home.
Although the original light of the lighthouse is no longer used it has a large green triangular navigation light fitted. It too was failing intermittently. Its strobing effect was intriguing and luring for a photographer, but I was soon repelled. High up, a deep and hollow crack was quickly muffled by the myriad of heavy snowflakes. Stepping back, I saw a large branch slump, then hinge down towards me into an accelerating blur of snow. A cascade of more big branches quickly followed. Much of the tree collapsed like a closing umbrella.
That was it. I headed home. It was 5:00am when I woke up the family. It was hard to explain any notion of an emergency as they looked out into the wonderland of soft blankets glowing under that orange sky. The snow came in heavier and soon had us checking on friends and relatives, tuning in the radio, cooking and boiling, filling vacuum flasks and water containers, opening up emergency equipment, finding candles and batteries, checking gas containers and cookers, and carrying in extra loads of firewood.
Vague reports of deep snow and power loss started to flow in over the radio. An assurance of new batteries to power the broadcast was given. Then the airwaves silenced. Outside our neighbour started his 4x4. He was off to secure his workplace where the roof had collapsed.
I was horrified when previewing my photos on my laptop. (I had turned off all our other computers in fear of power surges.) Some of my shots where badly camera shaken despite using a tripod and remote cable release. Then it sunk in… in all the excitement I forgot all about turning off the image stabiliser on the lens. While it amazingly suppresses handshake, is gives exactly the opposite effect when mounted on something firm like a tripod.
During the next lull in the snowfall I considered another photographic effort. Why not? We had done all we could to prepare for the emergency. It was now a waiting game. By 7:00am, I was dressed in full tramping gear and headed back out with the kids, cell phones readied. Once outside, I figured I could be away for 2-3 hours given the likely photo opportunities. The kids texted friends, arranged to meet them, and we separated.
I went back to the lighthouse and retook the photos, this time one with the broken down gum tree. It was then I looked back to our house and saw our favourite Kowhai tree cave in. My heart slumped.
I worked my way to Ashbury Park, where rows of very old trees where now breaking branches every minute. The snow thickened again. Unseen things were falling all around me with repetitive cracking and slow dull woomphing. It was all so weird… so saddening. The trees, grand and admirable, were now so helpless in this mirky atmosphere pressing down on them.
As dawn light eeked into the sky, I headed to the Benvenue Cliffs for a long anticipated view of Caroline Bay. It started to snow heavily again but it was now much wetter. Little trails of moisture were forming on my camera after brushing the settling snow with my gloved hands.
It was stunning to watch the tide of our bay lap up to a line ofsnow. This was my big photography objective. Now how to get a stunning photo? The snow was now leaving moisture on the lens glass confounding my attempt to think in any outstanding way. My small lens cloth was getting just too wet. The conditions were going to beat me. This was a unique time. I simply can’t be beaten. Relentlessly, I worked on my composition, concentrating on how the idea of how snow and sea could be made to work for my photo.
Everything started to get very difficult. The autofocus seemed to be having trouble with the low light and lack of detail on the beach. Manual focus was also difficult and I couldn’t see the depth of field indicator on the lens. I had not brought the torch which I always have in my camera bag. I had to blindly carry on by using the infinity setting on my lens. Reluctantly I increased the ISO rating to gain a smaller aperture and greater depth of field.
I had found my ideal composition and didn’t want to blotch it up. I focused an extra shot on the foreground just to make sure. I knew I could always combine the background and foreground images later and be sure of maximum image sharpness.
I had to accept that I was now tiring, and realized I couldn’t stay out much longer. Also the camera was damp all over despite toweling with my gloves. The walk across the bay and into the main street would have to wait.
I decided on one last viewpoint and then the fate of my little expedition was sealed: the camera powered down. Exasperation had to put under control as various people I knew stopped to have a chat. I trudged back home.
Despite packing the camera in a dry towel and plastic bags to avoid condensation when entering the warm and humid house, my precious camera failed to work when a fresh battery was installed later. Condensation eventually showed under the LCD screens and the camera became a casualty ending any hope of another trip out. This was to be any trip whatsoever and it would be three days before couriers were running to take it out of the region for repair. I consoled myself that I got shots at the most optimum time and we still had power.
Now the pathos. I have pristine shots of a glistening fairyland untouched by human footprints and children’s play. Trees festooned with white crests, rimmed by street light. Like a Narnia winter, they belie the reality of ten thousand people under half a metre of snow, struggling without power for days on end, some without water or even sewage. Few could travel and schools and businesses were forced to close for days. Many buildings need repairs and many countless hours are yet to be spent in gardens cleaning up the ruins of many valuable and prized shrubs and trees.
Rose, my neighbour helped me cut down most of our precious old kowhai tree and I got my old film camera out, the one that always stood by me in the most extreme conditions for the past 20 years.
Please visit the Snowstorm Albums in the Events Gallery to see more images
Storm Chase Information and Links here