Seventeen was not a lucky number for Murchison in 1929. On June 17th, at 10.17 in the morning, one of New Zealand’s largest earthquakes (7.8) hit the town. It resulted in the loss of 17 lives, all except one caused by landslides triggered by the quake. (The other sadly was a lady who died because she ran out of insulin.)
The epicentre was at the White Creek fault, a few kilometres down the Buller Gorge from Murchison. If you explore the river by raft or kayak, some of the rapids you descend were formed by this earth movement. Indeed, if you take a walk over the Buller swingbridge, one of the walks you can do on the other side takes you along the actual uplift which is a bit spooky!
A few kilometres before Murchison (coming from Hanmer) there are the magnificent Maruia Falls. Originally flowing on the other side of the valley, an earth dam forced the river to its present position where it is ‘chewing’ its way slowly backwards over a 10-metre high band of rock. Do NOT go over the fence there - it seems that every year someone slips over the falls and drowns!
One of the largest landslides happened a couple of kilometres up the Matakitaki Valley. A slip out of Johnson’s Creek caused the river to dam causing concern that it would then burst and take the remains of the town with it. Eventually the water found a way through without bursting the dam, the remains of which forms a popular rapid run by kayakers.
Up the Mangles and Blackwater valley, one can see boulders by the side of the road that missed people by inches. There is a natural gas in these valleys; a surveyor checking up the valleys after the quake reported that "I didn't dare light my pipe as the smell of gas was so strong I was afraid I would blow myself up!"
For more on these stories, check out the Museum in Murchison or check out http://www.exploremurchison.co.nz.