I can almost guarantee, few if any of you have been to Saint Arnaud on the south island of New Zealand. It is a small Alpine village in the Saint Arnaud Range, more populated during the ski season than the New Zealand Springtime, when we chose to visit. But after a glorious day hiking in the Abel Tasman National Park we found ourselves overnighting in a small travel lodge in Saint Arnaud, on route to our next destination, Kaikoura.
After dinner we retired early, tired from a long day of exertion and strong sea air. We fell asleep almost instantly to be woken some time in the wee small hours by a siren. It sounded like there was a prison break and not being familiar with the area to know if there was a prison or not, we looked out our window. The marsh land behind our building had a low lying fog, which added a more atmospheric and almost eerie quality to the night. On further investigation we discovered the siren was actually the fire alarm and the main building of the lodge was on fire. Luckily we were staying in a separate accommodation block right next to the main building, but evacuation was necessary so we grabbed some warm clothes and our passports and joined our fellow guests in the car park.
Within minutes the local volunteer fire brigade had arrived. But it was more like a scene from Laurel and Hardy as the fire tender arrived without headlights, with the firefighter volunteers running down the road behind it in various stages of dress. Having never witnessed a fire before I was rather alarmed that for a long time nothing seemed to be done. I assumed that when the fire brigade arrives they rush with their hoses to dampen down the flames. And as the flames were now shooting a considerable height into the air I thought it odd that not a drop of water was in sight. Some of the fire fighters appeared from behind the building and then rolled, what appeared to be several beer barrels across the yard away from the burning building. I thought their priorities were a little irregular but kept my opinions to myself. It did transpire what I thought were beer barrels were actually gas cylinders, so it was probably a wise move. More fire brigades arrived from larger outlying communities and the blaze was tackled in earnest, though it did take a couple of hours to bring it under control. We were allowed return to our rooms much later in the night tired and thoroughly smoked.
We spent the remaining hour or two before dawn, unable to sleep after the adrenaline surge, so we grabbed an early shower and “checked out”. As there was no reception, all we could do was hand our room key to the bewildered young manager in the yard and express our sympathy at the situation they now found themselves. Once satisfied that our car was intact, it was parked next to the building which went up, we drove to the petrol station across the street to grab some coffee and a few breakfast items. We got chatting to the lady behind the counter in the shop and as with most small towns she was happy to share her thoughts on the nights events, most of which cannot be printed here!
In contrast to the cold damp night we had just spent, it was a beautiful sunny morning with a bright blue cloudless sky. We drove a short distance out of town and ate our breakfast picnic sitting on a rock in the glorious sunshine, on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. And there we marvelled at the beauty of the Saint Arnaud countryside. For that alone it was worth the visit.
On a more serious note. Fortunately there was no loss of life, however a lot of people lost their jobs that night. I am happy to see the Lodge has since re-opened for business.