Forty-five Queenstown tourists including Real Journeys boss Richard Lauder and his family were airlifted from Milford Sound after a landslip blocked the road.
The massive slip on Friday afternoon brought boulders weighing up to 200 tonnes down on to Milford Road – the only road access to the tourism hotspot.
The majority of day visitors had already left when the road was closed at 4pm by the slip. The rockfall stretches some 200 metres between Falls Creek and Monkey Creek.
But visitors staying at Milford Lodge and those on the overnight Real Journeys cruise, which docked Saturday morning, were flown out by helicopter.
Lauder (right) says: “I was actually one of them.
“I was on the overnight Milford Sound boat with my family, so we had to fly out over the top of the pass over Homer Tunnel.
“We saw the slip and it’s pretty major. It’s massive and having come from that sector there’s going to be some difficulties clearing it because there’s a lot of loose rock that might be a thousand feet above the slip that is just hanging up there.”
Lauder, previously boss of Christchurch council-run infrastructure firm City Care Ltd, says some customers chose to remain in Milford.
“Most were flown out yesterday over the slip and picked up further down Milford Road in one of our coaches,” he says. “But several decided to stay in because they had campervans they were reluctant to abandon on the far side.
“They may be rethinking their position today [Sunday] and I’m guessing fixed wing aircraft may be going in today to mop up the rest.
“There were a few helicopter trips back and forth to fill the coach between 12noon and 3pm.”
NZ Transport Agency contractors began work to clear debris early this morning, following geotechnical assessments of the site yesterday.
NZTA southern area manager Peter Robinson says the work will be carried out as quickly as possible, and the site will be closely monitored to ensure the safety of workers.
Robinson said at this stage the agency was aiming to re-open the road to a single lane by this Wednesday.
The length of the closure and the timing for a full re-opening to two lanes would depend on how quickly contractors are able to break the large rocks apart and remove them.
“Some of the large boulders are estimated to be in the vicinity of 200 tonnes and it appears that the seal under the rocks has been damaged,” Robinson.
A further update will be provided on Monday morning.
Heavy rain and strong winds also caused four avalanches and two smaller rock slips on Friday night.
“When we were out on the Sound it was 60-knot winds and rain,” Lauder says.
“It was still raining a little bit, but only 20-knot winds yesterday. So we could helicopter out. It was a bit gusty, some people thought it was a hairy flight, but it was safe or we wouldn’t have been doing it.”
The tourism firm yesterday ramped up its operations at Doubtful Sound to provide tourists with an alternative destination.