Washout puts travel into chaos

''Panic and confusion'' was how a bus driver who arrived in Wanaka from the West Coast yesterday afternoon summed up the mood of tourists affected by the washed out Wanganui River bridge at Harihari, south of Hokitika.

Newmans bus driver John Hamilton would normally have 20 passengers on board for his trip south from Franz Josef at this time of year, but yesterday all his 49 seats were taken.

The loss of the Wanganui bridge on Wednesday meant tourists heading north up the West Coast intending to continue to Christchurch were forced to retrace their steps south to Wanaka.

Mr Hamilton said the disruption was confusing a lot of tourists and a lot were panicking - particularly those who had planned to take the train from Greymouth to Christchurch.

The tourists' problems had been compounded by the lack of communication, Mr Hamilton said. There were no cellphone, or land lines, or internet connections available.

''And it's too wet to light a fire for smoke signals.''

Three tourists from Alabama due to fly home from Christchurch at 6.30am today were still pondering their next move outside the Wanaka i-Site at 3pm yesterday.

Darren Abbott said they had tried and failed to get a flight from Queenstown in time for their Christchurch flight.

He had spoken to his airline who suggested he ring his travel agent who suggested he ring the airline. They had no vehicle or booked accommodation.

As Mr Abbott discussed their predicament with the ODT, the driver of an Atomic shuttle bus, Stu Evans, offered them a ride to Cromwell and said his office was working to find a way for them to reach Christchurch in time for their flight.

Wanaka i-Site supervisor Michelle Smith said the office handled 1567 inquiries on Wednesday, many of them related to the disruption on the West Coast and also because of cancelled trips to Fiordland.

There were still queues yesterday afternoon.

Many of the questions were about accommodation but Ms Smith said there was ''not a lot'' left in Wanaka.

''It is very difficult.''

• The damaged State Highway 6 bridge over the the Wanganui River, near Harihari was being assessed by structural engineers yesterday, paying particular attention to possible damage to its piers. They are considering installing a Bailey bridge to restore the main arterial route temporarily.

''Our contractors are already on site lifting large boulders into the floodwaters to try to divert the Wanganui River back on to its original course - that will hopefully help us assess the significant damage caused when the river changed course earlier, and allow the subsequent work to proceed more quickly,'' NZTA's senior asset manager for the West Coast, Mark Pinner, said.

The NZTA said there are no other alternative routes in that region between the West Coast and Wanaka and Queenstown, and drivers are being diverted east of the Southern Alps.

• A Telecom spokeswoman late yesterday afternoon said a temporary solution had been put in place at three affected cellphone sites on the West Coast and services ''should return to normal''.

- mark.price@odt.co.nz