Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

09 September 2009

Day on a Bare Mountain: Survival on the Old Dunstan Road

This story was broadcast on New Zealand Radio in 1978. The Lammermoor Range, where it all happened, has recently come into the news because there’s a plan afoot to install on its remote hilltops one of those abominations: a wind farm.

The Old Dunstan Road connects the Taeri Plain and Dunedin with the old goldfields of Central Otago. It traverses the grain of a hard landscape, rising to over a thousand metres across old, weatherworn hills pocked with rocky outcrops and carpeted with rustling tussock and prickly ’spaniard’.

The road was travelled by the goldminers of the early days on foot or horseback. They humped their swags in search of the gold that most never found. But the road is tempting to the modern traveller and, surely, easy going in a six-cylinder saloon - especially in summer?

I persuaded my wife and two young daughters (10 and 8 that our approach to Central Otago must be by way of the Old Dunstan Road. The map said ‘fair weather road only’. This was summer so that should be all right.
Leaving Dunedin at nine in the morning, we wove through the foothills of the Lammermoor Range, the car purring, camper trailer following faithfully behind. The sky, was grey and lowering, but looked better over Central, better weather, after all, was what we had searched for since we had left humid Auckland in the far north. Soon the road divided; smooth, tar seal one way, shingle the other. We turned towards the Old Dunstan Road, and as we climbed through the wet, dun coloured hills sheep scampered across our track as if they’d never seen a car before.

Soon, miles in, the road developed a surface that resembled flowing caramel. The drizzle at times intensified and then relented. The car, equipped with tyres that grip the macadam so well, slipped and slewed through the mush. At one point, through the haze of sleety rain, we caught sight of a tent and car beside a stream whose waters lapped the narrow bridge we crossed. As we progressed higher on to the old road we encountered deep puddles - miniature lakes almost - through which I pushed stupidly at full power, thrusting up bow waves that temporarily blotted out our vision but were quickly cleared by our washer-wipers.

But soon a silence fell among us. The humour of a light-hearted adventure was slowly turning into a realization that this was no easy journey. We were being led on by a mischievous spirit that roamed these wanton hills. We believed that we’d less distance to go than we’d come and that we had passed the worst of it.

The map, on such a small scale, misled us. There were traps we’d not foreseen. We had mistaken summer for ‘fair weather’. We had not realized that while summer might exist elsewhere in this green and pleasant land the Old Dunstan Road and the Lammermoor Range determined their own seasons.

Soon we were bogged down. Our wheels threw up a filthy spume as we tried, first forward then back, to extricate ourselves, but only going deeper into the devil’s borsch of icy clayey water. Believing us to be near the end of the road, I told the family to wait while I walked on to get help. There must be a tractor just over the next ridge. So, dressed for a jaunt in jandals, shorts and short sleeved shirt I walked onwards slipping and sliding, drenched by the icy rain. Over one rise, then another, and another, I shivered and then found my body shaking uncontrollably with apprehension and chill. Before me was the final, cynical barrier; a river into which I waded to my waist but which grew deeper.

My car could not possibly cross that torrent.

I turned, with sagging spirits, and headed back for the only comfort in this dripping desert - my family. I felt near to exhaustion. The only way to help was through the many miles we had already come - miles that I must yet cover.

After an interminable age I saw our car and staggering to it I leaned against it sobbing with cold and desperation and the awful responsibility of having taken my loved ones into this frightful place.

My wife, with that sobering authority that so comforts the ‘head of the household’ dried me out and, in that incredibly confined space, helped me into dry clothes. Our only food was a box of chocolates given to us by our hosts of the night before. They sustained us marvellously as did a heart-warming gulp of whisky. And so, better clad in gum boots, sweater and parka, my pockets filled with after dinner mints, I forced my way into the sleet.

Soon, I was soaked through again. The rain, attacking me as so many darts of icy fury, burst upon my ancient parka and ran down the thin trousers into my gumboots. How many times I emptied them I can’t recall. Oscillating between self-uplifted spirits and a ‘lay-down-and-die’ depression, I fooled myself into counting up to one hundred in tens, fives and ones; I measured each splashing footfall as a metre and then counted off the kilometres; I recited in my weakened brain ‘The Daffodils’, ‘The Quality of Mercy’ and I saw myself a pitiful black bundle dying of exposure beside the road mourned only by those who loved me.

I was very sorry for myself. I with the soft hands and slack belly of sedentary comfort, was in a survival situation. And then, after so many badly remembered valleys and hills, I saw that white tent beside the swollen stream, and that stream was but one of so many that had swollen behind our car as we had optimistically challenged the Old Dunstan Road.

A tall, lean man walked towards me out of the rain his arms full of wet wood. He looked me up and down and then, smiling, he said, ‘Gidday, yer gumboots are full of water’.

I croaked my misfortune to him but he seemed unimpressed. Perhaps he was made of steelier stuff than I. But he, with his two companions, cranked his ageing car to life and we slithered - onwards - backwards, to help. His car, of course, could never have reached mine.

Eventually, me shivering with an energy that might have generated electric power, we reached a homestead and I stumbled to the back door.

The farmer, ruddy, monosyllabic, appearing hostile, came, reluctantly it seemed, to my aid. He brought out an old Austin Gipsy four-wheel drive and a heavy hempen rope and we headed once again for the hostile hinterland - a land which, my saviour told me, he hadn’t visited for twenty years.

That is the end of the nightmare really. For, after miles of moisturized misery we came to them, my wife and my children. They had sat for six hours keeping their spirits up and emptying the chocolate box. We were towed back across the Old Dunstan Road - that romantic, horrible road - and sometime after midnight we limped our once magnificent roadster into Dunedin. The radiator was smashed, the head gasket blown, one piston damaged.

That night we slept in the very beds we had left the morning before. We had been to the fringes of life where comfort’s confidence changes into despair and fear becomes a companion.

I slept a dreamful sleep in my exhaustion. Dreams of unknown shapes and staggering ogres - visions of miners lifting their arms to heaven and cursing the Old Dunstan Road.

I shall never go that way again.


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By Don Donovan