Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

10 September 2009

New Zealand’s West Coast Road

Rummaging through a shoe box I came across this photograph of our Volkswagen 1200 taken above Lake Hawea in 1964. Despite the warning we attempted to complete a circumnavigation of the lower South Island from Canterbury through Otago, across the Southern Alps by way of Haast Pass then north up the West Coast to turn inland to return to North Canterbury via Arthurs Pass.
Vastly optimistic and in a fit of cognitive dissonance I thought we might convince somebody at the Ministry of Works camp at the southern end of the gap in the new road to take us across the last river to the north end on a Works truck.

No such luck. Hours after taking the picture we had travelled the long, hazardous, dusty shingle road over the mountains and up the coast to a point where the nascent highway ended abruptly at a deep, sluggish, tea-brown stream. We had arrived on a Sunday afternoon; a cluster of temporary huts showed no sign of life. We got out of the car and stretched while gazing around at the almost tropical high native forest that crowded upon the ruthless scar of human intrusion. Sandflies hovered like malignant spirits ready to bite any uncovered skin - even ankles through socks.

Eventually there emerged from one of the huts a stocky, ginger, freckly paunchy man wearing only a pair of filthy shorts. He stood squinting at me, dishevelled as if aroused from deep sleep that I suspected to be alcohol induced for his throaty Irish accent was slurred beyond belief. He informed me that he was the weekend watchman and was the only one there. I asked him how wide was the gap between the two ends of the road. ‘Half a moil, no more’. But, he said, although ‘puddle jumpers’ (by which I assumed he meant the Works trucks) could cross, there was no way we could in the VW either unaided or by truck-tray.

He squinted past me down the road. ‘A woman came the other day on a boik,’ he said, as he scratched the red sandfly bites that blotched his lard-white skin. ‘She said she was going to cross the creek so she carried her boik into the bush on her shoulders and we haven’t seen her since.’ He said it sadly but showed little concern.

That was in 1964. I wonder what happened to her after she entered the almost impenetrable forest whose roots were mostly bog bound. Did her bones turn brown to match the rusting frame of her ‘boik’? And did anybody miss her?

It was a very, very long drive back to Central Otago that afternoon and night.

The following year the road opened and they took the warning sign away.


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By Don Donovan