There was a moment there in Arthur’s Pass when I saw myself abandoning Auckland. I’d seen them chiselling, hacking and hewing at raw rock under spotlight at midnight, with sleet roaring and swirling off the cliffside into an alpine void. At the bar I’d heard noncha‑lant tales of avalanche and rockfall and the rumble of earthquakes. I’d smelled lightning in the air.
And I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to build a road among mountains. I’d find a cabin in the woods. Sign on. Take my place on the jackhammer at the edge. Join that heroic labour. Become part of an unsung and noble gang of roadbuilders that for more than a hundred years has pioneered this country.
Up here, nothing has changed. In 1866, archdeacon Henry Harper wrote of the pass: “It is sterile, bleak and savage enough to be the haunt of Kuhleborn himself, with attendant gnomes and sprites, for it’s flanked by majestic precipices of rock scored with channels, down which the watergod comes in great cascades.”
And, I can add, bedevilled by electric storms the like of which only a mountain dweller knows. On one such night, I sat pressing my nose against the frozen glass of the chalet window, a duvet wrapped around my shoulders, while for hours on end the valley, the surrounding peaks, the entire snowclad world was caught in repeated flashbulb glare, followed on the instant by thunder of explosive volcanic force. A kind of concussive crashing that seemed to grow from the very foundations of the mountains.
Over breakfast at the Chalet guesthouse, with the beech still tossing their heads in a tantrum, I learned that up at White Bridge the road gang had worked on through the night. By midnight the stream had became a flood-driven torrent, tumbling boulders and timber before it. But at the bottom of caissons driven into rock for new footings the workers saw no reason to stop.
I drove up there one night. At the bottom of holes were men loading greywacke by hand into buckets, the fine grey wet dust from the drilling plastering their faces with a zombie pallor. Among the mountains, a floodlit set for some epic movie.
That epic scale and drama is why some of the workers are here. “Where else would you get the chance to do something like this?” said one of them. “My first day I was up the cage drilling rock. Here the rock is all cracked and rotten and you actually get water pouring out through the broken lumps. I was up there fixing stabilising mesh. Nobody can control a mountain, but we try!”
The fire siren interrupts our conversation. I make hurried apologies and drive over icy roads in the direction of the sound. Down through the gorge past Starvation Point the mountainside is pink from reflected flame. There is no saving the landmark Otira tea-rooms as it collapses beneath a sheet of flame.
Over the years I have stopped many times at Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand’s only true alpine village, and have come to see this neck of the mountain as a haunt of wayfarers, rogues, innkeepers, tragedy, disappearance, kamikaze bulls and companionship.
I had first been attracted by the untainted pioneer beauty of the baches sprinkled through the beech-clad valley that runs down from the road. A walk along the shingle paths of the village at night—as the cold sets in and the windows start to glow like storm lanterns and chimney smoke curls through the trees—is like entering the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
The original bach-holders had the foresight to plant beech everywhere, but also decreed there would be no fences. The result is a flowing form to the village uninterrupted by the usual sense of petty suburban allotment that destroys so much New Zealand streetscape.
In the cabin interiors I spy brass beds, ancient fly-fishing rods, glorious wood-grained skis and stone fireplaces. Wirelesses set permanently to the National Programme. Relief maps framed on the wall. These are not installations ordered by some interior designer for an ersatz lodge. In the understatement you can hear the quiet rustle of Christchurch “old money.”
Among these cabins is the most beautiful church in the world—not that you’d pick it from the outside. But draw open the doors and high on the opposite end wall, framed by clear glass, is a crystal waterfall that launches from the mountainside, leaping and tumbling and endless.
Somehow the framed waterfall is perfectly positioned, there above this quiet place of worship, to settle all argument that seeks to reduce by science or superstition the unknowable random power of life. If that kind of sentiment seems absurdly portentous, then blame the architect.
Certainly, when the church was built in 1955, this reordering of church design so that worshippers would raise their eyes to nature caused some kerfuffle among church conservatives who, as ever, had a sharp eye for the heretical. What words from a mere pulpit could ever compete with the mocking grandeur of such a waterfall?
I shifted my eyes and saw that the lectern and communion rail were a gift from a family whose son, Samuel Russell, died in the waterfall’s catchment. I felt to my bones the comfort of this place of refuge and certainty among the ice and rock of the mountains.
Just the night before I had been high in those mountains with my 13-year-old daughter. And slightly anxious. We’d climbed for some hours through an endless alpine garden, through grandfather beech, bearded with lichen. In the gathering dusk our but was still a good distance ahead, somewhere near the snowline.
Zinzi—city-slacker to the core—was new to this. She was getting restless, was bored with the effort of the climb, the way the straps of her pack dug into her shoulders. She wanted to change channels. The urban reflex.
I pointed out the position of the sun, a few inches above the western peaks. I gently explained that when it disappeared behind the mountains we would be in real trouble. “We have to find the but before dark. We have no choice. There is no choice. There is no mall. No KFC. There is just you and me, this mountain and the sun. Nothing else counts or matters.”
I knew we had plenty of time, but I wanted to see my daughter reach inside, to encounter her own strength. Wanted to see a response beyond the usual litany of LA-speak, beyond whatever! And there, in the freezing moun‑taro air, I could see a meditation at work within her. An adulthood at work.
She shouldered her pack. Found her strength. Now the only sound was the squelch of boots in bog and the meditation of our breathing, as she led—as she became someone I had never seen before. A transformation among these massive clean clear mountains. The crystal air. Sharp blue sky.
That night, safe within the corrugated-iron walls of true shelter, a mustering but from the turn of the 19th century, framed with raw smoke-blackened logs and tagged with ancient carved initials, I studied my daughter’s face. We’d finished the stew, and in the firelight alone together were sharing a mug of black billy tea.
She had been first to proudly spot the hut, had been welcomed by kea, and then together we gathered wood, prising frozen branches from the snow. She set the candles while I set the fire. Nervous of my skill, I used a plastic drink bottle as a mini-bellows. It was bitter cold. We needed that fire. And now her eyes sparkled.
There is nothing unusual in these mountains about experiencing that powerful sense of human refuge. Nothing unusual, either, about being caught out up here. Constable Niall Shepherd confirms the danger. “There are heaps of people still up there, lost forever in the mountains. The thing about Arthur’s Pass is that this is one of the few roads in New Zealand that take people right up against severe alpine conditions. In most of the other alpine regions you have to walk in for some days to reach these sorts of conditions, which presupposes some experience. Here you can slam the car door and five minutes later you’re in avalanche country. Problem is, how do you judge your own inexperience?”
Niall and his wife, Ann, who works at the Department of Conservation visitors’ centre, are both trained paramedics—they met on a course—and are nothing less than the village guardians. Up here in the mountains the responsibility they feel is personal. Although they can rely on the villagers, it’s not easy work.
There have been seven drownings in five years. They had to chainsaw a log-jam to free the body of one woman. And always the emotional demands of dealing with distraught people facing awful circumstances. Like the family group who took the wrong turn down a scree slope. Ann recalls: “The husband happened to be in front of his wife and child when he fell. His wife was amazing. Made sure the child was safe and found her way around the bluff down to the husband to confirm he was dead. Then climbed back up for her child and walked for hours to get out—just before dark. We got the helo straight up to bring him back. You don’t want to leave anyone out overnight if you can help it.”
Up at the pass, the road-builders are reassured to know that two dedicated medical professionals are only minutes away. The viaduct, bypassing the switchbacks, was completed late 1999. Now the road-builders are adding a second lane to the old ledge cut into the side of the crumbling, near vertical mountainside that lines the gorge. To protect the traveller from rockfall, they are also building two sections of rock shelter.
The shelter at Reid’s Fall—a play on words which commemorates an early roadworker who fell to his death from the falls—is designed as a shute, a ski-jump that will nimbly launch both rock and water out over the road and into the gorge.
The larger shelter, near Starvation Point, relies on brute strength to protect the traveller. This roadway bunker is roofed with an impact-absorbing sandwich of steel, concrete, polystyrene, gravel and sand that is almost three metres thick.
That whole structure weighs some 5000 tonnes and has been drilled, bolted and otherwise fixed to the side of a mountain. Because it was too dangerous to excavate further into the mountainside, the extra lane and the shelters are supported by beams cantilevered out beyond the original ledge. Like a see-saw with one end anchored.
The complex business of building the thing on the side of a cliff is risk enough, but the greatest risk comes from the mountain above. There is simply no way to secure an entire mountainside of boulders. The steep face above the unprotected road is living and lethal. The freeze and thaw of winter rolls rocks on to the road like the throw of dice.
I learn how the process works—how water trickles behind a rock and then freezes; the expansion nudges the rock a millimetre further out from the face, allowing more water in, which freezes once again.
There is no protection against a soccer ball-sized rock, somewhere on the mountainside, reaching the end of its freeze/thaw/tumble cycle. In this roadgang, with a language for everything, they call such rocks “bounders.”
Alan Black, of Fulton-Hogan, the road-building contractor, is acutely aware of the risk. “One of the problems is that dealing too aggressively with lower-danger rocks could destabilise the entire hillside above. The more you try to minimise, the more you disturb. What you’ve got to watch for is rock relaxation. A rock may be locked in place by great stress. You cut into that rock, you’ve removed the stress and the rock relaxes. We had a 50-tonne boulder land on a drilling rig because of that.
“We have weekly meetings on safety issues. Because of the extreme physical nature of the work, everybody gets personally involved. We talk about which rock is starting to cause concern. Then we climb up there with mesh, trying to strike the balance. But there’s nothing you can do if a 10-tonne wedge wants to fall out. We had that. Bloke had just walked past. No warning. No sound. This is pretty delicate country.”
Heavy rain is a prime danger. “The blokes over at White Bridge keep working, but when it rains we’re not here. In a big storm the boulders come flying down Reid’s Fall. One slide closed the road for a week.” As we walk among men bent to their tasks I suggest that imaginative types need not apply. “You could say we don’t have any trouble enforcing the hard-hat rule!”
As Black explains how they’ve hired mountaineers to help build this road, I look up and see a team roped up on the side of the falls, jackhammering armchair-sized notches into the rock as platforms to receive the first crossbeams of a concrete shute system.
I jerk my thumb towards a heavy truck negotiating the outside lane of a completed roadway section—the half of the see-saw that hangs over the edge—and ask Black if he ever feels the tiniest little pang of anxiety—you know, like has the glue dried?
Despite its home-handyman provenance the question isn’t entirely silly. Along the cliffside the surface rock is badly fractured—unsuitable for normal footings—so to secure the road beams they’ve had to drill a series of micro-holes 20 m deep to receive steel anchors.
I note that many of these holes have been filled with water. It’s about dealing with the problem of “losing grout to country,” I am told. The problem is that if they simply pumped concrete into the holes there would be no way of knowing how much of it was simply leaking through fissures into the underlying rock. Being “lost to country.”
When the entire roadway, cantilevered over the abyss, depends on the integrity of these micro-piles, strength is paramount. So first they fill the completed holes with a watery mixture of grout, designed to plug any holes. They then drill out the grout. The hole is filled with water and tested for any volume loss. Only when each of several hundred micro-piles has passed muster do they extract the water, insert the anchors and pump the final concrete mix.
As Black explains all this, he stoops and, in the fastidious reflex of the professional, scoops fragments of formwork floating at the surface of one hole. To bond anything—be it cup handle or entire road—you have to keep the joint clean.
Digging further into my storehouse of construction knowledge, and mindful of how the least domestic project—such as painting the laundry—always seems to involve either absurd shortage or insane over-supply, I want to know how you quote a $10 million job which has never been done before down to the last bolt?
He pulls out a 200-page wad of engineering hieroglyphics, dense with the sort of indecipherable diagrams found in the no-go sections of owner’s manuals. My brain closes down in a protective seizure. I’ve been near plans like this before, the ones that don’t bother telling you that some assembly is required.
Indeed, what can be accomplished with a few twirls of a drafting mouse back in some comfortable head office over a packet of Krispies with a two-bar heater directed at the ankles has a way of translating to the on-site impossible. As any home-builder wrestling with an architect’s plans will tell you.
Black understands the imagery. “One little problem we had was that the plans called for 60-tonne beams to cantilever the second lane of road out from the cliffside, but we could only fit a 50-tonne crane into place. So we had to find a way to redesign the process. Construction this big would normally see big machinery, but the confines of the gorge and the cliff and the need to keep the road open meant we couldn’t get the big rigs in. A lot of the work here is done by hand.”
I was never the Meccano type of child, but now, talking to Black, I am inspired. I think of the men who built the Otira tunnel—how they cut by hand from both sides of a mountain and met in the middle only inches out. How did they do it? In his dead-pan way, Black mentions that the triangle has been around for a few thousand years. “Up on that mountain is a trig station, another one over there. Calculation does the rest.”
But there is nothing matter-of-fact about the result. Arthur Dobson—surveyor extraordinaire—had parlayed the world of trigonometry into a life of exploration and derring-do. Back then the business of turning every twist and wrinkle of these mountainous islands into contour squiggles was like mapping the genome of a whole country, and was lauded as just as significant.
Dobson wasn’t alone in having his achievements celebrated. So vital was the skill of survey—the art of interpreting Euclid’s discovery—to the creation and efficient administration of Empire that George Everest who organised the physical measurement of India was rewarded with the ultimate accolade in naming rights. An unpleasant fellow, given to whipping his servants, he was particularly exact about the pronunciation of his name in its correct form: EVE-rest. As the English Spectator remarked, “his peppery soul must be eternally irritated.”
Just like the road-builders before them, the current team has brought life to the village. Black’s twin daughters give the ballet teacher pupils to teach. The crane-driver has married locally, and at n_FS. the weekly village get-together at the Chalet their newborn—all swaddled up against the cold—is snatched from their arms by the villagers the instant they enter.
There have been enough children to keep the school open—though sometimes only just. A sun-flooded open structure of alpine stone with windows looking out to mountains, the school, for a child, must be a place of dreams. Michael Bohny, who runs the Chalet with his wife, Marion, tells me of the teacher who read to them daily from Tolkien and who built a Lord of the Rings map in the children’s minds of their mountain home. “GandalPs lair was up behind the school. We had tracks all over the place.”
A child only needs one such teacher in its life. But up here the teacher’s work cannot have been difficult. Not when, for the children, exploring the stream behind the store once revealed the secret of a skeleton washed down from Avalanche Peak. Or when fathers brought home chamois on their backs.
And still these children’s roadbuilder fathers are out there, chiselling mountainside, coming home huge in boots, coat and helmet. At night, the children sometimes join adults from the village and trek deep into the beech to plot the cry of kiwi in the chill. And parrots still play in the blizzard.
Twice a day the Trans Alpine train passes through this world. Up front in the cab on one journey I talked with Alastair Cumming, 20 years a train driver. As we traced the crumbling edges of a river gorge, launching out across one viaduct after another, a squall of sleet hit the windscreen. The Morris Minor wipers flopped feebly at the glass. In a reflex response to the sudden blindness, Cumming hit the horn. I asked him about the fear of not being able to stop. He said he had hit three cars, but in each case there were no fatalities.
Being alone in the cab doesn’t make the fear any easier for a driver. Back in the days when rail was king, there would be a crew of three—three pairs of eyes and the support of other trained men to carry the journey. They have been replaced by a vigilance alarm which beeps at intervals. If the driver fails to silence the alarm, it turns into a klaxon and the brakes switch on automatically.
In Cumming’s cab, next to this relentless loudspeaker—a sort of snitching electronic little brother—was an artifact from those cosy days of cups of tea, of spelling one another. Bolted to the wall was an industrial-sized water heater with a power cord and plug seemingly capable of handling the current for a small town. Beside the power socket was a brass plate with the words “water heater.” Some apprentice at the Otira workshops probably spent weeks on the thing. Back then they knew its importance. There is no use now for this over-engineered tea-making relic of the days when human priorities counted; the days that built Otira.
Soon we cleared the gorge, and a good distance ahead we spotted a bull on the track. Cumming hit the brakes, sounded the horn. With the bull standing firm in unshifting ignorance there was an awful inexorability about the result. The clang of impact was still a surprise. A tonne of kamikaze beef and bone was punched off the track.
The bull was still alive, but nothing was carried on the train for a mercy kill. Cumming radioed the trackman responsible for this section to come back with a rifle, and we got under way. Cumming told me that if we had been driving a lighter engine he’d have ordered me to the floor. “Bulls are so big-boned the wheels don’t always cut through them, and once a wheel is in the air you can’t be sure if it’ll come back to the rail.” De-railings can see a fatally smothering crush of ballast forced through the windscreen into the cab. The contest between bull and 500 tonnes of train can end in a draw.
Out from Arthur’s Pass the train disappeared into the Otira tunnel, a time-travel tube that in the space of a few minutes delivered us from von Trapp country to Costa Rica. Here on the West Coast an enormous rainfall has sprouted a jungle, on that day frosted with snow.
True to form, there was heavy rain. The rainforest mountains shouldering in above us were shrouded in bruise-black cloud. High in the gloom, seams of silver shone where freshly spawned waterfalls poured over cliffs.
A hundred and fifty years ago, to the English concentrated in coastal Canterbury, the fabled lands of the interior were a place of untold terrors. The idea of any connection through the mountains was seen as madness. Coasters, revealing an attitude never seen since, complained that any road linking them with Christchurch would lead to outside control. They were perfectly happy with the ship to Melbourne.
But on March 15, 1866, the first coach, with one passenger, made the journey, establishing a tenuous link. On average, in that early period, the road was utterly destroyed every second winter. There had been an earlier mail service, a pony express which required rider and horse to swim rivers no fewer than 27 times on each journey.
Even within the confines of a museum, stagecoaches are awe-inspiring contraptions, but lurching down ledges among waterfall and rock, with up to 21 passengers crammed into a compartment suspended on leather straps three metres off the ground, they must have constituted true nightmare.
Travellers told of the squeal of iron rims on rock, the staggering and bracing and sweating of horses before the whip. Coach drivers were competitive and often attempted foolhardy river crossings relying on the current to carry coach, horse and passengers downstream to landfall. After enduring the gorge it is recorded that many passengers refused the return journey, preferring to travel by sea to Christchurch via Melbourne.
Added to the natural dangers was the fear of highwaymen and brigands attracted by the spoils of the gold rush. Tales of robbery, murder and even cannabilism among the outlaws provoked such alarm that the Christchurch Press proposed an armoured coach—a veritable “iron-clad redoubt, loopholed for musketry where robbers could be shot from within the vehicle.”
In the days of real competition among newspapers the Lyttelton Times was only too happy to lampoon the Press suggestion, pointing out that the wagon might be ironclad, but what about the horses and the driver? The paper recommended that the bandits, having shot both driver and horse, should wait until night, when they would have immense fun “smoking the guards out.”
But even now in patches of country surrounding the national park there remains a lost world where all is not spring lambs and Cremoata. Up long drives screened by windbreak macrocarpa in desolate, oncewere-shepherds’ cottages can be found lives of drug-addled desiccation. A world of missing hitch-hikers, of dope deals gone sour, of mongrel guard dogs and beat-up cars parked to no good purpose in unlikely lay-bys.
Through the pass these latter-day brigands come not in search of gold but for dope, stopping only to pillage the parked cars of honest trampers or to break into cabins sheltered in the woods. They come through Constable Shepherd’s patch, take the risk of passing under his nose.
In this alpine air it is not difficult to pick them, this mullet-cut crew who somehow combine a swagger with a skulk. Shepherd is hot on car break-ins, the scourge of the tramper New Zealand-wide. “We’ve had them break in and steal just one shoe from each pair,” he tells me.
Shepherd was first stationed at Otira, 14 years ago, when there were still railways people in residence. He says the death throes of the town weren’t always pleasant to witness. “There were the genuine people who were just down on their luck, finding a cheap place to live, and then there were the others.”
To this mix has been added a seasonal influx of snowboarders—all polypropylene and 4WD Subaru—attracted by cheap rent and proximity to the Temple Basin skifield. To a man, they affect that irritating, semitranquilised, mid-Pacific drawl that hails from somewhere between California and Paritai Drive. Every second word is awesome!
I had first seen the strange deserted town from the train. Once a bustling rail town complete with a hangar-sized workshop, by 1998 the town had been virtually abandoned. That’s when Bill and Chrissie Hennah, both in their 50s, happened to come south from Auckland for a holiday.
Chrissie explained: “On the train commentary we heard that the town was up for sale. And here we are. As far as we can work out, we’ve got 100 acres, 18 houses, a hall and a pub. It cost us $70,000.”
Why did they leave the big city? “I wanted to get away from typing,” said Chrissie. But Bill, a carpenter, hasn’t got away from carpentry. Now he is responsible for the upkeep of a whole ghost town gently decaying in the near permanent rain of this alpine gulch.
We went on a tour that took us past the town’s forlorn playground. “Sure, the swing frames look a little barren without actual swings in them, but I’m not rushing things.” Chrissie agreed with that.
When I first met them, the Hennahs had yet to endure the legendary Otira wind-tunnel winter, where it is customary to tape windows in advance of a storm to prevent flying glass. “We’ll deal with that when it gets here,” said Bill, stroking his stubbled chin. “I see the trees have already lost their leaves. Actually, they’ve lost their branches.”
Now, a year later, I’m back to see how the town is doing. Rolling into Otira, I see a collection of vehicles drawn up to the pub like pups to the teat. The railyards, rail workshops and railway houses—still looking derelict and abandoned—linger like the ghosts of a once purposeful community: a place where vege gardens were the measure of a man, and clotheslines full of station-master starch stood to attention. Norm Kirk country.
In those days, the two communities of Arthur’s Pass and Otira were linked by the umblical cord of rail and the tunnel, with a lively informal traffic according to the social attractions on offer. You could always rely on a ride. I think of the tea urn and its pride of place in the cab.
Today, Otira stands like one of those refugee outposts in the Nevadan desert, minus only the tumbleweed. I decide to stay. Tonight is a big night, a darts tournament. The hotel fills with Swanndri worn like a second skin. Towards dusk—out the window—I spot a smudge of colour against the shale. A woman in elegant chiffon eveningwear is picking her way across the rail line, gold lame sandals dainty among the soot and the frost. There is bravery of spirit in this town.
There couldn’t be a greater contrast than Otira and its skifield neighbour, Temple Basin. Hiking straight up the side of a mountain—the only way to reach the field, and for me a three-hour slog—I am passed by successions of apple-cheeked South Island teenagers who greet me with encouraging Sunday-strolling pleasantries: Lovely day! Not far to go!
And up at the skifield, in the clubrooms ruled by sensible rosters—luggage lift rosters, cooking rosters, cleaning rosters—there’s a whole bustle of motivation: of things being seen to. I reflect how wonderful it is that city-slacker malaise and its pathogens of grunge and gloominess cannot survive the clarity of this air, the steepness of the climb or the lesson that effort is its own reward.
Later, I talk to club vice-president, Richard Butler, about the attractions of Temple Basin, established in 1929, with every stick of timber hauled in by club-members. “It’s all about giving real value to the right things. Even the snowboarders are learning that. At first they used to scrounge, but now they pitch in. We’ve had to instil in them the rules of the mountain community. Things like the speed of the slowest is the speed of the party. That you help each other. That you can rely on each other.”
In Otira, they’ve had to deal with the casualties: the serial arsonists, the armed offender squad call-outs, the busload of netballers hiding in the village from the Southern Vikings gang in a social mood. I hear a few more rules of the mountain. “In the Wild West they’d shoot anybody stealing a horse. Around here you steal a man’s firewood or his coal—or worse, his stash—you’ll get shot!”
I’m discovering all of this from some snowboarders at the Otira tearooms, some distance from the village and the pub. I introduce my daughter to the bluff, bearded Coaster, Mark Burgess, who was running the place. “This is Zinzi. She’s from Ponsonby and thinks the Coast sucks ’cause you don’t know how to make coffee.”
“Enjoy your possum burger,” he replies.
And there in the cosy tea-rooms Burgess tells us he’s going back to the Coast, giving up the business. He gives me a stack of historical documents.
A few hours later I am watching the Otira fire crew running around like ants before flame that completely envelops the building. The crew’s efforts have been handicapped by the absence of the fire engine, left back in the firehouse because the keys had gone missing. Or had they been stolen? Previous arsonists—there have been more than one—made a habit of immobilising the engine before doing their work. The last time it was sugar in the tank.
The papers Burgess gave me are the only things to survive the fire.
The following night finds me back among the gingerbread cottages of Arthur’s Pass village at a book club evening. It’s not long before talk switches to the perennial of rail freight. “Yep, they rang to tell me I had an order of ice-cream at the station—four hours after they dropped it. We could tell it was ice-cream!”
I hear about the annual gumboot, raft and wheelbarrow race, the village version of the Coast to Coast. How some cut the soles from their gumboots so they could run in trainers, how others ran alongside the river carrying lilos. They’re looking to tighten the rules.
I hear that cabin fever here is different from the usual small-town life sentence. “Nobody is forced to be here. Everybody has chosen this life. There’s a broad range of people coming through and a broad range who stay.
There’s one thing we’ve got in common: we look out our bedroom window and we see mountains.”
And although there can be moods, there is a village agreement not to take each other’s bad patches personally. They have the Chalet as a focal point but there’s also the general store, a place of warmth, coffee and company almost in the American style.
It was from the store that one day I spied an odd straggling group walking in from the station. A wedding party dressed in Sunday best. They had been married on the train and were heading for a reception at the Chalet, next to the roaring log fire.
Although they didn’t know it, the Chalet itself is the product of a marriage made in the mountains. In 1955, Michael Bohny’s parents, Pat and Hans, arrived in the village. Hans was a dashing ski instructor from Switzerland—from the Continent.
To a New Zealand stale with scones and milky tea the very word continental carried with it the tang of espresso and cheroot smoke—a cachet still reflected in the chocolate label. And so it was natural for the young couple to experiment. They turned their cottage on the main street into a continental restaurant, carting the building supplies from the station by wheelbarrow.
Sitting next to the fireplace they built, Pat tells me of those early days. “It was a wonderful time. I remember climbing Mt Rolleston, and in the afternoon we sat amongst the warm rocks, all the daisies, the mountain lilies. It was perfect, lying out on the tussock having conquered the mountain.”
That day, although it is snowing, I take my daughter up the Rolleston track. She is entranced by the custard yellow shagpile moss that carpets the forest floor. Dotted among the moss are tiny plants with bright purple globular fruit that look to have been planted from a miniature alien spacecraft. We sprawl on our backs on this cushion and look up at snow flakes drifting through the tree-tops.
For some reason Zinzi has insisted on wearing a fur coat, and like a Dr Zhivago countess seeking exile she climbs without complaint further into the snowfall. Higher up the valley we stop at the avalanche sign and shelter in the cleft of a rock. We imagine Maori rock drawings concealed beneath the moss.
The snow eases and we return to the stream, to the waterfalls gushing champagne into pools whose depths are a cool minted green. We scan the streambed gravel for gold nuggets. Zinzi wants to build a dam, a different proposition here from the sandy lagoons of home. As she works, hauling boulders about, she worries about frostbite. She finds a stick to lever the larger boulders into final position. She creates a diversion channel so that her dam is not overwhelmed.
A city girl in a fur coat, lost in her work. The compulsion of creation, an instinct that Arthur and all those who followed him would have understood. The rich, full sound of the river.
Writing this, back in Auckland, the images are as strong as ever. My daughter and I in a musterer’s hut, the grand icy alpine night settling on the mountains around our ears. Stepping lightly into the morning sun. The work of a new fire, and leaving the but better than we found it. Stepping down the path among bellbird and fantail. A sense of true, deserved well-being. The distillation of many simple satisfactions. The rules of the mountain.
And I realise, now that the roadbuilders have finished taming the way through these mountains, the pioneering era is finally over. With the road through the pass kerbed and channelled and protected from rockfall there will be few hints to the traveller of the struggle and sacrifice.
But at the look-out, a traveller might see two nameplates: Tony Western, hit by a pump on the viaduct, and, just after my visit, Stan Kuka, felled by a rogue bounder. The last of a breed.