Fragments gay and grave

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One of the exquisite frustrations of editing a magazine like New Zealand Geographic is knowing that there isn’t enough room to say everything one wants to say.

We are information magpies, my associate Warren Judd and I, picking up all manner of shiny oddments of fact and anecdote in the course of our research. Many of these gleanings find their way into captions or sidebars, but most never see the light of day. They are consigned—often with palpable regret—to the status of also-rans.

For, though we crave comprehen­siveness, we also admit to the truth that less is often more. The spare sentence; the uncrowded image—these are as important as imparting that extra gem of knowledge.

And yet it seems such a pity to keep our windfalls of discovery to ourselves.

So on this occasion I’ve decided to dig into the discard file and pull out a few of the cuts that never made it.

It was while looking through the archives at Prices foundry in Thames that Warren Judd came across something which aroused his curiosity: a series of cartoons, often drawn on the backs of other documents. He asked foreman Neil Howe about their creator.

“Doug Barker—well, he was a fitter’s mate, cleaner-cum-tradesman, degreaser, scrapper, crane driver—all those things. Hard to be more specific.”

Whatever else he may have been and done, almost every week—and on other appropriate occasions—this “pretty regular sort of guy” produced a beauti­fully executed cartoon. For the most part, they dealt with works personalities and their idiosyncrasies, or sometimes a company happening, such as an unusual order (railway wagons for Nauru, to be used as chicken coops!), and, every so often, a political subject.

Such a pastime is hardly germane to a story about casting, but it speaks volumes about a camaraderie in working life that is a rarity these days.

We were especially taken by Doug Barker’s vision of what one of his fellow crane driver’s dream chair would look like (below). This bobby-dazzler has control knobs taken directly from the crane’s cab, and much more besides. Move over, Laz-Y-Boy!

Historical stories are always a rich vein to mine, and the Tyree brothers proved to be no exception. We were intrigued to come across a reference to Fred Tyree in Enga Washbourne’s account of early days in Golden Bay, called Courage and Camp Ovens. Locals had discovered a 12-foot swordfish dead on the sand at Pakawau, apparently the victim of its own three-foot sword, which was wedged into the sand right up to the hilt. Fred was notified to come and photograph the spectacle, but never materialised. A few days later, when asked why he hadn’t come, he replied that, as the request came on April 1, he thought it must have been a practical joke.

The tales Derek Grzelewski told us in the course of his research on caving tended more to the macabre, but they greatly increased our respect for these adventurers of the underground.

One story involved three Austrian students at the end of last century. Foolishly, they carried only one light source (modern cavers insist on having three). When the light died, they were near a side wall of the cavern they were exploring. Beyond them, all was black and empty space. Thinking to retrace their steps, they all kept one hand on the wall and lit a match every now and then to guide them. Their bodies were found a short distance from a circular trail of spent matches: they had been walking round and round a column 16 metres in diameter before giving up in despair.

Then there was the story of Floyd Collins, who languished for two weeks wedged in a Kentucky cave while bungling attempts were made to dig him out. He died of starvation and exposure before rescuers reached him.

No doubt such stories came flooding back to Derek as he tried to thrust himself through some of the more difficult cave “squeezes” he encountered during his field work. He later commented that the ideal caver would be a “spineless midget contortionist, equipped with gills and webbed feet, and, like a glowworm, generating its own light.”

On a more constructive note, we learned how Auckland geographer Peter Crossley, the original compiler of the Atlas of New Zealand Caves, earned the nickname “the stal doctor.” A notewor­thy stalagmite in Waipuna Cave in Waitomo was accidentally knocked over, and broke into a dozen pieces. After obtaining permission from the Department of Conservation, Peter removed the chunks of calcite, cleaned them up and glued them together with epoxy resin. He then laboriously transported the two-metre speleothem back into the cave and reinstalled it.

It is from such fragments as these that all insight is born.

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