Do you know what happens when you play country music backwards?”
This improbable question is put to me after an hour or more of jolting, juddering travel along an unsealed forestry road in the cab of a muddy ute. A jumble of hard hats, work boots and wet-weather gear is heaped about me. I’m travelling with Mark Wilson, the quietly spoken foreman of Wainui Loggers, a forestry gang that recently began operations in the extensive pine plantations of the Raukumara Range, on the East Cape. For most of the way we’ve been listening to wistful Nashville ballads, interrupted by snatches of RT conversation between the drivers of rigs loaded with logs, cautiously making their way down the ridgelines towards the port of Gisborne.
I have no answer to Mark’s riddle.
“The long-distance truckie gets his wife, his house and his family back,” comes his laconic reply.
The narrow road we’re following runs beside the Tapuaeroa River, a tributary of the Waiapu, which empties into the sea north-east of Ruatoria. It’s July, and a succession of rainstorms has been giving the region a soaking. In places the river has taken hearty bites from the riverbank, and in the half-light of pre-dawn Mark needs to be alert for washouts.
The quip reminds me that my driver has been on the go since two that morning, when he left his home near Whakatane to make the Monday-morning commute round the Cape—and the day’s work hasn’t even begun. Knowing that for the next four days he and the rest of the 11-strong gang will be living in rented accommodation inland from Hicks Bay, I suspect it’s not only a few truckies who’ll be feeling lonesome tonight.
We turn onto an even narrower road, passing a derelict homestead as our vehicle begins to climb. The abandoned cottage is a vestige of the days when shearers and musterers trekked this way on horseback. Mist swirls above the tree line and a brooding mass of soot-grey cloud obscures the mountaintops.
As our tyres chew into the steepening terrain and we pass 1000 metres’ altitude, the sky lets rip with a pyrotechnics display, and thunder reverberates across the valley floor. I wonder if we’ve somehow missed a fork in the road and entered the citadel of Thor.
We round a last bend before coming upon a scene of total devastation. It seems as if one of Thor’s thunderbolts has been directed at the hillside, flattening everything within a broad radius of its point of impact. Not a single tree is standing.
Our ute pulls up at the skid, also known as the dump: a level area half the size of a football field on which felled trees are cut to length. Donning regulation safety gear—a grease-stained fluorescent vest and a bright-yellow hard hat—I step out from the warmth of the vehicle.
No sooner am I out in the open than Thor mounts a second attack, hurling down a barrage of hail, some stones more the size of small rocks than the usual peas. This explains the need for a hard hat, I decide.
I expect the gang to seek shelter, but they appear impervious to the assault from the skies. After a few minutes the hailstorm subsides and a steady rain sets in.
My hands are stinging in the icy air. A voice behind me says it all: “Welcome to the Rip!”
Chainsaws burst into life and an assortment of heavy machines start up, belching thick black diesel exhaust. Two loaders with long metal claws grab at a giant untidy woodpile, effortlessly flinging three-and four-metre saw-logs onto neat stacks or dragging entire trees to the delimbing machine at the edge of the skid.
After a while a heavy-set logger saunters over and introduces himself as Howard Skipps, the gang boss and owner of most of the hardware on display. He begins by mentioning, in what I come to recognise as a characteristically understated manner, that the parcel of forest the gang is working—known for some inexplicable reason as the Rip—is “not really a winter block.” Although I’ve been here less than an hour, the biting cold and the driving rain that is finding its way through the seams of my coat and sticking my shirt to my back have already helped me establish that fact.
Howard tells me that Wainui Loggers are the new boys on this block, which is part of the holdings of Huaguang Forest Company, a Chinese firm that took over the cutting rights from Rayonier, the previous American—owner. Several other crews have worked the Rip before, he says, but in every case the winter conditions “broke them.”
Howard accepted the Rip block to gain a foothold on the Cape, and after several months’ hard labour he and the crew are managing to meet their tonnage targets. But given the conditions in which they operate, it isn’t difficult to see why other gangs threw in the towel. A wash of mud covers the skid—in places it’s up to the men’s knees. The cold saps the strength needed to wield a 6 kg chainsaw all day, and at this altitude the crew is in perpetual cloud, with rain never far away. Mount Hikurangi, reputedly the first point on the mainland to be touched by the sun’s rays each day, lies just off to the south-east. It isn’t getting much sun today, either.
In spite of the pitiless weather, the work goes on. The crew is moving the hauler to a new skid site. This machine, which runs on caterpillar tracks, consists of an 18 m-long boom and a drum assembly that holds 600 metres of wire cable. The cable, called the tailrope, is run out to the perimeter of an area of felled trees, fed through a block and tackle secured to a tree stump and returned to the top of the boom.
A carriage runs back and forth on the tailrope, trees being suspended from this on a dropline and hauled to the skid for processing.
Cable logging, as this method of recovering felled trees is known, has a number of advantages over ground-based logging, in which a heavy four-wheeler drags trees one at a time to the dump site. This is expensive on fuel and often slower than hauling by cable, and repeated journeys over the same ground leave the area badly rutted and prone to erosion. Cable logging can clear a hillside of felled trees much more quickly and efficiently, but of the two methods it is the more dangerous.
The person who has the job of attaching the dropline to each log is called the breaker-out, and he needs his wits about him to avoid injury. The strain on a steel cable pulling a three-tonne tree is considerable, and there can be dire consequences if the cable loses its hold. The forces at work, I was told, have been known to send a snapped tailrope hurtling at the hauler with such velocity that it wrapped itself around the cab. Pity the hauler operator with an open port during the blood-chilling seconds before the end of the line reaches in with a decapitating flick.
Once the hauler has been set up in its new position, of toots from a handheld receiver for the hauler to begin dragging.
Tubs moves a little less nimbly, reflecting the 20-year age difference between the pair. Before joining the gang he worked as a manager in a busy Auckland restaurant, but he tells me he’s much happier in the forest and hills than in the fast-paced city. It’s a sentiment I hear from many of the crew.
With each successive return of the carriage, Tubs and Marlow hurriedly attach strops from the dropline around the next tree to be pulled out. It’s like a giant game of Pick Up Sticks. They have to work out which order to select the trees from the jumble of trunks spread I join two of the breaking-out crew—Paul “Tubs” Tapu and Paul “Marlow” Skipper. Marlow, a 25-year-old Polynesian, resembles in stature some of the very trunks he’s hauling, yet he displays the agility of a mountain goat in steel toe-caps as he picks his way among the fallen trees. These lie across each other where they’ve landed, their tangled branches ever ready to trip the less than surefooted, as I discover for myself. Survival entails performing a balancing act on the twisted, slippery trunks and racing out of harm’s way as Marlow signals with a series over the ground. A snag here can set the crew back hours if it means repairing and re-splicing a snapped cable.
Logging, I learn, involves a kind of domino effect, in which, depending on how well the first man in the chain does his job, the rest will find the going either easy or impossibly hard. A skilled faller, or cross-cutter—the crewman whose job it is to drop each tree to begin with—must read the terrain through the hauler’s eyes and direct each toppling trunk so that it lands where it can be most easily and efficiently dragged away for processing.
This often proves harder than it sounds. One afternoon, I follow cross-cutter Bill Goldsworthy as he strides through the ferny undergrowth beneath a stand of scraggy trees he plans to clear. He’s armed with a battered orange chainsaw and a can of two-stroke fuel, and wearing a pair of logger’s chaps—thick suede overalls to protect the legs from flying debris—and a belt holding a mallet and several plastic wedges.
It takes several carefully administered cuts to fell a tree. First, Bill cuts a scarf—a wedge-shaped cleft—in the side of the tree towards which it is to fall. He then makes a couple of cuts angled downwards at 60 degrees—called wing cuts—on either side of the scarf. These are a further control over the direction of fall. Finally, Bill puts in the back cut, directly behind the scarf in the opposite side of the trunk.
A tree usually begins its terminal lean at this point. Gathering speed, it scythes through the air before striking the ground with an almighty crash. Occasionally, however, a tree remains upright despite being almost severed, and needs further persuasion to relinquish its hold on uprightness. This is where the wedges come into play, Bill hammering them into the back cut with his mallet.
Bill is having an easy time of it, swiftly cutting a swathe through this particular crop. The trees are short and spindly, altitude and climatic conditions on the Rip having stunted their growth compared with that of their cousins of the same age—25 years—in the valleys below. Bill is also cutting on a slope below the hauler, toppling the trees downhill. To top it off the day is still, with only a light drizzle in the air.
Where felling gets tricky, Bill tells me, is on a slope above the hauler. Then the trees have to be dropped uphill, so the breaker-out can attach strops to the heavy butt end of the trunk. It’s easier and safer to direct a falling tree downhill than up. A strong wind further complicates matters. In a block like the Rip, where weather conditions are unpredictable and often extreme, felling is especially hazardous.
With row upon row of stacked logs around the perimeter, the skid could be mistaken for a fortified pa. Two mud-splattered skid-dies, Shane Learmond and Mike Derrett, move among the heavy machinery, methodically chain-sawing butts into precise lengths to meet exacting client demands.
Howard hints that given the conditions they’re working in, on an exposed mountainside under the mantle of winter, those demands might be a little too exacting. A log can be rejected when it reaches the concrete offloading pad at the port or mill because it doesn’t meet the specified length to the centimetre. Up here, in the mud and cold and without even a smoko shed in which to shelter from the weather, the boys on the saws must simply do their best.
Premium-grade logs—known as pruned butts, having been shorn of branches to keep knots to a minimum are destined for mills around the country and will mostly end up on the domestic market as framing timber for housing, where they will fetch the highest price. Low-grade logs—unpruned and heavily knotted—are sent to Norske Skog Tasman’s Kawerau mill to be made into paper.
The bulk of the logs from the Rip, however, are destined for mills offshore, mostly in Asia, where pine is widely used for packaging. Originally, Howard was told that all Huaguang’s export shipments would be “heading straight-line to Huaguang’s own mill in China,” and that he would receive a guaranteed price for them. After 18 years in the business, constantly coping with fluctuating demand and volatile currencies, Howard says it was this assurance that persuaded him to take the contract. But it turns out that the Chinese owners have been selling the timber on the world market, leaving Howard in the very situation of financial uncertainty he hoped to escape.
Howard grew up in Tokoroa, and reckons it was only a matter of time before he ended up swinging a chainsaw in the nearby plantation forests. He learned the ropes working for New Zealand Forest Products, and when NZFP was privatised in the early 1980s, he took up an option to buy some of the company’s machinery.
He and a partner then successfully ran two hauler crews for a number of years, but the stress took its toll and the partnership ended. The Cape contract—for an initial four to five years—was to have been Howard’s last. His intention was to finance several of his longterm employees into buying his gear, giving them a leg up into the industry in a similar way to how he’d got his own start. With the cost of a hauler running close to a million dollars, and much of the other heavy gear costing around a quarter of that per machine, it is almost impossible for a younger logger to set up on his own without this sort of support.
I learn from Mark Wilson, Howard’s foreman for over nine years, that such was Howard’s reputation when they were working in Tokoroa and Kawerau that there was a waiting list to join his gangs. “No one ever left,” he says.
But on the Rip, they’re leaving.
Shane Learmond chuckles when he tells me of one newcomer to the gang who boasted of his skills while riding up on his first day. Within an hour of seeing the conditions he’d be working in, he complained that his chainsaw had developed a fault and hitched a ride out on a logging truck, never to return.
Bonds run deep in a gang that works and lives together for any length of time. In the bush, loggers must watch out for one another—their lives can depend on it—and a slacker is quickly weeded out.
Most logging crews on the Coast arrange their own accommodation, renting a house and sharing domestic duties, but Howard realised that if he wanted to hold on to his men in a place like the Rip he needed to offer something better. After a long day on the job, arguments over whose turn it is to cook can split a gang, so, to keep his crew happy, Howard rents self-contained cottages in Hicks Bay and pays extra for cooked meals. Not only that, but while other crews in the area work five or even six days a week, Howard rigidly sticks to four so his men get more time at home with their families. All necessary steps to keep unity in the crew, he says.
Having Experienced the rigours of winter in the Rip, I decide to return in January for another week with the gang and to get a taste of summer conditions. Since my previous visit, the crew has moved to Manu Block, an hour’s drive closer to Hicks Bay and a lot nearer sea level. A few new faces are to be seen, the number of workers having risen to 18. Howard has brought in another hauler to increase their daily tonnage, and the trees they’re pulling are noticeably larger than at the Rip.
But when I speak with him about how things are going, there’s an edge to his voice. Huaguang has been erratic with its payments, and several other contract crews have left the Cape as a result.
I see for myself the piles of cut logs crowding the two skids. Howard says the company isn’t running enough trucks to move them, and this sets him back hours of costly production time. On the Rip pick-ups were regular, in the early morning and late afternoon, causing minimal interruption to the daily routine of felling, hauling and processing, but at Manu he has to load the trucks at whatever time they arrive.
The heat, which reaches well into the 30s, is punishing on the men and takes its toll on machinery. On my last afternoon with the gang, one hauler starts swallowing water by the drumful. A seized bearing is diagnosed. The nearest replacement is in Rotorua, six hours’ drive away. Mark Wilson, the gang’s diesel mechanic, will drive through the night, returning with the part in the morning.
Before leaving for the long drive home myself, I talk to Howard about the industry, amid clouds of dust tossed up by the passing 18-wheelers. He says it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find skilled forestry workers. His brother operates a hauler crew at Riverhead, and despite being on Auckland’s doorstep he struggles to fill vacancies in his gang, while nearby polytechnics churn out web designers by the fistful.
Contract loggers, once a dime a dozen in towns such as Tokoroa, have been hit hard over the past two decades by the rise and fall of the New Zealand dollar, by economic crises in Asia and now by a changing work force—one which seems increasingly to prefer the click of a computer mouse to the roar of a chainsaw and sweat on the brow.
As I turn to go, Howard informs me with a wry grin that the Rip has been replanted since we were up there. “Used a helicopter to get the seedlings in this time,” he says. The thought that 25 years from now those trees will need logging crosses both our minds.
“Oh, well,” he says. “At least it won’t be me doing it.”