Paparoa, the turbulent coast
Outside my door the sea is breathing heavily. Its exhalations are short and explosive, violent blasts of white water that bulldoze the stony beach and crumble the rocks that guard it. There are brief moments of silence before the sea draws another breath, sucking itself in with a slow asthmatic hiss, raking the gravel as it goes out, gathering itself for another blow.
I am living in a rented bach along the Paparoa coast—my own attempt at a Thoreauvian “cabin in the woods”—and this heaving sea is my closest neighbour. The bach, nicknamed the Biscuit Tin, is a simple corrugated iron-and-plywood affair, painted bush-green, with rusty red trimmings, floorboards that slant in every direction and a weathered wooden deck facing the sea. The deck is a miniature museum of the beachcombing existence: bits of driftwood that resembled something to someone, stones and shells, a faded buoy, a crayfish pot with a rope stiffened by salt and sun, a blue-and-yellow flipper. My own additions include a stone calendar: a dark grey rock to mark each day’s beach walk and a white egg-shaped quartzite for Sunday.
Every day, using leathery flax leaves for handrails, I climb down the steep track leading to the shore. Behind me, a wall of thickly forested mountains—the Paparoa Range—rises sharply like a giant breaker about to dump itself on the cottages that cling to this coastal strip. The fresh broccoli-green of the forest and the seamless steel-grey of the sea and the overcast sky—these are the colours of the Paparoas.
The air is always hazy here, thick with sea mist that settles on my glasses like dust and makes my lips taste salty. Short of being on a boat I could not live any closer to the sea. The isolation is palatable, but this is no Walden Pond. The road behind the bach is the coastal artery connecting Westport and Greymouth, and logging trucks and milk tankers—their air-brakes sneezing, their bulk muscled around tight bends by burly drivers—roar along it like express trains chasing each other. From the end of my grassy driveway, all I can see is a short straight with a blind corner at each end, and getting on to the road in my underpowered Toyota is like trying to take off from an aircraft carrier in a topdressing plane.
Unlike Thoreau, I can get my groceries from a supermarket 30 minutes away, have my mail delivered (address: “Derek, 14 Mile, West Coast”) and connect to the Internet to read the BBC news, listen to a radio station in Brazil or check a satellite weather map. But when the daily traffic peters out, there is only me and the sea, and perhaps a fishing boat bobbing in the far-off swell, its light twinkling like a bright and unfamiliar star. Most often though, my window and the flax outside it frame a horizon of sea and sky and nothing else. It feels like living on the edge of the world.
The best-known feature of my neighbourhood is the pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaikia compulsory stop for some 450,000 annual visitors, whose cameras click-clack like cicadas as their owners stroll around the rocky promontory. Every minute or so there is a guttural rumble as a big wave surges in to fill underground cavities and erupts geyser-like through narrow fissures, spraying the onlookers and sounding as if someone were blowing his nose on a PA system.
The blowholes, a wild coastline bristling with nikau palms, perhaps a roadside picnic (inevitably curtailed by voracious sandflies)—for travellers, these may be the lasting impressions of one of the most picturesque drives in the country. But not until you stay a while does it become apparent that this slice of New Zealand, endowed with both exquisite beauty and a bounty of natural resources, is in fact a troubled Eden, a battleground in a quiet but continuous war between the forces of conservation and commercial development, where the occasional fracas mimics the fury of the blowholes.
I was ignorant of all this when I moved into the bach, and to ease myself into the rhythms of coastal existence I began visiting my neighbours. There was greenstone carver Cliff Dalziel, who for 30 years worked his own claim up the Arahura River, and Zane Smith, a mercurial rafting guide who plans his river descents and writes elegiac folk songs in a self‑built bush hideaway. There was also Paul Caffyn, mining geologist and sea-kayaking guru, who lives at 12 mile.
Caffyn’s expeditionary CV would impress any mariner. In 1982, he circumnavigated the coast of Australia, logging 15,000 lone kilometres (equivalent to kayaking from Auckland to the North Pole). Over three summers, he paddled, unaided,around the coast of Alaska He has paddled around all three of New Zealand’s main islands, around Japan and New Caledonia, and most recently along the western coast of Greenland, but he rarely kayaks his home coast. He confessed that, for training, it is “a bit too rough.”
It was Caffyn who first made me aware of the peculiar geology of the area. Nowhere else except in Fiordland do the mountains meet the sea so abruptly. In fact, 25 million years ago the Paparoa Range was part of Fiordland—before splitting away and being carried by the Alpine Fault almost 450 km to the north. The Paparoas—roughly defined by the sea coast, the Buller River to the north,and the Inangahua and Grey Rivers in the east and south—are a unique geological cocktail of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rock, with gold, coal, even uranium thrown in for good measure.
There is an added twist—a literal twist—in the form of the Paparoa syncline, a down-warping of the Earth’s crust to form a troughlike structure that buried much of the region’s lime‑stone, preserving it from erosion. It is this limestone—both in the form of the crowd-pleasing pancake rocks at Dolomite Point and the less well known inland karst—that is the geological signature of the Paparoas.
The karst is an erratic and secretive landscape, particularly because here, as nowhere else in New Zealand, it is hidden under a thick carpet of native forest. Fallen tree trunks bridge limestone chasms, choking deep shafts and sinkholes. The walls of some canyons are fluted into “organ pipes” so large you can hide inside every groove. A fleece of moss covers everything, and silvery droplets of water streak through it all, chiming and tapping on fern leaves, drip-feeding the underground rivers.
The tomos and canyons often lead into caves, whose names—Armageddon, Babylon, Xanadu—conjure up images of Gothic interiors, amaranthine beauty and ghostly secrets. The largest of the caves—Metro–is over eight kilometres long, a labyrinth of tubular passages with chambers the size of concert halls, lit by myriads of glow-worms.
Surprisingly, as late as the early 1980s, this pocket of landscape remained relatively unknown. A handful of local cavers had been exploring the area for about a decade, but kept their findings so themselves, and the few hunters and mountaineers who also ventured here liked the place the way it was: close by, yet little known—the kind of place that protects itself through its own rugged topography.
But this idyllic status could not last. Timber and mining companies, attracted by untapped natural resources and relatively easy access, began staking their claims. To the conservation-minded, the need to secure some kind of protection for the area was paramount. The Native Forests Action Council (now renamed the Maruia Society) came up with the idea of a national park. But how do you promote the creation of a national park in a place that to the majority of people is terra incognita?
In 1980, Andy Dennis, a scholar with a penchant for translating Icelandic sagas, resigned his post as a law lecturer at the University of Canterbury and moved to Carters Beach, near Westport, from where he began systematically exploring the Paparoa Range. The result of four months of field work was The Paparoas Guide, the first and only detailed run-down of the area’s features and attractions.
Other promotional efforts followed. There were petitions and newspaper articles, public lectures and roadshows such as those staged by Westport teacher Terry Sumner, who cycled much of the Coast, panniers bulging with a projector and boxfuls of slides, shedding light on the scenic wonders of the Paparoas.
The Native Forests Action Council stayed at the helm of the effort, publishing a persuasive scientific report, though other groups also contributed to the conservation push. One, which drew most of its members from a West Coast commune, called itself F-Off—Friends of Fox Forest. By one means or another, for the first time since the end of the West Coast gold rush, public attention became focused on the Paparoas.
In 1986, after a prolonged and sometimes acrimonious debate, all the major players—government, local authorities, timber and mining companies and the allied conservation groups—signed the West Coast Accord, an agreement over the use of resources that sought to accommodate both commercial and conservation interests. A national park was specifically mentioned in the accord, and as a trade-off an area of native forest set aside for logging. The following year Paparoa National Park was gazetted.
Although, at 30,000 hectares, the park was only a fourth the size the conservationists had envisaged, it was hailed as a victory for the environment. To many locals, however, it was yet another nail in the economic coffin. There was “enough of New Zealand tied up in national parks,” the timber workers’ union protested. The Coast was becoming a continuous string of leafy preserves, and some of its residents were beginning to feel like endangered species themselves.
A decade later, you still can’t go far along this stretch of the Coast without tripping over the conservation issue. Contention simmers over the fact that the West Coast Accord allowed unsustainable harvesting of rimu by the government-owned logging company Timberlands West Coast (TWC) until the year 2000 (after which time logging is to be curtailed by more than 90 per cent, and put on a low-impact basis). The rimu overcut was seen as a temporary measure, a necessary evil, a breathing space for the local timber industry until radiata pine and other exotics come on stream in sufficient quantities. Timberlands is standing by the dates in the agreement, but some conservation groups, notably Native Forest Action (no relation to the former Native Forests Action Council) claim that there is already enough pine available, and that the continued harvest of rimu is unacceptable.
To make their point they took to the trees. In February 1997, a group of 30 of them packed up their sleeping bags and tarpaulins and headed into the forest to protest against what they called the Charleston chainsaw massacre. They camped rough and wet under the trees, rope-climbed the trunks, built high platforms that turned tall rimu into fortresses. The “tree-hugging hippies,” as they were described by the locals, drew media attention to their cause, doing all they could to stop, or at least delay, Timberlands’ heli-logging operation, which makes use of the five-tonne lifting capacity of a Russian ex-military helicopter, a veritable bus with rotors.
Over the next four months the conflict escalated. Each side issued the other with trespass notices (the forest is public land managed by Timberlands). An oil drum filled with stinking fish guts materialised near the protesters’ headquarters. An anonymous telephone call allegedly warned TWC that some of the trees had been spiked with long nails, threatening the lives of mill workers. Sticks of Powergel explosive were found wired to a logging helicopter in Karamea. Timberlands accused the protesters of eco-terrorism and sabotage, and offered a $3000 reward for information leading to the prosecution of the “bomber.” Native Forest Action mounted a nationwide graffiti and handbill campaign, slagging Timberlands as “bad fellers.”
Winter arrived, and with it the cold, and the flower children came down from their trees and folded up their tarps. The story dropped out of the headlines and the loggers had the forest to themselves once more. But tensions linger, and as I traversed my little patch of coast I got an earful whenever I raised the forestry question. The issues and opinions seemed to wrap themselves up like a Gordian knot of emotion and reason with no clear-cut solution. Let him who is without guilt cast the first stone, I thought. I, for one, won’t be casting anything; I’m writing this on a rimu table.
Afew kilometres north of Charleston, a narrow gravel road branches off towards the mountains following the tea-coloured Little Totara River into the forest. Here I meet Barry Chalmers, a genial man in orange hard-hat and chromatic
glasses. He is Timberlands’ quality and quantity controller, the company’s environmental monitor and the overseer of contractors. His task is to ensure that all the millable timber is taken out and no mess left behind.
He’s also a caver of old, and as we drive up the logging road he recounts his favourite underground adventures. During one escapade, near the Oparara arches, he discovered a short-tailed bat, thought to be extinct in the South Island. These days he contracts to the Department of Conservation in his spare time, doing surveys of great spotted kiwi.
He takes me on a tour through a seemingly pristine forest, which, save for a stump here and there, I would never have guessed had been logged at all. I’ve seen windfalls do more damage. Chalmers agrees.
Timberlands, he says, is leading the world in timber extraction technology. The loggers are professionals; the best. They can drop a tree exactly where they want it. Like throwing a cricket bat through the wicket without disturbing the bails. No damage done.
A small helicopter happens to be available, and the pilot, Tony Ibbotson, takes me for a quick fly-over. From the air, the canopy looks healthy and lush. “There are millions of acres of undisturbed forest out there,” Tony’s voice pipes in through the intercom, “And the production area’s so small.” True enough, it’s so small you can’t even see it from the air. I no longer feel guilty about working on a rimu table.
We land in a clearing where the airlifted timber is being stacked for trucking out, and I meet a couple of the loggers: Chris Heath and Andy Read—jovial, straight-up blokes, proud of their jobs, proud of having a job, because on the Coast a job is not something you take for granted. These guys would make Tim the Toolman grunt with approval. One of them offers a joke. “Hey, what does it take to be a logger? A chainsaw and a bad temper!”
We talk about the protesters—”a bunch of unemployed hippies,” Andy calls them. We laugh over the greenies who tried to enter the forest this morning but were nabbed by the security guard, a burly man named Dan. I’m not laughing very heartily. They don’t know that I was one of them, the other being Annette Cotter, one of the protest organisers and the campaign co-ordinator for Native Forest Action (NFA). It was my first and abortive attempt to see the logging operation.
Later, when they’re driving me back to my car, we see a Timberlands that bloody greenie!”
The so-far animated conversation takes a sudden dive. We drive on in silence. No more jokes, no more verbal shoulder-slapping.
Thanks, Dan. If there’s anything I can ever do for you . . .
Near the popular Nile River swim-hole, one hot summer afternoon, I come across Graeme White, a gypsy-faced, 24-year-old, fourth-generation logger, now retraining as a blacksmith and living in the house-bus “suburb” of Charleston—a couple of vacant sections popular with the itinerant community. His forebears established the Whataroa sawmill, north of Franz Josef, where White himself would be working if the mill hadn’t closed in 1994 as clear-felling was phased out.
“It used to excite me to watch a big tree go down,” he tells me. “When I was 18 I cut down rimus that were six foot across and more than 1000 years old. Growing up in Whataroa, I’d see trucks carrying only two or three big logs—that was all they could fit. These days the same trucks carry 15 logs or more, some of them a foot in diameter.” He shakes his head: “They’re cutting too much, too fast.”
There’s also the way the trees are taken out of the forest. Heli-logging implies the surgical removal of a tree that leaves the rest of the forest relatively intact, like plucking a grey hair out of a thick forest coiffure, a cosmetic procedure that could actually enhance the overall look. I had no problem with this process after Barry Chalmers showed me around, but apparently not all the sites look like this. The reality, White insists, is vastly different, and that’s why, when the protest began last year, he joined in, blockading the road, scouting the logging sites.
The trees are dropped cleanly, sure, but everything that grows in the path of their fall is also cut down and cleared, so that the tall trunks don’t hit anything that could damage them on impact, White tells me. “Even though you’re only taking one tree—and only its trunk to the first branch, ’cause everything else is left to rot—you leave a huge scar in the forest,” White says. “Some places look like they’ve been bombed. Hell of a mess.”
I’m growing increasingly uneasy about the conflicting images of low-impact heli-logging that are being described to me by Timberlands, and amateur video footage of more remote logging sites—one taken by a Cape Foulwind farmer, the other by former employees of a shutdown sawmill—which show forest carnage. I make another appointment with Annette Cotter, and in the early hours of Easter Saturday we walk back into the forest.
This time we are more prudent and follow the riparian strip along the Nile and Awakari Rivers. Limestone buttresses, like prows of titanic ships, flank the river, and the low morning light throws the theatrical shadows of tree ferns against their bleached grey sides.
Cotter navigates with ease; she has made the trip many times before. En route, she explains the internal workings of the NFA. The group does not have an official membership, nor membership fees, and is set up more as an extensive network of friends than on rigid organisational lines. Through grants, donations and appeals, it manages to scrape together enough money to employ two staff members, both paid a minimum wage. Cotter, who has a degree in psychology and management, is one of them; she weaves flax artefacts to supplement her income.
The battle against Timberlands, she says, has been a David and Goliath duel, a no-budget effort against a multimillion-dollar empire. Still, NFA claims to have inflicted some damage. “They have to continually justify their existence,” Cotter says, “and in the wake of the protest, they’ve had to spend a lot of money trying to patch up their image. Whatever it takes, we must save the forest. We can’t afford to turn our national heritage into ice-block sticks and toilet seats.”
Three hours of boulder-hopping and numerous river crossings takes us to the vicinity of the protest site. “Is that what they showed you?” Cotter asks as we come out into a clearing. Well, not quite.
What I see is what I imagine an elephant graveyard looks like: a jumble of broken limbs, the pipe-cleaner branches of rimu drooping dead like weeping willow, dry and brown. What I see is as different from the earlier site as a Zen garden is different from a rubbish dump.
Beyond their first branches—though I was told repeatedly that all millable timber is taken—the leftover rimu logs are still an arm-length wide. There are also the stumps of smaller trees, mainly beech, chainsawed hip-high, their trunks left where they fell. Ironically, Nature herself is quick to cover up the scene of the crime. Deprived of competition, tree ferns mushroom out of the debris, blossoming into huge green umbrellas. That’s why, from the air, you see nothing but an unbroken carpet of verdure.
Rimu provide the framework of podocarp-beech forest, Cotter asserts. They are the columns supporting the canopy, providing shelter. “Take them out and the whole eco system is upset. The forest dries up, becomes prone to wind damage; its understorey turns into an impenetrable thicket, and the young rimu saplings are strangled by faster-growing plants. “Take a look at this selective logging,” Cotter points an accusing finger at the heap. “They select what to take, and what to leave behind to rot. We call this place the Valley of Death and Destruction.”
I can’t help thinking about Chalmers, the environmental watchdog, reprimanding a logger for leaving a stump 10 centimetres too long. Has he seen this? Did he approve it? Where do the kiwi and the short-tailed bats come into the equation?
Timberlands corporate headquarters on the outskirts of Greymouth has an embattled air about it. Like a bomb shelter, it hunkers down between the main road and the sea. From his upstairs office, Kit Richards, Timberlands’ general manager of planning, can look south down the line of the Southern Alps. It’s a million-dollar view from a corporation which—depending which side of the fence you’re on—is the Coast’s harbinger of prosperity or its heart of darkness.
Richards, black-haired, 40, media-savvy but genuine in the no-frills Coast way, has a degree in forestry science and was one of the signatories of the West Coast Accord. He has no doubts about the validity—moral or commercial—of what Timberlands is doing on the Coast. He leafs through a well-thumbed copy of the accord document until he finds the table that gives Timberlands’ projections on timber harvest, native and exotic—dates and numbers he crunched 12 years ago. “We’re right on track,” he says, proudly.
Richards states that the only viable timber industry in a remote place such as the West Coast is a niche-oriented, quality industry supplying diversified products to specific market requirements. “We’re cutting 160,000 cubic metres of radiata at the moment,” he explains. “We’re bringing it on as fast as we can, but there’s a limit to what we can cut, because the bulk of the pine plantings weren’t made until the ’70s and ’80s. If we cut too soon, the quality is too low, and we can’t compete at that lower end of the market.”
Even if there were enough radiata to make the switch from native, Richards says sustainable harvesting of native timber would continue—on the cricket bat-through-the-wicket scenario. The harvest rate Timberlands likes to quote is an average of one rimu per hectare every four years. Ecologically sound; commercially lucrative.
What, then, of the Charleston overcut—where the cricket bat has been replaced by a battering ram? Richards agrees that, ecologically, the logging there is a disaster, but says it bears no relevance to the rest of the company’s operations, or to the future of logging on the Coast: “Charleston was the sacrificial lamb, an isolated block which has been hammered in order to spare other ecologically more important forests.”
But given the strength of public feeling, why endure the negative publicity for the sake of a few cubic metres of native timber? Why not be “good fellers” in the eyes of all? Richards speaks with the ready phrases of one who has put his side of the argument many times before: because radiata is not going to be the saviour of New Zealand that some people think; because as many as 1500 New Zealand furniture-makers rely on small quantities of quality woods such as rimu; because of the income logging brings to the Coast; because of the conservation benefits Timberlands can bring to the forests in terms of pest control and sponsorship of endangered species work.
The arguments sound cogent, but many in the conservation camp are no longer listening. In their view, the felling of a native tree is an act of ecological vandalism, and Timberlands is guilty of crimes against the planet. Is this going too far? Guy Salmon, founder of the Maruia Society, an environmental moderate and the accord signatory on behalf of the joint conservation campaign, thinks so: “Let’s face it. Conservationists got a Mercedes-Benz out of the West Coast Accord, while the forestry industry got a Morris Minor. Now some conservationists want to take the Morris Minor, too, and leave the Coasters with nothing.” He says the accord was a negotiated settlement to a long-running dispute, and should be respected, not overturned in the winner-takes-all approach some environmentalists are advocating.
Further storms are on the horizon. A proposal to log beech on an archipelago of sites from Karamea to Lake Brunner is pending final government approval. Timberlands calls it sustainable forestry of the future, but its opponents say it’s just an elaborate charade to open up another 1000 square kilometres of forest, which, it must be said, also contains a lot of rimu. The combatants are already gathering ammunition and deepening their trenches.
When Rain squalls lashed the bach, as they often did, thrumming against the corrugated iron walls, hosing the sea-view window, I curled up with a glass of bourbon and a book, transporting myself back to the days when gold ruled the lives of the settlers and the Paparoa coast was one of the busiest places in the country. In August 1866, a fortune seeker named Timothy Linahan pitched his tent on a bank of a small creek near today’s Charleston. In the evening, by the light of a digger’s lantern—a clear-glass bottle with its bottom removed and a candle set inside the neck—he saw the creek’s floor glinting with gold dust.
Within two months, there were over 1200 miners working the claims, and, as Charles Broad, the resident magistrate reported, “. . . dams and water-races met the eye in every direction.” The township of Charleston, with its main street of wooden facades sometimes leading into canvas interiors, sprang up at the mouth of the Nile River. In its heyday, it is said, a postmaster was sent there on promotion from Wellington.
Further south, where the Fox River empties itself into Woodpecker Bay, the town of Brighton flourished, and the coastal gold between the two settlements supported a floating population of some 6000, four newspapers, 53 pubs in Brighton alone, and a tent jail, where prisoners were handcuffed to a heavy log.
The main obstacle in working and settling the Coast was lack of reliable transport. The beach track from Westport was tide-dependent, unpredictable at the best of times, downright dangerous at others, and becoming progressively worse the further south it went.
Eventually, an inland road was built, incorporating the first suspension bridge in New Zealand, which spanned the Nile in 1875, but not before a serious effort to establish a port in Charleston was undertaken
Constant Bay, a spoon-shaped cove with a 20-metre-wide entrance flanked by jagged rocks, was the only likely location—and likely only to the daring and the desperate. The “port” had neither wharf nor proper moorings, but only heavy ring bolts set into the rock. Its treacherous entrance became known as “the hole in the wall.” A clifftop flagstaff indicated sea conditions: red flag for “enter,” blue for “low water, wait for tide,” white for “entrance dangerous, surf too heavy.”
Although Constant Bay sometimes harboured up to seven small vessels, it was never safe, much less haven. Many ships foundered, “smashed to matchwood,” as the Westport Times reported, and drownings were common
In Charleston’s hilltop graveyard, where the rows of headstones resolutely face the sea, you can read the fate of the settlers. “Accidentally drowned, 1873.” “Died from injuries received at a landslip at the Maori Chief claim, 1874.”
By 1879, the harbour was so silted with tailings from the surrounding diggings that it became impossible for any vessel to enter it. The port was dead and the gold rush would soon follow, but for a brief while the Charleston Herald faithfully continued its shipping column: “Port of Charleston. Vessels in port, Nil. Expected arrivals, Nil. Expected departures, Nil.”
Today, Brighton does not exist at all, and little blue penguins nest in a cave at the Fox River mouth. Charleston is a scattering of houses sprawling downhill from a single pub. All around it, the contours of the land, now covered with scrub, are smoothed and rearranged, shaped into terraces that resemble the earthworks of a giant pa. But you can still find the stumps of the mooring bolts on the rocks of Constant Bay, and you can still find gold.
Just north of Charleston, in a place called Mitchell’s Gully, a weathered “Open” sign invites passers-by to visit a stamping battery and gold works, restored and operated by fourth-generation miner Val Currie and his wife, Carol. Val has the earth-worn hands of the frontiersman and sports the impressive and immaculately combed beard of the mid-1800s gentleman. He sibilates his words in Sean Connery fashion, betraying an Edinburgh ancestry and giving his tales a pleasant lilt and the air of a secret being related.
“It was the beach gold and the gold locked in the marine sediments that they were after,” he explains, leading me through a maze of century-old tunnels, a small part of a subterranean network that totals some 40 km. “The gold dust was so fine that the only way to extract it from the sand was to wash the pulverised mixture over mercury-coated copper plates. Mercury goes solid when it takes up ‘colour,’ and you can then boil it off in a crucible.”
On long prospecting expeditions, the miners were loath to lug heavy cast-iron retorts. Instead, they carried a bag of potatoes, because a halved and hollowed-out spud makes a good disposable crucible. “You fill it up with the amalgam, refit and wire the halves together and cook it in the embers of a campfire,” Val tells me.
“Mercury evaporates and the gold that remains inside the potato is rough and porous like a sponge.”
Gold-mining was a hard and sometimes prodigal lifestyle, for in those days, when the yearly income of a menial worker in England was about £20, the West Coast diggers were said to light their pipes with pound notes. But the extravaganza did not last long, and the more gold the miners extracted, the more mercury their bodies absorbed.
“They called it the hatter’s disease,” Val says. “Your hair fell out, your teeth fell out, and you died insane and laughing. That’s how we get the expression ‘mad as a hatter’.”
Such tales of yore, told in an authentic setting by a man who looks as though he just put down his shovel for a smoko, attracts a spellbound audience of tourists, who hang on his every word. It is exactly the kind of audience I myself hope for, one Monday night in a tiny sleep-out at Punakaiki.
I swivel in a creaky chair and adjust the microphone. The sign above it reads: “No swearing on air!” I slide a couple of switches on a mixer in front of me and the music fades out. “This is Radio Punakaiki, coming to you live and exclusive! Yours and only yours! 102 FM!” I hear myself on the doghouse-size speakers. The audio engineer gives me a thumbs-up. My first-ever radio show has just hit the airways.
In the human landscape of the Paparoas, Radio Punakaiki is one of the most striking features. Its broadcasting power—based on a transmitter the size of a car stereo rented for $25 a week from a Christchurch audio firm—is modest, to say the least. Drive over a hill and you’re already out of range. “Radio station,” too, seems a grand name for an operation which, with unpredictable frequency, broadcasts long interludes of silence, where there are sometimes more people in the studio than out there listening, and where, to request a song, you have to show up in person because there is no telephone.
Even so, there has been no shortage of DJs. Kirk Neilson, a coalminer, does a show after his 12-hour shift in the Strongman Mine. Rafting guide Zane Smith reads “Morte d’Arthur,” then follows it up with a seamless mix of Fred Dagg skits and psychedelic techno. The station’s brainfather, audio engineer Pip Beauchamp, actually sleeps here to keep Punakaiki “stoked” with music through the night.
The theme of my evening is world music, and for three hours I play a medley of Latin and African rhythms, German rock polkas, Turkish rap and flamenco, babbling at length about music being the universal language. I sign off with a mournful tune by Robbie Barrow, a local poet and a carpenter from 9 Mile. It’s a working-class ballad of an ex-cricketer now batting for his life. Robbie sings:
” just want to put some runs on the board,
Two hundred a week doesn’t sound hard,
Beaten by the picks, deceived by the slows,
They put me in the outfield where nobody goes,
I’m just trying to bat myself out of the
Get a job, get off the dole, I wanna be
An Instant Kiwi.”
Pip looks pleased. “Good, fresh music,” he says. “That’s what we need. Come back next week. We’ll make you one of our regulars.”
In my bach that night, I listen to a Polish radio broadcast live-streaming on the Internet from Warsaw. There are just too many hills between 14 Mile and Punakaiki to catch any of 102 FM.
On the morning of the clearest day I’ve seen on the Coast I drive into the heart of Paparoa karst country in the company of Denise Howard, Bruce Menteath and their three children. It’s a family that I’ll come to know and like, but for now we’re still strangers crammed into a yellow Land Rover towing a trailerload of kayaks. We’re heading for Cave Creek—the Cave Creek—to paddle its twisting gorge to where it joins the canyon-bound Pororari River, which will take us back to the coast at Punakaiki.
Cave Creek is an unexpected continuation of another waterway, Bullock Creek, which, having drained the high peaks of the Paparoa Range, vanishes underground at a place known as Taurus Major Submergence, only to reappear 1.5 km further south out of a cave at the bottom of another cliff-sided canyon. It’s a natural phenomenon well worth seeing, and, to that end, atop one of the cliffs a wooden viewing platform was built. On April 28, 1995, the platform fell into the ravine, taking 18 people—teenage students from Greymouth’s Tai Poutini Polytechnic and a DoC officer who was showing them around—all the way down to the canyon’s boulder-strewn bottom. Only four survived.
When you peer over the cliff edge today, you instinctively want to hold on to one of the manuka saplings that grow here in abundance. The ground is trampled hard, and bits of convoluted yellow tape not so much exclaim as whisper: “Danger. Keep out.”
At the bottom of the canyon a narrow trail weaves around the boulders and scattered memorabilia that make up a more sobering memorial than any monument you’d ever see. A cross inlaid with paua shell. A broken conch. A leather bracelet holding down a laminated picture of Punakaiki Field Centre manager Steve O’Dea. A river stone inscribed Evan Stuart, 29.1.77 – 28.4.95.
“Why did they die, Daddy?” little Ischtar asks.
Why, indeed? How do you explain to an eight-year-old, who is as innocently sad as only eight-year-olds can be, about cost-cutting and running a national park on a shoestring? About the responsibility that’s being passed around from one government department to another like a rotten egg until enough paperwork builds up around it so it can be crushed safely, without anyone being skunked? How do you explain that the make-do Number 8 wire attitude we’re so proud of just didn’t do that time? That one day in April “she wasn’t right,” and we lost 13 good kids plus a DoC man, and it’s such a waste?
The tragedy of their deaths goes even further. It’s like losing doctors in the fight against disease. These were no ordinary school pupils on a once-a-term get-some-fresh-air outing. They were students of outdoor recreation: future instructors, guides, wardens of the wilderness—kids who would one day hold your hand on the edge of a cliff when you were about to abseil for the first time, who’d save your life during a river run, infect you with their enthusiasm for life and adventure, teach you something you never thought you could do.
I got to know one of them well. Neil Silverwood, who was my guide when I was writing about New Zealand’s cave systems, was attending the same course. On that day, he just happened to be in the other group of students. When the Buller Cave Rescue Group was put on alert, Neil was there, packed and ready to help. Somewhere along the way, one of the adults realised that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for him to see what had happened to his close friends.
During the summer of 1996, he took me down Harwood’s Hole and through the Bulmer Caverns, the most extensive underground system in New Zealand, and then to Megamania, the cave that he himself found and pioneered. Although he was only 18, I never once doubted his ability. Today, he is one of the most accomplished cavers in the country. That’s the sort of student they were. You could put your life in their hands. They ended theirs in a tangle of timber and cheap bolts.
Our creek is still just a trickle of crystal water over mossy boulders, and we portage our boats, ferrying them across log jams and riding the deeper holes in between. Slowly the creek widens and the obstacles become less frequent. At one point, an innocent-looking log spans a bottleneck like a half-flooded bridge. Our strategy is to paddle up hard and beach the kayak on the log, so that Bruce—the ferryman—can grab the nose of each boat and pull it across. The children go through all right, and so does Denise. Somehow, my boat hits the log at the wrong angle, or perhaps it’s too heavy for Bruce to pull it through quickly. It turns side-on and flips and I’m swept downstream and under the log. It’s not deep here, but the current is swift and surprisingly strong. Like a wet cat I claw my way out on to the bank. This is my second “can-out” of the day, and Ischtar, riding like Cleopatra in her dad’s cockpit, bestows on me the inglorious title of Most Frequent Faller-Outer. It’s cold in the sunless gorge, and I paddle hard to generate some warmth. In late afternoon, we pass the confluence with the Pororari River and float towards the sea.
When you spend time with the Howard-Menteath family, you quickly become aware of the air of schism that surrounds them. They are Coasters by choice and roots: Denise was born here, and Bruce’s great-grandfather was one of the first doctors in Hokitika, having arrived there in all-too-common early-settler style: his ship was wrecked on the river bar and he had to swim for his life, salvaging nothing but his medical kit. Yet dropping in their names is a sure way to kill a promising conversation with a local anywhere within a wide radius of their Barrytown bush property. (An even worse idea is to use their car to get to an appointment with a neighbouring farmer.)
“We’re social lepers here,” Denise tells me. “Hang out with us and you’ll get into trouble.”
It so happens that part of the only known mainland breeding colony of the Westland black petrel lies within a 70 ha property owned by Howard and Menteath which backs up against the boundary of Paparoa National Park. It also happens that the Barrytown flats—a 17 km-long strip of land between the sea and the southern end of the park—contain mineable quantities of ilmenite, a velvet-black mineral which, is a major source of titanium. In 1991, representatives of a Broken Hill mining company arrived to establish and develop Westland Ilmenite Ltd, potentially the largest mining venture on the Coast.
There are environmental problems associated with ilmenite—other than the obvious one of siting a mining operation in the flight path of a rare bird. The black sands that yield ilmenite also contain zircon and monazite, a mixed phosphate of thorium and cerium which, when concentrated and processed, can substitute for uranium as fuel in nuclear reactors. Arguments erupted over the mining proposal: what would happen with the radioactive tailings, why did the company try to hush its existence in the first place, would the Barrytown flats become a “hot spot” like places mined with similar technology in Australia? Howard and Menteath were deeply worried about the venture.
In the meantime, Westland Ilmenite was quietly going about its business, buying up land, negotiating property rights with farmers, building a small-scale processing plant, promising employment for some 260 people. Many locals were more than happy to give the company the time of day. After all, gold has been and gone, timber is going fast, farming is marginal, perhaps ilmenite was it. The company promised generous compensations, and Federated Farmers advised its members to ask for double their land’s market value.
“For anyone involved in the negotiations, including us, it was like being offered the Lotto jackpot,” Denise says. “You could take the money and never look back. Never worry about what happened to Barrytown. The point was: we didn’t want to leave.”
A neighbouring 66 ha property, owned by farmer Vern Gurney, was important for the company, as it was a prime site for the main processing plant. Gurney was offered $110,000, but Denise, using funds from an inheritance, took her chequebook across the fence and doubled the amount, matching the price of another farm that Gurney had dreamt of buying. Immediately afterwards, she sold 53 ha of this land to the Forest Heritage Fund, which in turn transferred the ownership to DoC.
Retaliation was immediate. That night, their newly acquired house burned to the ground. They had owned it for about eight hours. Bruce was roughed up by a local redneck, and Denise was threatened. Someone loosened the wheelnuts on their Land Rover, and a wheel came off while they were driving a group of tourists to the petrel colony.
The family found themselves without friends, and the children now take the Correspondence School programme rather than attend the school just down the road. Bad blood in the community continues to this day.
Bruce and Denise have gone on to sign a QE2 covenant, which turns their property into a reserve, while at the same time preserving their ownership. “It drastically devalues our land,” Menteath tells me, “but it will keep the petrel breeding ground protected in perpetuity.” In his voice, you can detect a sense of moral responsibility which has been dumped on his shoulders, and which, he candidly admits, he could do without.
“In Fox Glacier, a fellow shot 28 keas, and was fined $1500,” he says. “In the pub, a hat was passed around. He got the contents and a slap on the shoulder—`Good on yer, mate.’ Such attitudes are still common here, and someone has to balance them out. It just happens to be us.”
And the ilmenite? In the end, like so many ideas on the Coast, the project was put on hold, though less because of the anti-mining lobby than the economics of extraction and transport. One morning, I call in to the mothballed processing plant, and meet Bill Hancox, the only New Zealand employee of Westland Ilmenite.
Hancox keeps the $8-million plant oiled and greased, just in case—a case that, by his own admission, will probably never happen. In fact, the plant, which is the size of a large airport hangar, was only ever fired up once, producing a sample 200-tonne batch of ilmenite. Hancox tells me that his employer has finally secured a mining licence for the Barrytown Flats, but has lost interest in the project. “The licence is only to increase the resale value of the company,” he says. “Someone will come and pick it up. It has happened twice before.”
I’m nearing the end of my sojourn here, and as I drive back to the bach, past coastal shrubbery coiffed into a stiff afro by the prevailing onshore wind, past steep driveways leading off to forest hideaways, past the rusted-through remains of old cars and trucks that will never go anywhere again, I stop for the evening special at the Barrytown pub—$4 of fish and chips and a pint of locally brewed beer. There are several utes parked outside, and a sign in felt-pen calligraphy asks, “Please leave your gumboots outside.”
Ilmenite is a dead issue here. “Maybe they’ve gone mining in Russia,” speculates publican Ferg McFertich. “There’s no DoC and less greenies over there.” Had the mining project gone ahead, his pub would have been as busy as a Ponsonby watering hole on a Friday night, but he doesn’t seem to mind, refilling the glasses of the few regulars, presiding over the mainly empty place that looks like the stage set of Cheers with most of its cast out on a lunch break.
It was not always so, my landlady Jill Cotton, assures me. There was a time when Barrytown was a social hub, and coalminers flocked in here from afar for the regular Saturday night dances. Some of them came from Blackball, running—runnineover the Croesus Track which sidles near the top of 1220-metre-high Mt Ryall. A new DoC brochure promotes this walk as a 10-hour overnighter, but, as one Blackball resident told me, “a fit man can do it in two-and-a-half hours.”
Many a fit miner would dance all night, then jog back over the mountain in time for another shift underground. “While dancing,” Jill Cotton continued, “they wore white gloves, because their bodies were so saturated with coal they would sweat it out as a fine soot which could soil the ladies’ dresses.”
The sound of clunking beer jugs brings me back to the present. June Briggs, a wiry woman with a golden perm and muscular arms, is buying drinks for everyone. She has just qualified for the national clay target shooting team, knocking her husband out of the line-up in the process. What will I drink? Another Monteith’s? It’s miners’ brew, she says. “Good choice.”
Coal-mining is still big business at the south end of the Paparoas, where the mountains run out to the sea around Greigs and Runanga, just north of Greymouth. Indeed, there is talk of trucking coal-700 loads a day—from the mines around Greymouth the length of the Paparoas, past Westport and up to a proposed new jetty in Granity. It seems a bizarre suggestion, seeing that the two districts are already linked by rail. Says Pat McNamara, spokesman for the Buller Conservation Group: “It will probably never happen. It may just be a case of arm wrestling between Tranz Rail and the mining company over who gets a bigger slice of the profits, but you can’t be too vigilant here.”
There is a whiff of coal smoke in the air as I lock up the Biscuit Tin for the last time. I came to the Paparoa coast looking for solitude, and found myself stepping into a minefield of environmental feuds. One of them was resolved during my stay: Westport cement manu facturer Milburn NZ withdrew its application to quarry limestone around Alfa Creek, near the northern corner of Paparoa National Park. The project would have chewed up a number of caves, including one called Bamboo, where Jacques Cousteau filmed the backbone of a whale, which bars a narrow passage like a piece of surreal plumbing.
Other quarrels flared. Pike River Coalfield Development suggested mining under the southern end of the national park, an unprecedented idea that raised the hackles of conservationists and set them off pounding their keyboards and spitting out contrary submissions. The beech scheme was never far from the news.
Pervasive as these battles may seem, they are just an undercurrent to life on the Coast—imposed, to a degree, by outside forces: the government calling the shots on the logging issue, greenies planning their next campaign in the comfort of a city cafe. For most Coasters, economic reality demands that greater importance be placed on more pragmatic matters. Nets need to be fixed and possies chosen in readiness for the spring whitebait season, the annual “90-day war.” Driftwood awaits collection and cutting for next winter’s fires. Baches need to be repainted to protect against the corrosive wind, the relentless saltblaster.
Throngs of summer visitors will start arriving soon. A farmer driving his quad bike through a muddy paddock, squinting into the beating rain, is perhaps trying to think up a winning tourist venture. The local glassblower is busy turning out perfume bottles and shot glasses to stock up his gallery and souvenir shop. A patch of settled weather may allow a calm day to fish for crays.
For all its troubles, the Paparoa coast has given me images of this country that I carry like family photographs. An endless sea curving to the horizon, and a rugged coastline besieged by lines of breakers. A lone man casting a heavily sinkered bait into the surf. Clapboard baches clinging to the coast. A distant white cloud which, on closer examination, turns out to be Mt Cook.
Islands on the edge of the world. A home by the sea.