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Continued from PART 1
NEXT MORNING THE LIGHT RAIN and cold wind — aka “the Doctor” had turned into solid rain, a colder wind with very low cloud. It was unpleasant. Today was the coast road drive — up to Westport and back again, with a side trip to Blackball. But we also took a side trip to Cobden where roadworks directed us down a side road and we stumbled across a garage with a curious looking museum alongside.
The owner of both turned out to be Jim Parkinson, elder brother of the fish and chip man of the night before. So I ended up taking half a hour to talk old cars and racing cars and rally cars with Jim and then had a look at his museum of memorabilia, including one of the largest collections of caps in the world. The other Parkinson brother, Kevin, works for Jim.
The drive up the coast to Westport remains sensational — I’ve described it too often before to bear repeating it here, but put it on the list ofthe ten things you have to do before you get too old to do it! I should have bought one of the small, almost makeshift cribs/baches that dot this strip of narrow coast before the world placed exorbitant values on seas views. But, we can probably all say that.
I stopped at Barrytown and visited the small, lonely cemetery where the fierce Tasman crashes onto the beach just 100 metres or so away and found the grave of Murray Elwood. Murray came from Ashburton to own the local pub but he died of cancer. Murray was responsible for building one of the most famous racing cars in NZ in the late 1960s — the fearsome Anglia Corvette driven by Neil Doyle. Murray’s headstone carries a drawing of the car.
I’ve seen the pancake rocks at Punakaiki enough times, and besides, it was raining again, so we carried on to Westport. Punakaiki’s now almost a resort with a large hotel and some very upmarket motels. It had stopped raining in Westport so we went out on the road to Karamea again a short distance to take a look at Dunollie, a small settlement that’s not on all maps. Dunollie, like Reefton, is another example of how the coast has changed. Every lawn, including the grass berm, looks as though it’s been manicured at the same time, by the same person. And just about every house has a fresh coat of paint.
This is a mining town and there’s obviously a strong pride in the place. Time to head south. It was raining again but we detoured to Blackball. Before we visited the world-famous Blackball Hilton we went to the end of the road to a group of houses in the settlement of Roa. This is the ‘coast of old. Tumbledown houses, overgrown sections and a smell of decay. Different altogether at Blackball. This small town with its grand hotel has landed firmly on the back-packers map and it’s become a reluctant tourist town.
I phoned Auckland businessman Jack Henderson from the main street. Jack’s father owned the Rising Sun Hotel in Blackball during the war years when Jack was growing up. The pub, and the adjoining Miner’s Hall are long gone. “Coal was an essential industry during the war,” says Jack. “I was a youngster but I remember it as a very busy and lively place.” Blackball went into decline with much of the coast and throughout the 1960s and 1970s it became almost forgotten until the publication of a semi-historical novel — “Blackball 04” which told of the struggle the miners had against appalling working conditions in 1904. This was the start of the trade union movement in New Zealand and you could say this is where the Labour Party really has its roots, although others will say that happened on the Waitaki River hydro project in the Great Depression.
Today Blackball is very much back on the map with plans to build a “workers” centre that will celebrate the events of 1904 and the start of the trade union movement. We call into the Blackball Hilton and chat with owner Jane Wells and her partner Pat Thompson. Jane’s back running the place again, after leasing it out, while Pat’s sold his world famous Blackball salami business and is helping Jane.
Pat started making salami, black puddin’ and other sausages in what was the old butcher’s shop and was well on his way to making his products world famous when the shop burned down. In its place has arisen a brand new shop, with state of the art equipment and now enjoys an international reputation. Pat sold the business to one of his butchers — a Scot from Glasgow — who has now been joined by his wife who admits to “coming to grips” with living in Blackball after Glasgie’. Nearby Taylorville is another town that’s felt the fresh breeze of prosperity.
We weren’t sure where to stay that night, but we’d been warned to book in advance as beyond Hokitika, what accommodation there is tends to fill up quickly towards the end of each day. So we booked beds in Ross. The weather varies from cold and bleak, to wet and miserable. Just before Hokitika we detour up through the old gold mining area of Blue Spur where the locals have grouped together to develop their region as a tourist destination. There is accommodation and greenstone carving in here with information posts and walks along the way. There’s also a remarkable brand new hotel in here, built on the site of an old horse tram station.
We think it’s in the middle of nowhere, but because we’ve come from the “other” direction, but drive on and find that it’s really only five minutes outside Hokitika. The Blue Spur project shows what people can achieve.
IN HOKITIKA IT’S JUST TOO cold, wet and windy to do much except drive around town. I liked Ross the last time I was through, with the huge hole that Allan Birchfield’s brother had excavated in the search for gold, so I phoned ahead to the Ross Motels and booked a two bedroomed unit for just $80. Ross is very much a traditional old gold mining town. It’s a bit of a shadow of its past glories but the Empire Hotel still stands, there is a quaint “miner’s village” and there are plenty of walks in the area.
Jim and Elsie who own the motels are long time Ross-ites. “Lived all my life here,” says Jim “— apart from the overseas rugby trips I’ve made.” Jim’s been a builder and he built the motels with great skill and lots of love. The units are immaculate with high-grade joinery and are a credit to Jim’s skill. Jim tells me that the very old Commer fire engine I had seen in Ross on my first visit in 1972 is back after having a starring role at Shantytown. “Yes, it’s back and it’s in the lean-to along at the fire station.”
It’s raining again and the lean to is locked, so I don’t get to see the fire engine again. We retire the 100 metres or so to the bar of the historic Empire and order a beer. There are a dozen people in the bar — two couples who’ve just got off large touring motorcycles, an elderly Englishman with a younger partner who’s originally from Zimbabwe and who bemoans the fact that NZ authorities wouldn’t let her settle here, so she had to go to the UK, a couple of locals — and us. The pub’s owned by Paulette and Mark Brown. I start a tab for drinks and meals but Paulette refuses to take my American Express card as security saying — “You’re on the coast now.”
I chat to the couple from England and the locals and ask them about the great hole over the road which is now pretty much filled with water. I last saw it three years ago and it was empty and looked big enough to swallow a town the size of Pukekohe. It’s now got enough water in it to float the Queen Mary. But there’s a problem — the water is disappearing, the level has dropped despite the hole having no obvious subterranean outlets. “We wanted to divert a stream over at the back into the hole and have an outlet so that there was “flowing” water in the lake,” said local Mick. “But DoC didn’t want that, they said it had to fill naturally. Well, it has filled naturally, but where’s the water going to?” Good question. Into the myriad of underground tunnels and old mineshafts that this area is honeycombed with?
At present, the only wildlife around this lake are ducks, but I get the distinct impression it won’t be long before there are fish in there even though DoC has said no. That the coast way of doing things. Gold mining is very much on the cards around here again. Allan Birchfield’s brother has now moved to an area between Ross and the coast and he’s got massive machines moving gravel and earth.
But everyone reckons that the Empire Hotel, indeed the whole town of Ross, is sitting on about $700 million dollars worth of gold. That makes you think about property prices doesn’t it? Colin and I order whitebait. Yes, it’s out of season but this is locally caught, genuine West Coast ‘bait that’s been frozen. The meals are prepared by Mark and when they arrive I’m impressed. At $25 you get good value. The whitebait patties are just like mum used to make, with minimal batter and lots of the little fish. The chips are crisp and golden and the salad, while not containing your trendy Ponsonby fancy lettuces, is delicious. The meal gets 100 out of 100 from me.
Wonderful experience and suggest you do the same — stay at Jim and Elsie’s motels and eat at the Ross Hotel. We carried on through driving rain and low cloud the next morning and had breakfast at the Breeze in Franz Josef Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are two towns that are about as far from the traditional West Coast towns as you can imagine — especially Franz. These are full-on tourist towns where you can actually get a latte — if that really is a sign that a town has reached an acceptable level of sophistication . . . . The $5 ham and salad sandwich and the long black at the Breeze for breakfast were superb. The eating and drinking on the trip are great, even if the weather isn’t.
At Fox we turn right and head out the 30 odd kilometres to Gillespie’s Beach, passing the road to Lake Matheson on the way. I’ve been to the lake before and been stunned by its beauty, but it’s still pouring and I don’t have anything but a short-sleeved shirt!
THERE USED TO BE considerable gold mining at Gillespie’s Beach and given what’s happening, it will probably make a return shortly. The last active miners were the Shaw brothers, but they have died, however their housekeeper, Mary, still lives there and it was she we were going to see. Except for the rain. We reach the end of the road and there’s a small cluster of houses and sheep huddling alongside each of them to shelter from the rain. You know that the weather on the ‘coast is lousy when even the sheep seek shelter. I don’t know which is Mary’s house and it’s too wet to helter-skelter around knocking on empty doors. If it had been fine I not only would have said hello to Mary, but I would have taken the 10 minute hike along thebeach to the old dredge.
Instead, we head back to Fox and the road south. There’s a break in the clouds and we see why it’s so damned cold — there’s snow on the mountains well down below the snowline! I’d been told by a member of my Radio Pacific audience that I “had to call and see Barry Wyber” with quite explicit instructions on how to find him. Barry and his partner live down at the end of a long, narrow track, right on the beach at one of the most remote parts of the ‘coast. No electricity, no mains water — just wilderness.
The home is comfortable and immaculate. Barry’s originally from Milton in South Otago and he’s lived on this spot for the past 40 years. But he’s no hermit. He just loves it here. Barry’s made a good living out of fishing in what would seem to be an impossible spot. Here the gravel beach is steep and the Tasman surf
crashes in. Barry spent most of those 40 years using a unique way of launching his boat. He looped one end of a length of heavy wire hawser to a post and a tall Rata tree and took the other end about 150 metres out to sea and tied it around a huge black rock.
Then he turned his boat into a flying fox, using a set of rollers hung from the wire rope! He would clear land, the steep beach and the crashing surf aerially and once above calm water he’d lower the boat, disconnect the rollers and head off on a day’s fishing. Coming back, he’d reverse the process, hooking up to the rollers and using the on-board winches to lift the boat out of the water and back to shore — again aerially!
IT’S STOPPED RAINING now and standing on the beach alongside the boat, which is mounted looking out to sea like a sentinel, looking at the surf I say to Barry — “There must have been some scary times. . .” He laughs. “Yes I had some scares coming back in.” “Would you have gone out today?” “No,” he replies. “It’s too rough.” Barry’s got a collection of four classic Indian motorbikes and he rides one of them each day.
He’s also got three very rare pre-war American cars and a Model A Ford waiting to be restored. We talk cars for 30 minutes or so. One of his cars, a 1939 Nash coupe, is the first car he ever bought. “I was living in Milton and sold it. I tracked it down in Oamaru many years later and restored it.” Although he’s no longer fishing, much more the traveller, he still has the Ling quota for the area and that gives him a good income.
It would be easy to be envious of Barry and his partner — remote and enjoying that solitary life, but still gregarious and enjoying the company of people. And they get around — classic car or motorbike meetings to be attended right across the country. They go to Haast for their mail and to Hokitika for shopping. We have to go. The weather is clearing from the south, but it’s still bucketing down further up the coast. We decide that the Big River excursion is off permanently, so decide to head to Haast, over into Central Otago and on to Dunedin to briefly revisit our old bodgie stamping grounds.
Haast is, well, Haast. Flat with views across grasslands to the towering mountains and wide rivers. This is heritage wilderness. We look at the map and ponder going to Jackson’s Bay. We’d been to the end of the road up past Karamea and Jackson’s Bay would make it a complete story. But . . . I ask at the Information Office if it’s worth going. “There’s not a lot there, but it’s a lovely drive.”
I go to the office of Haast River Safaris and ask the same question. “Definitely, go and see Meg and have fish and chips there.” Fish and chips at Jackson’s Bay sounds good, so off we go, lickety split in our silver, travel stained Navara.
The drive is stunning — the roads fast, there’s absolutely no traffic and the scenery takes your breath away. The arrival at Jackson’s Bay, shortly after crossing the stunning Arawhata River, is the stuff you only get to see once or twice in your lifetime. Jackson’s Bay is sheltered from the southerly wind. Out to sea we see whitecaps, but inshore the water is dark blue and flat calm.
The township isn’t much — a small collection of cribs and baches up a private road. There’s a long wharf and a fish packing plant — and the Craypot Cafe that looks like a pie chart, where Meg serves fish meals seven days a week to the locals and the visitors. I order two pieces of fish — “I’ve only got elephant fish, it’s nice” — and chips. The sun is out and so are the sandflies. But, by now I am immune.
Meg and I chat. I tell her why I am here — writing a story — and that I live in Auckland, but my heart is in Dunedin. She tells me she comes from Balclutha — “Well, Clydevale really.” The world is a small place. When I left school in Dunedin I went to work for a stock firm, Donald Reid and Company and we had many clients in the Clydevale area. “The family were clients of Donald Reid’s,” says Meg. “Oh, what’s the family name?” “Ede,” she replies I knew the family well. Meg’s father, Bruce, had died just about the time I joined Donald Reid’s but I got to know the farm manager and Mrs Ede. What brought Meg here, to Jackson’s Bay, remote, beautiful, but lonely? “My kids were in Queenstown, I moved to Wanaka and came through here one day and just loved the place and stayed. That was 12 years ago.” Meg’s owned the Craypot Cafe for just one summer season. “It’s been busy. It’s seven days a week and I’m looking forward to closing for winter and going somewhere for a holiday — probably
the islands . . .”
I get Meg to sit on a table and look out to sea while I take photographs. She wants to see the results — something you can do with digital cameras. We talk some more. I could still be there, but the siren song of the road beckons. We shake hands warmly and Colin and I head back to Haast, I am marvelling at the serendipity of life, Colin is entranced by the beauty of the world. The feeling of well-being carries along with us as we head up the valley, across the Gates of Haast and descend into Central Otago’s lakes district.
From here it’s familiar territory, down through to Cromwell, Alexandra, Roxburgh and into South Otago. I could drive this road with my eye closed. We stay the night in a brand new motel in Milton and the next day we head into Dunedin and Colin and I wallow in nostalgia — but I also have four cheese rolls for breakfast and a mutton pie for lunch. Dunedin tucker! Then we head up the east coat for another night in the same motel in Blenheim that we’d stayed in on the way down.
On Friday we catch the 10.00am InterIslander sailing and by 1:30pm we are on the road back to Auckland where we arrive at 9:45pm. We had left the previous Saturday at 8:45am and, in between, we had covered 4,200 kilometres — give or take a few. I cursed the alarm when it woke me at 3.00am the next morning. The 5.00am start to the radio show was two hours away. I was tired, but I was elated and excited.
It had been a fabulous week.