Our trip through the Otira Gorge this summer was done with open windows and open jaws. The first hint of what was to come was the beehives – strategically set out at the start of the Gorge. Then we saw why. Rata honey was in production!
At any time of year, going through the Otira Gorge and Arthurs Pass is a dramatically beautiful trip – but we had hit the rata forests in flower. Nature’s paintbrush had swiped crimson over the hills – and it was simply extraordinary.
These are the Southern Rata (Metrosideros umbellata) – which grow as standalone trees from the ground up – as distinct from the Northern Rata (Metrosideros robusta), which start life as epiphytes, growing on – and eventually taking over – the skeleton structure of other trees.
And then there is the other major jaw-dropper of the Otira Gorge – The Otira Viaduct. It has replaced the jaw-clenching section of road they used to call the Zig-Zag (or worse things).
And once you have recovered from the stunned mullet position of open-mouthed amazement, you start thinking, and learning…
One thought is about the regeneration of the rata forests. Rata is a top menu choice for possums. The strong growth and vivid flowers in the Otira Gorge are largely courtesy of 1080 poison, in a concerted and long-running programme by DoC, and now with Project Crimson.
For doubters – there is a neighbouring uncontrolled area where the dead rata trunks stand bleached white. As we travel, we see many anti-1080 protest signs - and yet the living signs of regenerating forest are to me more convincing. Even if there is some by-kill from the poison, the burst of life and habitat it enables must surely outweigh that.
Then there’s the amazing story of the viaduct itself. Just an engineering project? No! I learnt heaps from the IPENZ website which tells of some remarkable cultural and ecological considerations.
For centuries, long before “labourers with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and two-horse drays” started to make the road through Arthurs Pass and the Otira Gorge to the West Coast Goldfields in 1865, this had been a Maori Greenstone trail.
So – to respect that long tradition, the kaitiaki – boulders which had marked the trail – were carefully protected during the construction process. I’m pretty sure that’s one in the foreground. One, a 140-tonner at Death’s Corner, could not be preserved, so the necessary rituals were conducted to permit its destruction.
Corresponding care was given to the flora and fauna. Before the contractors moved in, humus, soil, moss, small rocks and leaf litter were collected and stored, to be replaced at the end of the project – and regeneration hastened by the growing on of more than 100,000 seeds and cuttings taken from the site at a specialised nursery.
And so it often is. Some roads we have a vague recollection of how it used to be “before”. Other roads we simply know “after” and accept them as they are.
But I look at familiar roads differently when I know the stories.
A neighbour of ours, Bob Norman, used to be Commissioner of Works. He tells great anecdotes – and has written some of them in his two books. His book on Bridges (“To Get to the Other Side” ISBN 978-047-319363-8) went with us in Feierabend this last trip and I was bridge-spotting as we went.
Now when I drive through the Mangawekas (one of the awful/awe-ful roads of our youth) I think of Bob’s story of its reconstruction. “You Can’t Win ‘Em All” (ISBN 0-473-04659-8) has the full story – but the short version is that the original redesign work was done in the early 1960’s, and came up with four options – but the project was then shelved for lack of funds. Many years later, the money was available – and so was computer-power. The change in technology produced 38 possible re-alignments. The best choice was not among the original four – and cost less than half the price.
So – to those who gave their effort – and their lives – to create the Otira Coach Road in 1865-66 with pickaxes and wheel-barrows – to those who built the Otira Viaduct in 1997 – 2000 – and to all those who’ve built the roads and bridges we use so easily and casually in between – our gratitude!