“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~ Marcel Proust
When I was young, my school holidays were spent sitting in the the back of my parent’s Nissan Bluebird as they drove around the West Coast. Wedged between my sister who battled chronic car sickness and my brother who blasted Mariah Carey on his discman, we travelled over Arthur’s Pass and navigated coastal roads. Later, in my teenage years and thankfully without older siblings, mum and dad taught me to play pool in iconic West Coast pubs. If I was lucky, they’d even buy me a stubbie of Speights. I’d sit quietly in a dark corner while mum played the pokies and dad muttered about her wasting money.
We never stayed in one place for long. The morning after a night at a roadside motel – usually named something ending in “Court” – dad, who refuses to sleep in past 7am, was glad for the 10am wake-up call to force mum and I out of bed. The checkout time was encouragement for us to get up and hit the road. We would assume our roles, with mum fussing to dry her hair and pack bags. Dad washed the dishes while I dried them.
Back in the car, we wouldn’t get far before it was necessary to stop at a tearooms for English Breakfast for two, three blueberry muffins and a bottle of Sprite. We would move on to visit overgrown cemeteries and potter around reading gravestones. Often, I chose to sit and read my Girlfriend magazine in the car while mum and dad had competitions to find the oldest grave. The rain covered windshield – it always rains on the coast – framed the landscape as I waited for them to come back and drive us to the next location, which would usually be an abandoned mine. I was encouraged to ponder the information signs that covered each sealed mine shaft, but as an angsty teenager I never considered the weight and significance of those printed words.
On November 19, 2010, the 6pm news made me reflect on all of this. Between live crosses to reporters in the field, TV One played fuzzy security camera footage of the Pike River Coal mine entrance as plumes of smoke and gas billowed after an underground explosion. The words on those humble green and yellow signs I’d read as a teenager were suddenly put in to modern day perspective. Considering my younger experiences of this place, it struck me how little I knew of the area I had strong feelings of nostalgia for.
With this in mind, in February 2015 I boarded the TranzAlpine passenger train. Alongside nature-stunned tourists I donned the complimentary headset to listen to the pre-recorded audio commentary. As the train moved along the Midland Line, facts, figures and quirky anecdotes of days gone by were projected onto the landscape that rushed past the windows. What surprised me was how much of it attempted to justify the decline of the once thriving settlements the railroad passed by. In a bid to understand more about the small towns that I have always known the names of – Otira, Runanga, Reefton, Westport, Denniston, Granity, Ngakawau – I began to discover that the industries of gold, timber and coal on which the Line between Lyttleton and Greymouth was based remain the backbone of what is left of these places. My eye became trained to notice the symbolism within the scenery, and its relationship with the current socio-economic climate of the area.
The experience of being in these places is a conflicting one. While many houses are in an unsettling state of disarray or empty, with the areas feeling desolate, the scent of potential is strong in the air – in one of the most beautiful parts of the country are the bones of towns built to accommodate communities. To turn the tables and inspire growth within these places, industries must be encouraged which support the next generation in establishing roots and pouring ideas and energy into new pursuits. In discussing economic strategy, scientists Shaun Hendy and Sir Paul Callaghan spoke powerfully about governments working to create places where talented people want to reside. Many, myself included, believe that this also applies to the West Coast. When a region becomes a place that people are drawn to, through culture, arts, sport, community events and activities and a sense of belonging as well as physical location and natural setting (which requires no production!) talented people will bring with them ideas and in turn create new occupations and industries.
To sustain a railroad, it seems, the value of the industry it facilitates must be projected to be worthy of the hours, dollars and lives lost in it’s creation and upkeep. But when the unsustainable industry dissipates – what then? What happens when the gold price falls? Or the last of the nuggets of gold are foraged from the riverbeds? When the last lone rakau toa of the Rimu forest has been felled, and the expanses of Matai have been milled? When the iron bars appear again, but this time over the entrances of coal mines where men have perished? What becomes of a railroad is anyone’s guess, but what comes of the communities that it feeds is a disconcerting tale. As I wander the streets I have in mind that this need not be the case.
Through developments in the state of the New Zealand mining industry and the impact of this on the Midland Line and West Coast communities, this journey continues.
For my favourite explorers: Mum and Dad – thank you for taking me on adventures from when I was born, I love you both to bits.
I was generously supported in the making of this work by KiwiRail and Solid Energy.
Special thank you to John Winter for letting me experience his working days with him and the incredible sights he sees as Infrastructure Inspector for KiwiRail.