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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 9 (April 1, 1931)

Through the Otira with a Movie Camera — Filming the Longest Tunnel in the Empire

page 23

Through the Otira with a Movie Camera
Filming the Longest Tunnel in the Empire

Panoraming the longest tunnel in the Empire was a task I had allotted to myself before leaving the South Island. But it was not only the Arthur's. Pass tunnels (there are sixteen of them), with their whole minutes of increasing darkness and retreating pin-points of daylight, that were romantic in themselves. For the ordinary passenger intent, say, on reading his daily newspaper in comfort, I did realise the attraction of an inside seat in a first-class compartment.

The rear riding rail of the last carriage was a very good friend to me at several points of the journey, a great part of which, incidentally, is through the steepest mountain country in New Zealand. A wonderful experience for the more adventurous tourist would be to climb right outside the bar and sit on one of the bumpers. The unadventurous tourist had better give bumpers a wide berth, however, for it is by no means an easy matter to regain the gangway once you have succeeded in the perilous task of climbing down. There is at least one part of the shining metal track that I shall remember well!

Catching the 10 o'clock Christchurch to Greymouth Express, I first secured a seat in the rearmost compartment. Then, armed with a special permit from the authorities, I approached the guard.

“Guard,” I said, “I wish to ride at the very back of your train through the tunnels.” He looked at me, that blue-eyed guard. He looked at me, and—he sighed. Rare, I imagine, are English journalists upon that line, and few of them carry movie cameras. Fewer still, doubtless, dress in rags for the occasion. I happen to possess one suit—and I did not want to spoil it—so I had put on a pair of aged “plus fours” and a threadbare raincoat. All things considered, I suppose I must have looked a bit of a tramp. But the guard was most courteous as well as immaculate, so he sighed and almost shook his head, but he let me do as I wanted. It was at my own risk, he told me. It would be useless to expect the train to stop if I fell off. For the simple reason that no one would know.

Within a few minutes I was in position, movie camera in one hand and grasping the safety catch with the other. From Christchurch to Greymouth is one hundred and forty-five miles, and the journey takes about four hours. The moment I had passed Springfield it began to dawn upon me that I was taking a big risk. To begin with, however, there was a very gradual slope, and, even without a bar to steady me, I was able to film a few feet of landscape round about the Kowai bush country. After Staircase the train began to climb steadily, winding in and out along S-shaped gradients and over steel-girdered viaducts, which thereabouts link together the brown and grey cliff sides of Broken River.

To an Englishman, there is nothing more wonderful than the way these forested ravines are spanned. Looking down at the blue-green water, ninety feet below, I realised what even a momentarily carelessness on the part of the enginedriver would mean. It says much for the personnel of the New Zealand railway staff that not a single fatal accident has occurred since the opening of the line. More than one motor car has “piled up” on the more dangerous parts of the roadside. Between Avoca and Cass we passed the scene of such a puncture tragedy. Fortunately there were others rendering help.

“Safety First” is a steadily pursued motto with New Zealand engine-drivers. page 24 Although I know, of course, that trains are signalled all along the line, to pull up suddenly, or even to delay along the track is to take an uncalled for risk. The railway signal system is nearly a hundred years old, and improving changes are going on all the time. To-day the reliability of train signals is just as perfect as it well can be.

As we went through tunnel after tunnel in quick succession, I used up three containers full of film, taking the entrances and exits of these “defiles”—they really were rather black inside for photographic purposes, yet it was with a triumphant and wholly pleased sensation that I at last jumped to the ground at Arthur's Pass.

The longest tunnel in the Empire. Arthur's Pass! The name alone always held a lure for me—the lure of green forests, snow-covered heights, gold, rivers, bridges, viaducts. But the greatest advantage a railroad traveller has over the motorist in this trip is that he can break his train journey and walk over the pass. There is good accommodation for the night at either end of the track, either at the Hostel at Arthur's Pass itself or at the Gorge Hotel near Otira Railway Station. Then, rested and refreshed, the next day the traveller may continue on his way by train down the beautiful Otira Gorge, with its stately trees and rushing torrents. Personally, however, I decided to double back early in the morning for the trip through the five and a quarter mile tunnel. Having leisure hours to spend before continuing the next day, I was able to secure some more “movies,” which I deemed prudent to leave in the carriage where I had a seat, before I again ventured out on to the back. Arthur's Pass was looking particularly attractive the morning we approached the tunnel portal.

But, to my complete surprise, an electric engine was now drawing the train. The rows of clean white lights on either side clearly illuminated the tunnel, giving one the impression of travelling through an immense and exquisitely arranged glow-worm cavern. Ever and again from above, the blue electricity sparked and flashed merrily, for all the world like a Chinese cracker. Presently, looking ahead, halfway through, I saw a small white dot of light; and looking back it was the same size—an infallible test (I was informed by the guard who was now with me) of the straightness of the tunnelling. Presently, as we neared the far end, drops of moisture began to trickle from the coach. Then daylight came again, and we passed out of the tunnel with the blue Otira river now far below on our right.

Putting on the Finishing Touches. (W. W. Stewart, photo.) W.G. Class locomotive in the final stages of repair at the Hutt Valley Workshops, Wellington.

Putting on the Finishing Touches.
(W. W. Stewart, photo.)
W.G. Class locomotive in the final stages of repair at the Hutt Valley Workshops, Wellington.

There are other scenes in that journey I shall never forget. The gangmen along the line busy at a job of work was one of them. They represent the railway police force, which is as efficient as those who maintain law and order in New Zealand cities. They watch out for possible marauders, and daily inspect portions of the line. Right down to Greymouth you will see them “on the road.” If anything should go wrong, well trained and equipped emergency workers are ready to go out to do immediate repair work. Nothing, as far as I can see on the New Zealand railways, is ever left to chance. Nor shall I forget the courtesy of every one of the railway officials with whom I came in contact. This “human touch” is one of my most pleasant recollections of travel on the New Zealand Railways.