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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2001

Two Days by Car to Christchurch and Two Back

page 51

Two Days by Car to Christchurch and Two Back

You may know that 1933 was not a good year. Nobody thought it a good year, and even I thought it started badly, because I was sent home from school and told not to come back. Well, it wasn't quite like that but the effect was the same. There were others like me, new five-year-olds sent home because the government couldn't afford teachers for us. It had raised the starting age to six over the whole country.

What was good about 1933 was that, as I was at home, I was going to be taken to Christchurch for the first time in our Rugby car. I feel I may not have gone otherwise, as that would have meant missing school. In the eyes of New Zealand parents brought up with Scottish attitudes to education, there was nothing worse than missing a day at school, unless it was missing two.

The Rugby, the family's first car, was one of the cheaper American cars. It had a folding hood, side-curtains, a round clock-face temperature gauge sitting above the shining radiator, spare wheels on the back and a big foldout carrier which could take all the luggage wrapped in a heavy green canvas bag held firmly by leather straps and buckles. It had been delivered in Nelson, probably from Hallum and Coote's garage at about the time I was delivered in Nelson, at the Collingwood Street maternity hospital, now reborn as Dayman's Garage.

With two bench seats, the front one folding down to make a bed, there was still space for folding camp stools which helped the car's astonishing carrying capacity. This is evidenced from photos taken on distant excursions when most of the family of nine children were present. The only drawback I recall to a well loaded car was that the drainage tap below the petrol tank could be knocked when crossing a rough water-course. On the two occasions it happened, ingenuity staunched the petrol leak sufficiently to make base, but it was usual to carry at least one red two-gallon can of petrol.

My father also always had a bicycle tube for fitting over the exhaust and up behind the spare when in deep water. I recall that for back country page 52
George Blair with his Rugby car at Lake Rotoroa Accommodation House, 1934. (AK Blair)

George Blair with his Rugby car at Lake Rotoroa Accommodation House, 1934. (AK Blair)

places, to which he travelled extensively as the District Inspector of Livestock for Nelson, he carried a lot of gear, including tools such as axe and shovel, and was always prepared for overnighting in the car.

In my early years he still had a horse, no longer in our horse paddock beyond the back yard and large vegetable garden, (now a park with Grove Street Kindergarten), but at Wai-iti, beyond Wakefield. He travelled there by train before the horse treks, which at times took many days in all weathers and conditions. He told me of crossing the flooding Buller in snow and sleet and then spending a miserably cold night at Tophouse Hotel. Although it was often the only practical way to travel, my mother said that even after the car had proved itself in difficult conditions, it was still officially considered improper for a stock inspector to arrive at most farms in one.

page 53

The Rugby had been to Dunedin, taking members of the family to visit a 94 year-old grandmother, so the trip to Christchurch was not groundbreaking. It was, nevertheless, exacting, especially on the many hill roads. Our party had four members, my parents, myself and my Uncle Andrew, Master of the SS Duntroon which was making an infrequent visit to New Zealand. He had left his ship at Wellington, coming by night ferry to visit us, and travelling with us to Lyttelton to rejoin it there.

Motor vehicles were still relatively few in 1933 and I cannot recall any others being owned along our part of the street except Arthur Harley's. The route out along Grove and Milton Streets, great paved play areas, would have been quiet, as usual, early on the morning we left.

From the town boundary about Weka Street, much of which fronted the tide, we drove by the gravelled road that wound past the cemetery and in and out of all the inlets of the Haven. This was familiar territory and I always looked for my name on the gate of Blair Athol, near present-day Brooklands Road. The name still applies to a property there.

The familiarity continued to the Glen and Cable Bay roads, steep Gentle Annie and Harley's bach beside the deep Teal River, with the road bridge at the foot of the, to me unknown, Whangamoa Hill. To the left, on the flat between river and hill, stretched a long township of white tents. With wooden floors and sides to less than half height, white duck cloth above and a canvas fly over all, they were the homes of the unemployed, the relief workers navvying on the hill road, each with their standard issue wooden steel-wheeled barrow, pick and shovel.

We started meeting them in little knots as we followed the tortuous single lane road, the coach trail, slowly up the hill, in and out of each deep gully and above a frightening scree slope. This part now three good lanes wide with a passing lane, was then narrow in the extreme. Blind corner followed blind corner and although I don't recall meeting any traffic, my father blew the car horn assiduously at each. I had learned that every motorist did this. The horns then had noise and purpose, in contrast with today's almost purposeless peepers.

It wasn't until nearer the top that we met the great body of workers with their picks, barrows and shovels. As we bounced round the bend there was a great gasp, the road, although still very rough, was now two lanes wide. "So this is what it's going to be like!" cried my mother.

page 54

I realise now that by working down the road the workmen had the help of gravity when wheeling their loads to fill out the bends. I assume gelignite and perhaps even petrol-engined compressor drills were used, but their work must have entailed moving many thousands of barrowloads, as 15 or 16 were needed to shift even one loose cubic yard. I wonder how those men felt about the suddenly de-valued labour they had given to the road when bulldozers first arrived in Nelson, about three of four years later.

On the other side of the hill the coach road descended through the bush in short steps, with many bends until, near the bottom, we found another workers' camp crowded along a gully. Smoke from corrugated iron chimneys indicated that womenfolk were at this camp too.

With regular frequency we splashed through fords for which diamond shaped motoring signs had been erected. The first in bold black on yellow background said Caution while the second said Water-Course. These words were among the first I ever learned to read. I gave myself the task of spotting them, reading the message aloud and waiting for the splash, with the car grinding slowly in low gear, and being tested by some of the bigger, rougher crossings. I recall we had one deep ford with a soft bottom which almost held us and I identified it, many years later, beside a bridge at Okaramio.

Beyond Blenheim was the striking tussock country, a new experience, and then we enjoyed the rollers pounding in on the East Coast. At Kaikoura the road trailed through the town and past a park with arches of baleen whale jawbones, but the best was yet to come.

South by the sea coast again, the road soon wound along the cliffs where it was often but a narrow ledge cut into them. Here we came to the first great delight, a tunnel, and my first experience of ever travelling through one. The raucous horn was startling as we proceeded slowly through. The second delight came not much later, after crossing the first Hundalee Hill, in the shadows of an ending day. This was a delightful camping spot in bush just off the road, by the clear, clean Okarahia Stream.

It was as if no one had ever stopped there before. Primus lit, a meal followed, my parents' car bed was made up, and my uncle and I slept outside under a simple, room-like awning attached to the Rugby. In the fine warm evening it was idyllic and we went to sleep with a ruru calling for more pork. Now the place is much changed. There is no little bridge, only a wide sweeping road over a big culvert, with cars swishing by. The campsite is still there, but a much littered scene of desolation. Most trees are page 55gone and there is a road-gravel dump beside it, but for me it will always be remembered as I first saw it.

After leaving Okarahia the road slowly but progressively improved, and we reached Christchurch in the afternoon, our approach being announced by a concrete road, smooth except for the bump, bump, of wheels crossing the joins between the slabs. This concrete innovation of the great depression time has since disappeared from Christchurch, and also from another place where I experienced it 30 years later, at Drury near Auckland, before arrival of the motorway.

A second reason for going to Christchurch was to visit my sister who was at teachers' training college, having had to move from Wellington when the slump closed the teachers' colleges there and in Dunedin after her first of two years. That re-union, seeing my uncle to his ship and enjoying the big city, especially the double decker trams, made for a satisfied return to Nelson. This time we had two lady passengers, friends we knew from our street. It was uneventful apart from three things.

The first was at Waipara, where we bounced across the wide, braided river bed, trying to follow the few vehicle tracks in order to find the road at the far bank. We were misled by some that led us to the left and onto the road west to Culverden and beyond. Signposting, before the AA took it in hand, was often meagre, but we were soon back on the right route north. It was shorter and more direct than the inland route through Waiau, if that had been passable. The opening of the road over the Lewis Pass was still five years away.

The second little bit of excitement came north of Kaikoura, on a straight near Hapuka. The day was warm and the side-curtains, celluloid that had turned amber and become almost opaque, were removed for the view and fresh air. (Later they were changed to clear glass, with a little triangular flap by the driver to allow arm signals). This was pleasant when the car was going at its normal cruising speed of about 30 miles (50 km) per hour.

Our passengers were wearing big, wide-brimmed hats and suddenly a hat flew out and bowled back down the road, running on its brim edge. My father turned the car, followed and collected the hat successfully, except that he stopped the engine in the process and it would not start again, apparently through battery trouble.

We waited and, before long, a Model T with two cheerful young men hove into sight. They stopped and asked if they could help, as all motorists did page 56in those days. A tow soon had our engine running, and on we went. It was not long, however, before we came across them again, with their Model T stuck in the middle of a ford. This stream, unlike the majority, had a small bridge, a typical narrow, wooden structure with no sides, probably built there because of 'soft bottom' problems. We went across it, backed down, and pulled the Ford out of the ford.

With much laughter and waving they were off again, and we completed the day at, I think, Rakautara, a railway construction camp with wooden huts sitting vacant. It may have been that construction of the Picton to Christchurch line had been halted by the slump, as happened on the Nelson line where the halt was final. There was a caretaker staff who hired the huts to travellers, and our party took two.

In the early evening we watched men walking out on a long reef exposed by the tide and using drop nets to catch crayfish, clearly successfully. As we stood watching, a lad who lived on site enthusiastically gave me impromptu instruction on how to tell the time. He produced his own big, shining, pocket watch and I decided he must be rich, unlike many at that time. Perhaps riches came from crayfish, for there appeared to be quite a trade. My father bought a big sackful of them, freshly cooked, which he tied on the very top of the carrier load in the morning.

We must have had another tow start to leave and, when we reached Blenheim, we pulled into a central town garage which I later knew as Dix's. (I bought my first car, a new 12 HP Vauxhall Wyvern, from it 17 years later and decommissioned my push-bike). With a new battery installed, we arrived safely back home in Nelson to a warm reception, especially after the bulging sack was espied.

Depression and war were not times for travel, and it was to be another 12 years before I again saw Christchurch, but no trip to it has ever had a road as rough, a pace as slow, or enjoyment as great as the first.