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Stories of life in Otira

Dorothy 01/07/05

Stories of life in Otira on the West Coast of New Zealand abound – coaching days, tunnel building, remarkable visitors like Petrus van der Velden, the flourishing railway days and the present drive for re-development. I decided that a few of these should be recorded in NZine to open them to a wider group of readers. Unfortunately the reference books I quote in the Otira articles are all out of print.

Back to the days of the tunnellers
Mona Tracy in “West Coast Yesterdays” (published 1960 A. H. & A. W. Reed) writes about the drinking that made life bearable for many amid the hardships experienced by those working on the tunnel. Evidence of the quantity consumed comes from the money made by those who gathered up the empties. Two young men furnished a bach with everything needed, and another man amassed enough money to start a successful merchandising business on the West Coast by sending away more than forty tons of empties.

Later in the same chapter commenting on the gambling so popular among the tunnel workers she tells a story about the ‘Islanders’ who were the tunnel workers living in the settlement known as The Island’ three miles from the village. The Islanders who spent much time and money on big-money gambling especially enjoyed two-up. On one occasion they obstructed five coaches at the mouth of the gorge. On the high front seat of the front coach sat a prominent West Coast Justice of the Peace who could scarcely believe what he saw - a two-up school being played in the middle of the road and the players daring the coach-drivers to drive further until the hundreds of pounds lying on the road had been won or lost.

A tale of the coaching days
Grace Adams tells an amazing story of the coaching days in her book “Jack’s Hut” (published 1968 A. H. & A. W. Reed).

On one occasion a coach left Bealey to drive to Otira in the dark with only one passenger. To help to endure the intense cold he had a nip of whisky from time to time and offered the driver one too. The descent down the Otira Gorge was a hair-raising experience as the horses set far too rapid a pace down the winding road beside the steep drop to the valley floor. The passenger’s yells had no effect on the driver and only when the horses pulled up at the hotel did he discover that the driver was deeply asleep with one foot hard on the lever brake.

In “Jack’s Hut”, Chapter 8 “The Exodus” page 87 Grace Adams describes the impact of visits to Otira on the life and work of Petrus van der Velden. He arrived in New Zealand in 1890 and in the same year travelled to Otira. It was on this trip that he painted Otira Gorge (Dunedin Art Gallery).

She writes, “At Otira, at least, the really fine weather didn’t induce Van to paint at all. But, when rain was threatening, and ragged mists trailed across the bush, a mounting agitation would come over him, and suddenly he’d pack up his gear and be off. For days, weeks sometimes, the artist would work amongst the chaotic boulders of the riverbed where the booming water drowned all other sound. When he was “fullup”, saturated with the place, and the big canvas formed it his mind, he’d hurry back to his Christchurch studio. There, with all his preparatory sketches, paintings, and notes, the final work, charged with emotion, would emerge.”

A railway story from the 1950s
Robert Crumpton who grew up on the Coast remembers the remarkable events that marked the passage through Otira of the last Cabbage Train.

”During the nights of the 1950s, there was a perishable goods train which travelled on the Midland line from Christchurch to the West Coast. It carried produce from the markets, and The Press for early morning delivery. There were also a few carriages. This train was nick-named The Cabbage Train.

”By the end of the decade it had become uneconomic to run even by NZR standards, and it was discontinued after a number of fruitless objections.

”One winter weekend, a group of us Scouts went up to Kelly’s Range on a skiing trip. We walked out on the Sunday evening of the last Cabbage Train and waited on the Otira Station platform for the train to take us home to Greymouth.

”We were puzzled to see a couple of suspicious fellows creep out onto the track with two boxes. They broke out toilet rolls from one box, and zig-zagged them across the line for the length of the platform, for the train to break as it rolled in. Then they placed about a dozen ganger’s signalling detonators from the other box along the line in front of the platform. These detonators are used by gangers when they are working on the line to signal to approaching trains. One means ‘Go slow’, two means ‘Stop in a normal fashion’ and three means ‘Brake as hard as possible’. ”Now Otira township lies in a narrow river valley, and any sound echoes several times. Most of the people lived in a row of railway houses on the other side of the tracks. When the train pulled slowly into the station the noise was loud and alarming. Dogs barked, lights went on, and heads appeared over the back-yard fences to see what had happened. Everyone knew it was the last Cabbage Train, but no one suspected such a welcome.

Otira ‘in a narrow river valley’ - the station and the nearby houses today as the Transalpine train departs
Otira ‘in a narrow river valley’ - the station and the nearby houses today as the Transalpine train departs
Photo source Sandy Robertson
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"I cannot recollect this event being reported in the press of the day, but I suppose all the residents remember it.”

More on the Cabbage Train
Alan Burney, railway enthusiast and dedicated worked at Ferrymead Heritage Park says, “To most Cantabrians the term ‘The Cabbage Train’ referred to the overnight train that took perishables – fruit and vegetables - from Christchurch to Picton.”

To many Coasters, however, their Cabbage Train was the overnight train which many Cantabrians called ‘The Perishable’, taking perishable goods from Christchurch to the Coast over night. University students used to catch that train to Whites Bridge or Arthur’s Pass on a Friday night, go tramping on Saturday or Sunday and wait in the cold mountain night temperatures to catch it back on Sunday night.

A railway memory from Robert and Ian Crumpton
“I was most impressed by the electric traction system which was installed for the tunnel traffic. It was a first of its type because it used regenerative braking, ie the engines fed power back into the power grid when they were going downhill. This was quite a technological feat in those days. The traction motors were DC, and the rectifier-inverters were great six-phase mercury-arc glass things which looked like glowing ‘octupussies’ (octupi). There was a small local water-powered power station.”

Ian Crumpton recalls travelling in one of the trains pulled by an EO electric locomotive. “They were impressive machines. After the long climb from the coast to Otira behind a labouring steam engine, three "EO" class locomotives were coupled to the train. Passengers would feel themselves forced back into their seats by the smooth, powerful pull - quite a change from the lurching motion of the steamer.”

Alan Burney on Otira’s electric engines
Alan reported on the fate of the electric engines that pulled the train through the Otira tunnel. “The first engines used in the Otira tunnel were EO Locomotives. Of the five original engines only one remains, the others having been cut up for scrap. The remaining engine is at Ferrymead Heritage Park, and has been painstakingly restored.

“The next engines were EA locomotives. Although they were replaced by Diesel engines all five are in existence – three in Picton and two in Ferrymead. They belong to the owner of the railways, so no major restoration has been done on them. Designed to work in the tunnel they travelled too slowly when tried on the run from Wellington to Paekakariri. Both types of engine can be seen at Ferrymead Heritage Park.

Ian Crumpton recalls getting assistance at Otira
“When travelling over the Otira to university in the early 1960s on my Ariel motorcycle, with a friend on the pillion, in pouring rain, we emerged from one of the many water courses near Candy's Bend to find we were going nowhere. The motor was running but nothing more was happening! There in the bottom of the clear water course was the secondary chain.

“What to do? I retrieved the chain, we remounted, and coasted all the way to Otira, coming to a stop outside the railway workshops. We went in, bedraggled in our sodden army greatcoats. There didn't seem to be much work on at the time. One chap took the chain, and asked ‘Where's the joining link?’

"’Oh gosh! Probably in the bottom of the water course,’ I replied. Without another word he set to and made one from scratch in less than an hour. ‘That should get you to Christchurch,’ was his only comment.

“It lasted for years.”

Otira – a place with supportive people The above story is typical of the helpful attitude of so many Coasters and especially Otira people. When Sandy Robertson’s house was damaged in a storm while she and her husband were in Christchurch they returned to find that Bill Hennah had repaired the damage.

Marcus Lush in his programme Off the Rails visited Otira and called it ‘a magic place’. While he was there he met Chris and Bill Hennah who have taken over the hotel and most of the village, and said they were the kindest people you could meet.

Chris and Bill Hennah in front of the historic hotel they are working to restore
Chris and Bill Hennah in front of the historic hotel they are working to restore

Click here to view a larger version

It’s a place to visit and re-visit.


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