Putting this magazine together is not all comfy chairs and air-conditioned offices. We really get out there on your behalf, dear reader, risking life and limb to get you the best, most informative stories. Our intrepid reporter JANE WARWICK explains her close encounter with a wind farm.
“IT LOOKS,” SAID MY friend Neil peering closely at the screen and its Google map, “as if you go up here – Hall Block Road.”
And so I did.
My drive to the Tararua Wind Farm near Palmerston North started innocuously enough although I had never been in nose-to-tail traffic in the Manawatu Gorge before. Due to two lots of road works – trucks, cars, buses and a particularly smoky tractor queued in both directions. The wheels of the articulated rig in front of me looked worryingly close to the edge, but that small anxiety was nothing compared to what was to come.
I was on assignment for this issue – ‘innovations at the country’s oldest wind farm’, was the editor’s brief.
I crossed the Ballance Bridge and found an entrance, but it looked too insignificant, more like a drive than a road. I spotted a contractor at the nearby entrance to the Manawatu Gorge Loop Track and he confirmed it was indeed the road – or at least a road – to the wind farm.
“But, it’s very steep, so you have to be careful,” he said uneasily.
“Of course,” I replied with a casual flap of my hand and got back into my car. He walked back to me. “You will be careful?” “Of course,” I assured him again. “Thank you.” And I drove through the entrance to Hall Block Road.
It was fairly straightforward to begin with; a gravelled byroad rising gently over the slopes. It became a little winding and I passed a burned out car, listing over a small bank. The road became steeper, the gravel shifted a little more under my tyres.
I didn’t know it, but I had just passed the only place where there was space to turn or pull over.
I did notice the space featured a small still-life of scorched earth, a charred muffler and some enormous blackened springs. The road rose in front of me; the gravel moved beneath me; my grip tightened on the steering wheel. I crept around another corner and my heart sank. A slew of gravel spilled over the edge and a tree was snapped in two. I got out of the car and inched my way to the edge and peered gingerly down. It was a toe-curling drop. I saw that although the broken tree was still unweathered, the break was very dry, so it wasn’t a new event. Neither could I see a vehicle over the edge so with great relief I continued on.
Higher, more winding; the views were spectacular – a little too spectacular maybe. It was a long, long way down and the wire and batten fencing had keeled over horizontal to the road’s edge, instead of upright and secure. I nearly lost my nerve but I was beyond, as they say, the point of no return. And then – the relief – I turned a corner and there was the wide plateau.
Fields of sheep and wind turbines and not a sheer drop in sight. I came to a gate. It was locked. I rang James Mckay, site supervisor for the wind farm, and asked how I could get in. In the course of a confused conversation where I talked padlocks and he talked key codes, he suddenly said, rather incredulously, “Are you on Hall Block Road?”
“Yes,” I answered, rather nonplussed. Where else would I be?
“Keep coming, you’re at least five more minutes away.”
And then, at last, I was sitting in his office, out of the howling Manawatu wind.
“Hall Block Road? You must be a good driver?” he grinned.
A colleague came into the office. “This is Jane,” said James. “She came up Hall Block Road!” “Did you? You must be a good driver,” he congratulated me. I smiled, rather tightly. Several minutes later, another colleague, another disclosure.
“Goodness,” she said. “That’s quite a drive.”
“Yes,” I said, trying not to look peevish. “So I gather.”
When I left, James told me of the main, and far quicker, route from the site and off the ranges. Just 10 minutes and sealed. “Just out the gate; it’s the first on the right.”
Need I say I missed it? Need I tell you I couldn’t raise a signal on my cellphone to ask new directions?
I did see a gate but it appeared padlocked. Never mind, I thought, this road has to go somewhere and at least is heading downwards. Turns out it was also heading towards a sign that told me that I had run out of ‘maintained road’. Reading between the lines I deduced that if I proceeded it would make Charles Heaphy’s explorations seem like a Sunday stroll.
I turned around, passed the padlocked gate “on the right” and repositioned myself back at the top of Hall Block Road. I gripped the steering wheel, selected a lower gear, and crabbed my way down. Actually, going down wasn’t so bad; I was feeling a little smug before I was even halfway there.
At the bottom, I came bonnet to bonnet with a camper van. I pulled over and let it squeeze past. Belatedly, I wondered if they knew what they were doing, but by the time I had exited onto the main road so I had room to turn around, they were gone from sight. Even if I chased and stopped them, neither of us would have been able to turn around.
“Neil,” I said as I dragged myself through the door, worn out from my epic drive.
“Neil,” I said as he also dropped wearily onto the couch, tossing his Police cap onto the table.
“If you get a call about some missing tourists in a camper van, I think you had better search on Hall Block Road.”