Monday, February 9, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
IN PRAISE OF OLD ROADS
In the weeks before Christmas, my wife and I paid a long overdue visit to the Ureweras. In spite of both being born-and-bred New Zealanders, we had neither of us been to that part of the country before. We spent three nights in a rented house next to the small Lake Whakamarino, and each day we drove the few miles over the hills to the great Lake Waikaremoana. We did not do the famous three-day hike around the western side of the lake, which I am saving for a future visit; but we took daily tramping excursions up shorter tracks on the eastern side of the lake. The best was the tramp up to Lake Waikareiti, at a higher altitude than Waikaremoana – a beautiful little lake dotted with small islands that are bird sanctuaries. One of the greatest pleasures of this Tuhoe country is the loud and frequent sound of native birdcalls as you tramp through the forests of kahikatea and beech and rimu.
But I’m not writing this to make you envious of how I spent my pre-Christmas break.
What really intrigued me was the matter of roads.
There are very few roads that lead into the Ureweras.
We drove in on State Highway 38, skirting the northern side and then coming down the eastern side of Lake Waikaremoana.
Most of State Highway 38 is unsealed. Indeed, after we’d enjoyed our vacation, we discovered that State Highway 38 is the longest stretch of unsealed state highway in the country.
It had been raining shortly before we reached this section of our journey in. Therefore the dust had been settled and we raised no clouds. There were many sharp bends under overhanging cliffs. On three or four occasions, we passed head-sized rocks that had been dumped on the roads by minor landslides caused by rain. We couldn’t help thinking about what would have happened to us if we had been passing when the rocks were falling. There were many one-way bridges over streams. There was also that odd phenomenon of short stretches of sealed road for a couple of hundred metres either side of each small village or settlement.
When we made our short daily trips from our Lake Whakamarino base, we did of course raise clouds of dust, like every other vehicle. We passed a grader whose job it was to even out the erring gravel across the surface of the road, but which, on its first pass, succeeded in creating a high ridge of gravel on the crest of the road. Before we passed the grader, we could feel the stones scraping the underside of the car.
Yet in spite of all this, I soon found myself getting quite used to these unsealed roads. We had no mishaps, the roads were perfectly safe, they served their purpose and a strange thought occurred to me. One hundred years ago, for most people even in developed parts of the word, roads structured like these would have seemed state-of-the-art and broad highways. It took a lot of engineering skill (and muscle-power) to survey them, structure them and build them, and they were as much a sign of industrial development as railways were. In Europe, even main arterial roads, before the nineteenth century, were far rougher and more primitive affairs than the unsealed state highway through the Ureweras.
I thought of all those movies we’ve seen which show horse-drawn coaches rolling merrily along smooth highways, and I realised they were pure visual fictions. In the days of stagecoaches, passengers would have bumped over potholes and laboured over muddy routes that were not even lightly covered in gravel. In comparison, State Highway 38 is a miracle of modernity and another thing to admire in an area where most of the admirable things are purely natural.