Memory Road…

There’s dark green bush all around us; I can see it through the windscreen. I’m sitting between Mum and Dad in the Land Rover and I’m frightened. That’s my first memory and, for a long time, I didn’t know its origin. Was it a ‘false’ memory from the family’s stories of our baby days we loved to hear? For a long time I thought I remembered playing ‘holidays’ with my brother, but that memory came from a browned photo of us carrying suitcases, woolly hats tugged well down, setting off down the path to catch our imaginary Newman’s bus.

However, my first memory is real. Opened in July 1957, the brand new road linking French Pass with Rai Valley was rough and raw with many boggy and slippery sections. During a family outing on the new road, we slid around on one of these treacherous sections and, despite the Land Rover’s four wheel drive, my toddler memory banks were frightened into storage mode.

I’ve been re-reading Ian Dougherty’s excellent history, The Making of the French Pass Road in the Marlborough Sounds and realising all over again the achievement of those early and mid-twentieth century farmers and fishermen, the men behind the building of wharfs and roads today’s locals, holiday makers and tourists take for granted. The French Pass road was not solely the work of government agencies like the then Ministry of Works. It was a joint project with huge input in time, energy and cash from the residents of Okiwi Bay, French Pass and D’Urville Island.

The process of building the road gives a startling insight into how much every single aspect of projects such as these has changed over the last 56 years.

Long (and fascinating) story short, French Pass and D’Urville Island locals lobbied for government support for a road, the government agreed on condition that the “settlers”, contribute, the Croiselles-French Pass Road Board was elected and called tenders for the road’s construction.

The Ministry of Works in Nelson supervised the project and a route was marked out according to contour lines on maps and then ‘flagged’ by the MOW engineers, Arthur Watson, Harold ‘Bricky’ Holland and, later on, Gary Holmes. These intrepid men chopped their way through the bush and scrambled over rough and scrubby land attaching strips of red and white cloth to trees to show the contractors where to point their bulldozers. In those days, no resource consent, or any of the other frills and furbelows of modern infrastructure planning, was considered necessary.

The young Bryant brothers, Mac, Peter and Bill, built the entire road, with the exception of the Settler’s Mile, a section from Okuri Peak towards Waikawa Bay which my father and other locals built, their payment used to finance the last stretch as funds had run out. The contractors worked long hours and used a lot of gelignite – a substance which, according to Dougherty, was also used to speed up the boiling of the billy when dry wood was not available.

The Road Board members worked almost as hard, holding their meetings at the latest road-head, sometimes walking many kilometres to get there. Harold Leov, Chair of the Road Board, and Vince Moleta, flagged one part of the route when ‘Bricky’ Holland was unavailable. Bricky commented that they’d do just as good a job as he would anyway.

As a child growing up in the district, I didn’t appreciate the road or the work that had gone into acquiring it. To my brothers and me, it represented hours of mild nausea and boredom, as the Land Rover wound slowly up and down hills and rounded endless corners. There were just two highlights: a stretch of straight road above the head of Squally Cove and a fibrolite holiday cottage in Okiwi Bay with a brightly coloured chimney.

Rain, wind and fog could all close the road. The dodgy sections were well known to us: a steep corner halfway up the Matapehe Hill that might need chains, the clay stretch in the bush above Saville Bay that had so frightened me as a toddler and an unstable hillside above French Pass near the lighthouse turn-off. Local men clearing a slip in this latter location once carried husband Steve’s and my little orange Mini across the soupy mud so we could return to university after one holiday break.

Even in fine weather, the road requires concentration. I remember the shattered remnants of one young farm worker’s car at least 100 metres down a steep, rocky gully on our farm. Returning to work from a break in Nelson, he failed to take a corner and flew off the edge. In 1967, our school teacher wrote off the new school bus over a steep 122m drop near French Pass. He was thrown clear and climbed back up to the road with no more than a few bruises. Luckily no children were on board.

If you’ve never driven the road to French Pass I recommend taking the trip. Nowadays, the road is wider and sealed most of the way to French Pass. Set aside a day, take a picnic lunch and enjoy the spectacular scenery along with the knowledge that this is one of New Zealand’s true pioneer roads.

  • First published in The Nelson Mail
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Angela Fitchett

Angela Fitchett is a retired teacher living in Nelson. Also retired from writing English textbooks and columns for local paper the Nelson Mail, she is researching and writing a memoir based around her father’s war experiences while attempting to keep up with her grandchildren and garden.