I’ve been on tour up the West Coast this week, playing three gigs at Fox Glacier, Westport and Nelson
I left early on Tuesday morning, winding my way through the Haast Pass to find the Coast laid out under a glorious sheet of blue, the mountains crowned in snow, vivid above their dark, forested flanks. The highway twists through towering kahikatea and rimu and skirts mirror-still lakes. I passed through ramshackle small towns where old bits of machinery rust in paddocks and buckling sheds and ancient Land Rovers are essential landscape features.
After playing my first gig at the Cook Saddle in Fox, I woke up to another beautiful morning and took the opportunity to walk around Lake Matheson in its finest reflective glory.
After breakfast I continued north towards Greymouth, where the sunny weather had been clouded by the news that Solid Energy are preparing for big job losses in their underground coal operations. According to the newspaper report, the “easy coal” has all been taken – and in a depressed economic climate with a high New Zealand dollar, open cast mining is now the only way forward for the industry.
Greymouth’s Spring Creek mine is likely to be hard hit and following on from the Pike River disaster, this is a real kick in the guts for the town. Aside from a rich history based on coal mining, Greymouth lacks the tourist appeal of Fox Glacier or Franz Josef – mining still puts food on a lot of tables here. Coal is embedded in the town’s character as deeply as in the gnarled rock above it.
It’s the same story in Westport, which I drove through en route to the Star Tavern for my gig there yesterday. The Stockton mine on the plateau above the town employs 750 people and has given economic life to a town which had previously lain in the doldrums. However the nearby Denniston plateau has recently become a flashpoint for conservation after an Australian company announced plans to excavate there, with opponents arguing the unique flora and fauna in the area are simply too special to bulldoze for the coal below.
On the Coast, civilization exists tenuously in the face of foreboding and awesome wilderness. Green paddocks advance timidly to the fringes of the bush; towns become tiny beneath the massive buttress of the Southern Alps. Driving up the highway, you are met at every turn by extraordinary beauty.
This special place may be remote, but it represents a crucial front for the challenges facing this country. Here, conservation and economic concerns meet head-on. In the 80’s and 90’s, locals were at war with “greenies,” who successfully stopped logging of native trees here. The timber mills closed down, towns went quiet. Since then tourism has grown to be a major contributor to the region’s economy, but primary industries are still the real powerhouse, especially mining. How these often conflicting goals are reconciled on the West Coast will have major ramifications for this country in the future.
It would be nice to like to think that coal has had its day in the modern world – it’s a dirty, polluting form of energy which when mined in an open-cast manner requires large-scale environmental disturbance. But nonetheless, a substantial export market exists for it, mainly to fuel the rise of industrial China. And people on the Coast need work.
However the coal won’t last forever -the Stockton reserve has only another 20 years or so before it runs out, and the furore over Denniston may eventually prevent large scale mining there – so what then for places like Westport and Greymouth? I’m not sure whether tourism will ever be an economic replacement for mining on the West Coast, but I’d like to think so – this place is too precious to destroy, as are the people who make their home here.