Making tracks: a dirty job but someone had to do it

05:52, May 26 2014
Making NZ doco
CONNECTING THE COUNTRY: A railway workers camp at Raurimu is one facet of the eye-opening series Making New Zealand.

Vision and skill. That's what the early settlers had to have and every time I walk through Wellington Botanic Gardens I mentally thank whoever it was who had foresight to imagine those gardens, and to make them happen.

Prime's Sunday night documentary series Making New Zealand sets out to show who made things happen. It looked at roads last week. A few years ago my sister drove my mother down from Auckland to visit. Dementia was well on its cruel way and my mother spent the trip musing: "All these roads. I wonder who made all these roads?"

Just as my sister was about to turn the table and do to my mother what my mother had done to her decades earlier - stop the car, remove her from it and drive off - my mother turned her wily eyes on my sister and said "All these - bridges. I wonder who made all these bridges?" Good question Mum. And if you wondered who made all those railway lines, last night's documentary showed you. A nice comparison was made between the 19th century and now.

Rail had already transformed the UK, so coming here and not having it was not unlike going somewhere now that had no internet access. With a country to connect and open up, rail was perfect. And we were so good at it - tunnels, viaducts, the Raurimu spiral, built with cavalier lack of regard for workers' safety. This was a quiet, thorough documentary, not given to emotive comments, but full of reference about what it is to build - and be - a community.

The history of rail is an excellent parallel to a history of us, so deeply involved was it in the settling of our country, the building up of our industries, the growth in tourism. As times changed, so did the railways, culminating perhaps in the 1980s when nothing mattered more than profit and other things were simply taken out of the equation. What was often referred to was the nostalgia element of train travel and there can't have been many viewers - especially baby boomers - who didn't feel a certain wistfulness. You can gloss over the fact that the jobs were dangerous and dirty and that Taumarunui became a smoke-filled smog pit thanks to the steam engine, and that it wasn't much different in Thorndon - the documentary speculated it was only because Parliament was nearby that the move to electric and diesel trains happened when it did.

One question I've wanted answered for years - why on earth did they use a narrow gauge, causing our trains to wobble at speed? The all too common answer: cost.

ONE TO WATCH The Comedy Channel has Live at the Apollo at 9.50pm. Jack Dee is my comedic hero.


The Dominion Post