Group of men in a in car in the Otaki Gorge in 1921.

A Hard Life in the Gorge

5 Aug 2019
Life doesn’t get much harder than it was in the Ōtaki Gorge at the start of last century. The land was rugged, covered in thick, gullied bush with minimal infrastructure.

Life doesn’t get much harder than it was in the Ōtaki Gorge at the start of last century. The land was rugged, covered in thick, gullied bush with minimal infrastructure. It was frontier country and a tough place to farm. During the Depression, one of the Gorge locals was Darcy Collier. He recounts his early life in two amusing and surprising episodes of Spectrum, the long-running Radio New Zealand (RNZ) documentary show.

Presenter Jack Perkins describes the land in the Gorge as “marginal at best”, and it was here that Collier lived with his family. After the slump in the 1930s, his family moved out, and Darcy went to live with his mate Les Marriott. Marriott would later write a book of his experiences, Life in the Gorge. They were hard times and Collier was a hard man. He comes across as a real ‘Kiwi bloke’ – able to laugh off most privations.

You can listen to the two episodes below, or visit the catalogue for more information. Please note the introduction for part one is approximately one minute into the recording – it starts with a ‘cold open’ of Collier speaking. This is the style of Perkins, who then introduces the speaker and gives some background to the programme.

Many people know the Gorge as the gateway to Ōtaki Forks, a favourite tramping, camping and river-swimming spot. Even now the road presents challenges. It is gravel and winding and there is a constant risk of slips. The road was closed at the Blue Bluff for seven months from December 2016 following large, ongoing slips.

In Collier’s time, the challenges were even greater. Due to the nature of the road, all vehicles would carry a shovel. “There were always slips: sometimes you’d go around with one wheel hanging out,” remembers Collier. “We never took much notice of it.” If there was a big slip, the entire community would be isolated. Everyone would help clear the slip and the road was kept open quite reliably. One short-term solution was to simply dig a new track over the slip, which Collier explains could mean “you’d end up driving 30 feet [10 metres] above the original road.”

As there were farms and settlements on both sides of the Ōtaki River, crossing over was another hairy endeavour. There were a number of swing bridges, made – of course – from Number 8 wire that had been twisted to form cables. Collier remembers, “they were pretty flexible! You had to be careful timing your steps”.

An even more remarkable way to get across was via the bosun’s chair. This was a stretched wire running from a high point to low, with a separate wire set up for the return trip. A meat hook was placed over the cable and attached to a small chair. Sometimes Collier would just use the hook: “you’d hang on and slide across to the other side. The landing sometimes wasn’t too good – you might land head first. But you got fairly good after a while. And the wire never broke!” A good thing, considering it was about 20 metres above the water.

These are just a couple of stories from Collier, told to presenter Jack Perkins in a warm and colourful conversation.

Spectrum ran for a remarkable 44 years and more than a thousand episodes were produced. RNZ notes that it is “recognised as one of New Zealand’s most valuable libraries of oral history”. The Sound Archives that Ngā Taonga cares for contain an enormous number of recordings that capture New Zealand life, including hundreds of episodes of Spectrum.