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with Rod Oram

 

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Day 21 – Sombre Sunday

Mar 8, 2020

I almost missed the sign to the Pike River Memorial Garden just before the road crossed the river itself. I made a sharp right into the side road and the Memorial was just down the way. This was not the official memorial which stands in Greymouth but a tribute by the local community and the families who lost 29 men in the mine disaster on November 19, 2010. It was the largest loss of life in an accident in New Zealand since 1914.

The Memorial Garden itself was simple. A rock with a plaque commemorating the men; a space for each of them, individualised with a message from his family, and a few of his favourite things…such as their Holden Commodore badge, a cricket bat, signs for various beer brands. Most poignant of all was the black stone and plaque at the foot of the main memorial. It was to the youngest who was killed, Joseph Dunbar, aged 17.

The Memorial Garden looks up the river perhaps some 10km from the escarpment where the mine still is but now a tomb. Everything was wrong about the disaster – the coal prospect was long known but considered unmineable because the seams were so fractured and the the coal so gaseous, giving off prodigious quantities of methane. But NZ Oil & Gas was the main promoter of its development. The project was always running into problems, always breaking its promises.

A thorough investigation after the corporate manslaughter resulted in 25 charges against the company, subcontractors and individuals, notably Peter Whittall, Pike River’s CEO. A few subcontractors pleaded guilty and paid fines. But the government allowed the company and Whittall to make payments to the bereaved families and the charges were dropped. That was one of the most immoral decisions John Key’s government made in its nine years in office.

One of our best business journalists, Rebecca Macfie, wrote a scathing book about all this. And this is an interview I did with Rebecca on the subject in 2014.

There was no dispute that the company and regulatory regime were deeply negligent. For example, the company was allowed to claim a “world first” for putting the extraction fan and its electric motor at the bottom of the pit…right in the thick of the highly explosive methane – rather than above ground. As a result, the government initiated a massive reform of health and safety regulation because our workplace death record was far worse than those of comparator countries.

Even before I got to the Memorial I was feeling more than a little sombre. As I had on other occasions this week, I’d been thinking about Jeanette Fitzsimons and her untimely death a few days ago at the age of 75. In her “retirement” she was still an immensely effective advocate against climate change, coal mining, polluting farming practices and many other sustainability issues. In her time in politics, she had put sustainability on the agenda, thereby shifting some politics and policies for good, while retaining her steadfast integrity and delightful personality.

I was reflecting on such things as I rode through huge, wide open, peaceful countryside from Murchison to Ikamatua and on to Greymouth. There I joined the start of the West Coast Wilderness cycle track which runs 138km down the coast to Ross. The track was a joy, despite our first slightly soggy day on my whole tour todate. Thankfully the occasional light drizzle through the afternoon was by West Coast standards almost dry.

These few photos give you a glimpse of my journey today:

For a long stretch the track ran along the line of the tramway which linked Kumara, where I’m staying tonight, with Greymouth. This was an early gold mining town and these two boards along the track tell the story of it.

Though I rode 109km today, and hadn’t left Reefton until 8.30am, I arrived here in Kumara at 3pm. Apart from my long stop at the Memorial Garden I kept pedalling with only a few very short breaks to eat a bit more of the delicious cranberry scone and pork sandwich I bought this morning in the excellent Reefton bakery.

I’m staying tonight with two other cyclists in a renovated Victorian cottage just across the road from the Theatre Royal Hotel. In gold rush days there was an entertainment place so named just behind the hotel, which is itself of that era. It’s also known for its excellent food…and I’m heading over there for dinner now with three other cyclists I’ve got to know over the past couple of weeks from Christchurch and an old friend from Manukau Veterans Cycling Club days years ago who now lives in Mangawhai.

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