Road closure alert slow in coming

Tourists on the way to the West Coast from the Southern Lakes District were only gradually learning yesterday they would be unable to proceed past the washed-out Wanganui River bridge at Harihari, south of Hokitika.

Most tourists spoken to by the Otago Daily Times around Makarora and elsewhere yesterday afternoon still did not know of the washout.

For tourists with internet access, the information was available on the Automobile Association website from about 10am.

However, the New Zealand Transport Agency roadside electronic message board at Lake Hawea, that normally transmits warnings about road problems, was not operating for most of yesterday. The message board is about 400km south of the washout and at the point where tourists could choose an alternative route north.

With hundreds of vehicles heading north to the West Coast, a Makarora resident suggested it would have made sense for the NZTA sign at Lake Hawea to be operating.

When approached by the ODT late yesterday, NZTA communications adviser Ewart Barnsley said the weather ''did play havoc'' for most of the day with the fibre optics feeding electronic message boards at Lake Hawea and Cromwell.

''They are both up and running now advising drivers of the bridge closure at Harihari.

''However, the weather may still yet have a role to play in their operation.''

Two Polish tourists, Anna Mikicka and Szymon Kowalczuk, were among those who arrived back in the Lakes district after a night at Fox Glacier.

They were heading for a Cook Strait ferry they had booked but were philosophical about having to find a new route.

They had enjoyed seeing the ''wild'' rivers of the West Coast as they returned to Lake Hawea.

The McKelvie family from west Queensland were not aware of the bridge problem until informed by the ODT but were intending to continue north anyway, as far as the glaciers.

Kim McKelvie said having flown in from Mt Isa, where temperatures have been 45degC most days, they were simply enjoying the cool temperatures and the rain.

Cyclists Abby Lute, of Idaho, and Clare Ogilvy were two of several cyclists spoken to by the ODT who were unaware of the problem. However, they were continuing on to Hokitika, hoping that by the time they reached the bridge a way would be available for them to continue.

A guide on a tour bus said his company would reassess their route today but they intended continuing on to Franz Josef last night.

Adding to communications problems for tourists were three Telecom cell sites ''knocked out'' by the extreme weather event.

Media and public relations manager Kate Woodruffe told the Otago Daily Times that to ensure emergency calls were monitored it was standard procedure to dispatch a technician with a satellite phone.

However, the damaged road network and continuing bad weather had made that difficult.

Ms Woodruffe said Telecom hoped to have a technician at affected sites by yesterday afternoon to assess the work required to restore services.

This would depend on access, and safety would have to be assessed before to any work was done, she said.

Lake Wanaka Tourism general manager James Helmore was not aware of the bridge problem until late yesterday. He said the bulk of international tourists had not yet begun to arrive.

''If it happened in mid February it would absolutely have an impact.''