Scary days on Dingle road

Peggy Sarginson,  of Wanaka, reflects on the days before the level of Lake Hawea was raised and...
Peggy Sarginson, of Wanaka, reflects on the days before the level of Lake Hawea was raised and her husband Ian built the road to Dingleburn Station. Photo by Lucy Ibbotson
Mac Passmore (left) and Jack Daly at work. Photo from the Charlie Cassidy Collection
Mac Passmore (left) and Jack Daly at work. Photo from the Charlie Cassidy Collection
Mac Passmore pushes rock over the edge. Photo from the Charlie Cassidy Collection
Mac Passmore pushes rock over the edge. Photo from the Charlie Cassidy Collection
Jack Daly lowers machinery down the jagged cliff face. Photo from the Charlie Cassidy Collection
Jack Daly lowers machinery down the jagged cliff face. Photo from the Charlie Cassidy Collection
The peninsula at Timaru Creek which went underwater when  Lake Hawea was raised. The Bill...
The peninsula at Timaru Creek which went underwater when Lake Hawea was raised. The Bill Urquhart Family Collection
Charlie Cassidy (left) and Dingleburn Station shepherd Barry Keach on a break. Photo from Charlie...
Charlie Cassidy (left) and Dingleburn Station shepherd Barry Keach on a break. Photo from Charlie Cassidy Collection.
Mac Passmore rigs explosives. Photo from Charlie Cassidy Collection.
Mac Passmore rigs explosives. Photo from Charlie Cassidy Collection.
Enjoying the party at Dingleburn Station held for the road's opening in 1963 are (from left) Les...
Enjoying the party at Dingleburn Station held for the road's opening in 1963 are (from left) Les Robertson, Charlie Cassidy, Mac Passmore, Jack Daly and Ian Sarginson. Photo from Charlie Cassidy Collection.
Ian "Sarge" Sarginson at the end of a hard day's work. Photo from Charlie Cassidy Collection.
Ian "Sarge" Sarginson at the end of a hard day's work. Photo from Charlie Cassidy Collection.

Fifty years ago, a party in a woolshed on an isolated high-country station on the eastern side of Lake Hawea marked the completion of a construction project many thought impossible - Dingleburn Station Rd. Wanaka reporter Lucy Ibbotson looks back at the project and the pioneering men who forever changed the face of farming at the Dingle.

Peggy Sarginson (93) remembers well the many doubters who shook their heads when her late husband Ian - or ''Sarge'' as he was known - proposed carving a road out of the steep hillside high above Lake Hawea to connect their farming operation with the outside world.

''I think everybody doubted it, including us,'' Mrs Sarginson says.

''Old Murdoch Drake [then Hunter Valley Station owner] said, `Well, they'll either do it or they'll go broke or it will kill them'. Murdoch was a very wise old man.''

When Lake Hawea was designated for hydro-electric use and raised 30m in 1958, an old bridle track to the working part of what was then Timaru Creek Station [later renamed Dingleburn Station] near the mouth of the Dingle Burn was flooded, cutting the station off other than by boat.

Frustrated by the access issues, Sarge and his brother Johnny - who together had bought the station in 1956 - enlisted help from an ever-changing team of men and over several years blasted and bulldozed their way out from the Dingle along the steep slopes and precipitous bluffs of Rocky Point and beyond.

A lighter bulldozer was rafted across the lake to the job, while the rest of the machinery was taken up the lake's western shore, past Hunter Valley Station and around the head of the lake.

''Then Johnny and Ian had already made a cattle track to make it easier down what I'll call our side,'' Mrs Sarginson recalls.

Many men had a hand in the project - too many to put a number on, she says.

''They were coming and going all the time.''

Shepherds would help out on occasion, as would the sons of contractors during their school holidays.

''We had one man who we will never forget. He was a Danish sailor. Their ship was laid up. He had the choice of staying on board for full pay and just messing about or going on half pay - and he went on half pay and came to us.

''They had a long 15ft (4.6m) drill and he was the only one who could pick it up with one hand. He still sends me Christmas cards ... he was so strong.''

Alexandra man Mac Passmore played a prominent role throughout the road's construction as the main ''shotfirer''.

Les Robertson and Jack Daly, also from Alexandra, were involved, too, as was Charlie Cassidy, who was then based in the Millers Flat area and is believed to be one of the only surviving people who worked on the road for any length of time.

''[Charlie] was just one of those men who seemed to have so many skills and could turn his hand to anything. He had a great sense of humour,'' Mrs Sarginson says.

Now living in Rangiora, Mr Cassidy (84) told the Otago Daily Times of his stint on the road during 1963, the year it was completed. He was working in Moa Flat when Sarge - ''a wonderful chap'' - asked him to join his team.

''There was nine of us there when I first started in February, and when we got to the bluff they sort of rehashed the whole scheme and three of us continued on ... I don't think there was room on the bluff [for nine men] to work.''

Mr Cassidy remembers living at Timaru Creek in a salvaged part of the old homestead which had been moved higher up the hill when the lake was raised. Mr Passmore lived there too, as did Mr Daly - who had bought Mr Passmore's bulldozer and shared its driving duties.

The more experienced driver of the two, Mr Passmore did ''the tricky stuff'', and with only a straight, fixed blade to move the rock, he ''had to have his tractor sort of hanging over the bluff to get rid of the stuff''.

The men would work all week on the road, then usually return home to Alexandra and Millers Flat on Friday night, Mr Cassidy recalls.

He enjoyed the work, despite the danger attached.

''I looked forward to it all the time. I was a bit scared at times when I saw the dozer pushing the rock off after a blast. I always wondered if the clutch didn't work and the thing kept on going it would be a terrible sight.''

Mr Cassidy travelled the road into the station many times after its completion and today feels ''quite proud of being part of it'', particularly given public opinion at the time.

''There wasn't many people that would have envisaged how it would turn out because they reckoned it could never be done. I think he [Sarge] had a price of 25,000 from the ministry - that's what they would have charged to have done it.

''They had a look at it, so they tell me - I don't know how true the story is. One guy came out and had a look at it and he froze sitting up on the rocks and Sarge had to go and talk him into getting back down again.''

Mr Cassidy chuckles at the mention of his faithful collie dog Bob, an ever-present member of the team in the project's latter stages and a regular fixture in his collection of photos documenting the road's construction.

''I was a bachelor in those days and he was my company.''

Perhaps the most popular image is one of Bob draped nonchalantly over a stack of explosive cases, which appears in Jackie Gurden's book From Coal and Gold to a Land of Milk and Honey and on Department of Conservation information panels at Dingleburn.

Mr Cassidy's many photos are a remarkable record of the road-building project which show the perilous conditions in which the men worked, at times up to 60m above the lake on overhanging rock faces.

''I used to take the camera with me every day. I don't know how I came about that, I was just keen to do it, somehow. I'm pleased I did, too.''

While amazingly, serious accidents were mostly avoided, those associated with the road all know the story of Sarge's own close call, including his wife.

''Ian liked to pioneer the road, so to speak, and a boulder slipped and he went in the lake ... it was the Danish boy who fished him out,'' Mrs Sarginson says.

Given the physical, risky nature of the job, she felt relief each day at the return of her husband and the other road workers based at Dingleburn Station. It didn't matter they looked much grimier than when they left in the morning.

''You could see the whites of their eyes, you could see their teeth ... they'd got hot and sweaty and there's all that fine blue-grey pug that was brought down the lake ... and it would stick to their faces.''

She believes the long-term effects of long days working in the dust and dirt were far more serious.

''Quite honestly, I think that the ones who worked on the bluffs particularly, they all died of heart failure and lung failure and not very old, in their 60s and 70s. They didn't wear earplugs, they didn't wear masks, because people didn't in those days.

"So anyway, Murdoch was right when he said he'd [Ian] either go broke or it would kill him ... [Ian] eventually got emphysema.''

There was ''quite a big celebration'' in the woolshed after the roughly 16km road was completed in 1963 and the council put in a bridge over the Timaru River to enable vehicle access.

Workers, neighbours and clerical officials who had backed the project drove in for the party.

Mr Passmore's son Bruce - who was among those who helped out on the road during school holidays - recalls hearing how the wives were all nervous about the drive in to the party, and even more uneasy about the return drive later that night.

The new connection with the outside world made life ''a lot more interesting'' for the young Sarginson family, with visitors regularly arriving at their doorstep.

''It opened up the Hunter Valley,'' Mrs Sarginson says.

However, like the wives at the opening party, there were many others with reservations about navigating the narrow gravel road with the sheer drop on one side. It was only when the weeds grew long on the road's edge, screening the danger, that some people started to feel comfortable with the journey.

Mrs Sarginson - who spent 30 years at the station before moving to Wanaka, where she now lives - felt great admiration for her husband and brother-in-law when the job was done.

''I was very, very proud of what those two boys had undertaken and carried through.''

Their achievement was widely acknowledged by others, too, including the late Fiona Rowley, a long-time neighbour from Lake Hawea Station, who recalled the road as ''one of the more heroic happenings of my era'' in her autobiography.

For today's inhabitants of the Dingle, the Mead family, the Sarginson brothers' road link continues to play an integral part in station life.

''I don't know how they actually really managed the place without the road,'' Davida Mead said.

She and husband Guy took over the station in 1988 and live there with two younger generations of the family.

''We haven't got a barge so we definitely need the road - we've got no other way of getting goods in and out. If we're sending sheep or cattle away we've got to drive them round the bluff and then load them out at the cattle yards at the Timaru Creek end of the road. We can't bring stock trucks in here - they're too wide, too big to get round the bluff.

''They used to bring a truck in for the wool but I think the driver, Johnny, sort of retired and none of the young blokes are game to drive in. But we've got a truck here that we load up and take the wool out now.''

Trips out from the station for non-farm-related purposes are restricted to just once or twice a week and sometimes risky reversing manoeuvres are needed when two vehicles meet.

''You just have to back off. And you just hope like hell there's not two vehicles towing trailers or horse floats that meet on the bluff because I don't know what would happen then.

''If we know that something's coming in ... we try and work it in so there's not going to be any meeting on the bluff.''

Rockslides are a common occurrence on the road after rain and the Meads spend much time clearing and maintaining the vital route, as did Sarge over the years.

Recreational cyclists and walkers are a common sight today, after the Department of Conservation opened a new track along the private road in 2008 following the completion of tenure review for Dingleburn Station.

The annual Contact Epic mountain-biking challenge also uses the road as part of its punishing circumnavigation of Lake Hawea.

lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz

 

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