Memorial track’s making recorded

Ten years ago, a disaster killed 29 men at the Pike River Mine. Fast-forward to 2020, and a team of dedicated mountain bike enthusiasts and professional trail builders 
have completed a 10.8km bike track in memory of the men who perished. One of the workers captured the gargantuan task on camera and his film will forever document the daunting task of building a trail through the hostile wilderness of the West Coast. Matthew McKew reports.

Building an ambitious bike track in one of New Zealand’s most remote and inhospitable regions was not enough of a challenge for a Queenstown videographer.

After a year of working on the $12million Pike 29 Memorial Track, Tom Woodward decided the efforts of the team should be documented.

Filming in the Paparoa National Park on the West Coast, though, presented its own challenges.

Teams had to battle snow and rain, making it difficult to record their efforts on camera.
Teams had to battle snow and rain, making it difficult to record their efforts on camera.

It was a tramp along the Heaphy Track on a day off that inspired him to create a film that would go on to be selected for the New Zealand Mountain Film and Book Festival.

"I was in a hut there and I saw somebody had written a book on the history of how they built the Heaphy Track, and that sort of gave me the idea.

"Our track is going to be 100 years old one day and someone will be fascinated with how we built it."

He began recording as much as he could, but filming was not always simple in an area prone to inclement weather.

"Quite a lot of it was just filmed on my phone, because that was easiest.

"If conditions were dry enough, I would take my drone and my good camera.

"I had waterproof bags that I would carry my gear around in, but that was no good when it was raining, because I would have to open them."

Sitting in a coffee shop in the dry, Mr Woodward smiled as he remembered the rain.

Teams building the Pike 29 Memorial Track worked seven day shifts, far from civilisation. PHOTOS:...
Teams building the Pike 29 Memorial Track worked seven day shifts, far from civilisation. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

"They talk about spring rains. I can remember when it didn’t stop raining for two months.

"We were squelching through knee-deep mud."

It was the true horror of the storms that Mr Woodward and crew mate Milty Coultas slightly regret they could not capture.

"I didn’t have enough storm footage of working in the mud and the snow, because I couldn’t bring my cameras out."

He thought back to when a storm battered their camp site, with 140km gusts "smashing us".

"We decided it was too dangerous to go to work because a tree could be blow down on top of us. It was serious, there was danger."

He had just stopped filming when a bolt of lightning struck the helipad and knocked out the electricity.

Diggers cut into the cliff face to make a safe path.
Diggers cut into the cliff face to make a safe path.

Still rueing the lost shot, Mr Woodward and his team bailed from the camp, riding down on motorbikes away from the intensity of the storm.

The film has captured the beauty of the area, though, and Mr Woodward stressed how much thought went into protecting the environment during the build.

Instead of sticking to a prescribed route, the crews weaved around trees as much as possible and every step was taken to ensure equipment was alien-free before being flown in by helicopter.

When Mr Woodward was able to shoot, he realised his efforts had an unintended positive outcome.

"Using the GoPro particularly helped me when I was blasting to see what I was doing.

"So as it went through the years, when I was using explosives, I had a far better idea of what the quantity should be and what I was doing with the explosives."

The track was built as a memorial to those lost in the Pike River Mine disaster and this made safety precautions paramount.

Tom Woodward with the cameras and attachments he used to capture the 
Tom Woodward with the cameras and attachments he used to capture the progress of teams on the Pike29 Memorial Trail. PHOTO: MATTHEW MCKEW

But Mr Woodward was less concerned for the welfare of his gadgets, flying his drone 40m from blast points and — once he had bought a new GoPro — placing the old one just 10m away to capture the ripple of explosions.

It was the capture of one blast that Mr Woodward is most proud of.

"There is a time-lapse of us setting up a blast, a slow motion of us blasting out the cliff, followed by a time-lapse of the digger coming in and cleaning it up."

The clips were initially left out when he embarked on the mammoth task of editing his two hours of footage during lockdown.

However, after showing a preview to his mother, Mr Woodward was encouraged to adapt his film and enter it into the NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival.

"I thought I just have to put that in there, so I went and found some more music to put on the background just to include it."

When the film was selected for the festival, he was "stoked" because he said it was just an "out of control hobby".

"I studied video and film when I was 18, never did anything with it and then 15 years later I was living in Bali and bought a GoPro and made a little video with it.

"I always liked film, and so I wanted to make a better one, so I needed to get a good camera, then I wanted a drone, then I needed underwater housing, then I needed a new computer and it’s just gone on and on."

It was the GoPro that proved an effective bit of kit, when Mr Woodward discovered a mouthpiece attachment that allowed him to record while working.

He found it became easy to record small clips of different jobs, storing the camera in his pocket between takes.

For Mr Woodward, his film is unique because it not only took videography, but trail building skills.

He acquired the latter first as a hobbyist and then professionally on tracks in Chile and Portugal.

The West Coast project took three years and Mr Woodward admitted there were tough times.

But he said the best medicine was laughter and camaraderie.

He recalled one night in the shower when the generator stopped, meaning ice cold water rained down on him.

To get the hot water back on, he had to run across the camp naked, save for his gumboots.

Building a $12MD Bike Trail is one of two films produced by Queenstown directors that have been selected for the festival on June 26-28.

Guillaume Charton produced (re)Discovering the Remarkables, a 17-minute feature on two climbers’ journey along a 12km-long ridgeline of the mountain range that overlooks Queenstown.

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