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Kiwi Konexions: Dams, Lakes And Stars

"The lazy quiet land of sheep and dogs became a veritable hive of activity. Things had changed dramatically and the Mackenzie Basin even got its own airport. By the 1970ís work was well underway and in the 1980ís five power stations were in operation, power production had begun....''

Glen Taylor continues her historical narrative of the changes that have taken place down the decades in New Zealand's spectacular Mackenzie Country. To read the first two episodes of this story please click on Kiwi Konexions in the menu on this page.

So what changed the Mackenzie Country to make it such a Mecca for tourists? Power. North Island needed more power than it could produce so in 1907 the Hay Report suggested a Hydro scheme at Tekapo, then, in 1938, the Ben More Waitaki Scheme was proposed. However two world wars were to hold things up for a while, although the Tekapo station was opened in the 1930ís.

The Waitaki river flows from the Mount Cook range to the sea and lakes already existed in the area. It was planned to link existing lakes by canals and to build dams on the Waitaki to create new lakes, particularly Lake Aviemore with the massive Ben More dam at Otamatata. Power was to be transmitted to North Island by undersea cable and the power produced by the two islands was to be shared.

Things started to move. To build a scheme as big as this you need a whole new infrastructure. Good roads, far better than the main trunk roads, had to be built to transport heavy machinery and parts and they had to be wide, wide enough to land a small aircraft. The town of Twizel was constructed for men and their families and a school was built. The lazy quiet land of sheep and dogs became a veritable hive of activity. Things had changed dramatically and the Mackenzie Basin even got its own airport. By the 1970ís work was well underway and in the 1980ís five power stations were in operation, power production had begun.

But what happens when the work is over, when men and machinery depart? You are left with turquoise-blue lakes linked by long straight canals and also with good roads and an empty town. Enter the tourist and holiday maker. The town of Twizel is now a town of holiday homes and motels and as for the lakes, what great places to explore. Folk camp around them, they fish and sail and water ski and come back again and again, they are places of exquisite beauty and a great asset to the country.

The canals have been utilised for salmon farming. Now salmon is in every supermarket and features regularly on our dinner table. How well I remember the Scottish salmon I used to eat.

The roads have made travelling around the High Country easy and an access road right in to the slopes of Mount Cook opens the area to climbers and trampers, for hang-gliding and heli-skiing on the Tasman Glacier and for the average walker who wanders along the tracks a little way, just to say they have done a bit of Mount Cook. A big hotel nestles at its foot for the well-heeled tourist, while lodges provide cheaper accommodation for the outdoor types and new ski fields have been opened around the area. All thanks to the Hydro Scheme and its roads.

The tourist trade means that places like Tekapo and Omarama are not now just the service towns for the sheep stations, but tourist towns with increased accommodation, shops and new activities, (Omarama is the gliding capital of Australasia.) They are each developing their own particular charms and characters making them interesting places to wander around. This area is no longer the province of the lonely sheep farmer and musterer, it is growing, still keeping its uniqueness but changing to meet new demands. And somewhere along the line, I know not where, some one decided to scatter Russell Lupin seeds to the wind, probably to add nitrogen to the soil and now, in summer, colours blaze in every river bed and beside every road, a real sight to behold, massed like paints on an artistís palette.

But what of the stars, where do they come in? In 1960 Frank Bateson, on the instruction of Pennsylvania University, was on the look out for a place to build an observatory. Here, in the High Country, he found Mount John, high enough and with air clear of all pollution. The Mount John Observatory was completed in 1965 and its main task is to plot the course of asteroids but it opens its doors to visiting astronomers from all over the world who pursue their own research and it also runs conducted tours to allow us lesser mortals to view the galaxies in all their glory and to explain the heavens to us. There is a lot hidden away in these hills if you care to take a look.

So now when you visit the Mackenzie Country you donít see what Jock and Friday saw, bare tussock and braided rivers. You donít ride in by horse back over steep hills on gravel tracks with your pack over your saddle. Instead you see blue-green glacial water in canals and lakes, features not there in Jockís time, and rainbows of lupins light the corner of your eyes, while snow clad peaks still gleam against blue skies where the hawk still soars. If anything, to my mind, far more beautiful than Mackenzieís first view and still ďgrand hills for sheep.Ē

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