Memories flow of Manapouri build

    The idea of a power station under Lake Manapouri was pitched in 1904.

    Stories were told and memories exchanged as those who built the Manapouri power station came together at the weekend to mark more than 50 years since water first flowed through the station. Southland Express reporter Laura Smith joined them as they toured the site at West Arm, some for the first time since leaving half a century ago.

    A LOT can change in 50 years. Yet memories, both good and bad, were still fresh as about 40 ex-workers and their families visited the Manapouri hydro-electric station on Saturday.

    While fewer than 20 people now work there, it took 1800 workers eight years to build it.

    Some of those 1800 were invited by Meridian Energy, which has owned the power station since 1999, to tour the site as part of the delayed 50th anniversary celebrations marking when water first flowed through the station in September 1969.

    The celebrations were meant to be held last year, but plans were disrupted by Covid-19.

    Acting site manager Blair Falconer looked forward to hearing the stories of those who built his workplace.

    “We’re just the caretakers here at the moment,” he said.

    “They did all the hard work.

    “It’s really good to get them over and hear their challenges and sacrifices they made during the build.”

    Margaret Kingipotiki has worked as a station maintainer for three-and-a-half years.

    She loved how the team of 16 were like a family.

    “We do rely on each other, and there are some roles here that are quite unique and can be quite dangerous.

    “You want to know someone has got your back.”

    That sentiment was echoed by Selwyn Steedman, who worked as a face surveyor at Deep Cove during construction.

    “We’re all part of a brotherhood. It was a special project that was really special to New Zealand.”

    He was excited to be back after 25 years.

    “It’s like being on home soil.”

    He said they were treated like VIPs at the weekend, but this was a contrast to the conditions in which they had worked.

    During the tour, guests stopped at a plaque placed in memory of the 16 people who died in
    the course of the station’s construction.

    ‘‘Two on the plaque were killed on the shift I was on. One I actually physically took out on the locomotive out of the tunnel,’’ Mr Steedman said.

    The man was alive then, but died soon after.

    ‘‘It brings back a few vivid memories when I see that plaque.’’

    It was a time for reminiscing for Allan Forbes, originally from Dunedin.

    It had been 50 years since he last stepped foot in West Arm.

    He initially worked at Deep Cove, and it was here he looked out over the water with his
    former boss, Peter Berry, on Saturday.

    Standing in the same spot half a decade before, he had been handed a telegram from the
    local police officer; he had been called in to the army for national service.

    ‘‘He put me on a bus, gave me a salute and away I went,’’ Mr Forbes said.

    Mr Berry said working at West Arm was the best job he had ever had.

    ‘‘West Arm had heaps of problems and all sorts of things, but it was a great place to work
    with great camaraderie. Everybody looked after one another, and that was something I never struck in the North Island.’’

    It was a long day for the guests, which included a tour of the station and over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove.

    Another two tours will be held in following weekends.

    The station was called a ‘‘world-first’’ in that a hydro-electric power station was built from a
    lake system managed in its natural state.

    However, it was years of activism which ensured that was the case.

    The government plan was contentious when it was announced it would involve raising lakes
    Manapouri and Te Anau, which was found to be of detriment to the lakeshore vegetation.

    Last year, key figures involved in protesting met for their own 50th celebrations.

    Laura was hosted by Meridian Energy