The Builder’s Blog

By Alison Ballance

An expedition team is currently on the Antipodes Islands. It includes builders and scientists who will follow up on work done during the last expedition in August. Alison Ballance will be updating the blog from the Antipodes Islands.

Of all the missions the spring expedition is undertaking, rebuilding the hut is the hardest work. The hut was built in 1978, and it has been a warm shelter in the storm for many expeditions over the years. But in January this year a very large slip – one of many across the island – moved tonnes of water, peat, tussock and fern down the hill, and the edge of the debris flow gave the hut a good shunt off its foundations, shoving debris under the hut and making the hut completely unusable. Albatross researchers Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott spent January and February living in the castaway depot, and digging out the peat immediately next to the hut. When the Navy came down to pick them up in February, a team led by builder John Henderson had just a few hours to jack the hut up and make it watertight.

The winter expedition brought down all the building supplies, and a team led by John hoped to knock off most of the major repiling, but bad weather put paid to that plan. Luckily they were able to get most of the building material up to the hut – which was a big bonus for the current building team, led by Cullum Boleyn, who works for DOC at Mount Cook. Originally it was hoped that John could lead the building team again, but his building commitments for DOC in New Zealand meant that he couldn’t make the trip down, leaving Cullum feeling a bit “landed in the deep end.”

The rest of the building team comprises builder Andy Turner, who used to work for DOC in Te Anau and now lives in Christchurch, and hammer hands Mark Le Lievere from DOC Fox Glacier and Geoff Woodhouse, from DOC Great Barrier Island. When they came ashore on Saturday they felt a bit bewildered by the scope of the job facing them, but a few days into it Callum says they now “have their heads around what they’re doing, they have the hut level and are on a roll.”

Getting the hut level is a very significant achievement, as the back wall was 350 mm out of level from one corner to the other, while from the SW to the NE corner of the hut there was another 450 mm in height difference. In the last four days the team have dug out around the hut and have successively jacked the hut up so it is level.

Yesterday afternoon the building team felt they had finally made some significant progress, after several days of wet muddy digging. By end of work today they have fixed 5 piles, and the hut is starting to feel much more stable – but the team are very aware they still have 27 piles to go, and much of the hut is still sitting on jacks and piles of chocks!

The piles can’t be directly dug into the ground – there is no solid ground around here, just thick peat, landslip debris and rotting tussock, along with whatever spare timber, boardwalk and old tin that has been liberally rolled up into the landslip debris. The plan was to dig down to rock, and glue and bolt the piles to the rock, but rock is proving a little elusive. Instead they have dug large holes and made 600mm square floating bases that the piles are sitting on. The pile holes keep filling with water, so there is much bailing that needs to be done before the pile can be put in and the hole refilled.

A vast amount of peat has been dug and moved. Cullum says “the boys have moved more than 15-20 cubic metres of landslide debris on the east side of the hut, where the new water tank is going to go.” The peat work began with chainsaws that had tungsten teeth on the chains, but after they blew out 2 bars they are now slicing and digging by hand.

When the team arrived the southwest corner of hut was a soft bog that was more than knee-deep, and the team have now dug a 20 metre long drainage trench which is about 1.2 metres deep for much of its length.

Today the team lifted the old chip board floor in the main room of the hut to get at the piles under the hut they have temporarily put it down so we can cook and eat dinner, but it’ll come up again over the next few days until all the piles are in place. The piles are the most important part of the job: Cullum says that when it comes to building “if you don’t have good foundations, you have nothing.”

Cullum says the key thing is a great, hard working team. “The guys are working really well together, which is important as you could get very depressed on a job like this. It really is incredibly difficult, especially when you’re covered in wet peat and it’s blowing a gale and raining hard.” There is no bathroom here and very little clean water, so at the end of day there is no no way to clean up except to boil some water from the stream and have a wash in a bucket.

But Mark says there are lots of rewards. “Just when you want to give up, you look around and the view is absolutely amazing and you remember where you are, and it’s all good.”