John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: No short cut to our splendour

Travel is not just a destination - the journey is more than half the meaning of it

Nick Smith says that if the 11km tunnel went ahead, spoil from it would permanently damage the landscape of the Hollyford Valley.
Nick Smith says that if the 11km tunnel went ahead, spoil from it would permanently damage the landscape of the Hollyford Valley.

Conservation Minister is an enviable job. As lord of the estate you get to be helicoptered into grand and lovely parts of the country to meet good people, release endangered species and talk sense in defence of pesticides.

But sometimes the most lordly of ministers must be in awe of the authority invested in them. To have the solitary power of decision over a road and tunnel that would connect two of the country's prime tourist attractions, is a terrible load to impose on one man.

I dare say Nick Smith had some earnest discussions with the Tourism Minister, John Key, before saying no to the Milford Dart Tunnel this week. Even so, I didn't envy him the decision. Who would? When you visit grand and lovely places you are thrilled that they remain remote but you also wish everybody could see them.

I've never been to the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu, never seen the Dart and Hollyford valleys, or Milford Sound for that matter. Chances are I never will, too many New Year resolutions to walk one of our alpine tracks have found me out.

The road to Milford takes so long that even in Southland when I was growing up, we never went there. For years now a cousin in Te Anau has made a living monitoring avalanches that bury the road after heavy rain, a frequent occurrence.

So a proposed route north from Queenstown, with a single-lane tunnel for tour buses that would halve their travelling time, had a great deal going for it. Private enterprise would provide it. Considering how prominently our national tourism promotions feature Mitre Peak, why wouldn't we make it much easier to get there?

I think I'm beginning to understand. I haven't been to Milford but I have recently been to the fiords further south: Doubtful Sound, Breaksea, Dusky, Chalky, right down to Preservation Inlet. They are the fractures in the southwestern rump of the South Island that takes the worst of our weather.

I didn't know it was possible to get into Fiordland without being an inveterate tramper. But there is a "cruise" licensed by the Conservation Department. The operator, Queenstown-based Real Journeys, uses a 30m scow for five or six day voyages, carrying 30 people at a time.

To get there, you take the long road to Manapouri, meet fellow passengers and get ferried to West Arm. Then you are bussed over a mountain pass to Deep Cove at the head of Doubtful Sound where the little ship waits.

Those names are familiar from the hydro electricity scheme. In fact if it hadn't been for the Manapouri power project there wouldn't be land access to Doubtful Sound today. I'm glad of that but I'm also glad it is the only road in Fiordland.

These are not "sounds", a term for sunken river valleys as in Marlborough, these are true fiords: high, sheer-sided canyons left by ice-age glaciers.

In Norway you can reach similar spectacular landforms by train through wide, well-serviced tunnels. I went to a Norwegian fiord long ago but don't remember much about it.

Travel is not just a destination, the journey there is more than half the meaning of it.

Back at West Arm we took the bus tour down to the power station. It is a long, dim, single-lane descent so far down into the earth that it gets warm.

I suppose it would be possible to make a tour bus tunnel all the way to Doubtful Sound, as they did for the water from Manapouri. Doubtless we could put roads and tunnels all through Fiordland so that tourists on tight schedules could see what we saw.

I went free for a travel feature but all the paying passengers were New Zealanders. The fare ($2500) and the time of the journey is probably too much for a visitor's itinerary. So be it. This country may lose some foreign earnings for making its attractions hard to read but it is doing tourism well.

When Nick Smith announced his decision on the Milford Dart Tunnel he offered three reasons: spoil from the 11km tunnel would permanently damage the landscape of the Hollyford Valley, new roads and tunnel portals would be visible from the entrance to the Routeburn Track, the engineering work and tunnel would be inconsistent with management plans of the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks.

The last is the one that really counts. Milford Dart Ltd could truck all the soil out of the valley or make the tunnel entrance invisible from the track, as they now propose. It would make no difference. A road tunnel under those high-country tracks would be a sacrilege.

I may never see these places but I'm glad they are there, remote, unspoiled, rewarding those who make the journey.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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