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Photos: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal
Photos: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal

BooksMarch 26, 2023

Goodbye, Swamp Rd

Photos: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal
Photos: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal

Author Marty Smith writes from her home, the flood-damaged region of Hawke’s Bay, excavating the extraordinary facets of life amid a disaster.

Wednesday 22 February 22, eight days after the flood.

It’s easy to drive down Puketitiri Rd: diggers cleared silt and slips on the second day. Looters slide at night into powerless houses, people on main roads sleep in the dark with shotguns beside their beds.

Flo drives up Puketitiri Rd past an electronic sign which flicks PUKETITIRI RD IS CLOSED RESIDENT ACCESS ONLY AT APLEY INTERSECTION then drives down through slips, then between concrete blocks and red flags on strings, and cones, just before Puketapu Tractors. She wants to photograph road blocks and armed angry farmers, but it winds people up and why stir the pot? My RESIDENTS card is in a jungle of raincoats and towels in my car, steaming in plastic in the sun. I don’t need to go out at night. 

Syd’s crouched in front of the Swamp Rd tractor with nests of twigs on top of the roll-bars. He hoses them off and he says, cheekily, “morning, Miss!” 

I roll my eyes. “Are you going to call me that till I’m 90?”

He smiles mildly with a glint in his eye, and goes back to sloshing ungloved hands in the mushy guts of the transmission. 

“What are you doing?”

“I’ve just put water in here, it’s blasting all the silt and grease along the top and the sides and it drains down into this very small hole down here.” He slushes the gludge around. “It’s not sinking down”, he says. 

“That will probably be clutch material, that black stuff,” he says, pointing to dark sticky gunk, “and this is water, and silt. The goal is to get all the silt out.” He nods to the engine itself. “It’s all through there too, there’s bearings and gears all through there.” 

“How will you get it out?”

He looks up at me and says, quite simply, “We can’t.”

There’s a crease of worry on his forehead. “It’ll take oil change after oil change after oil change to get it to not have water in it.” He looks at the tractor like a hospital doctor with a touch-and-go patient, adds, “so I’ve left it to drain overnight.” 

He goes patiently and carefully back to his task and I say, “What did you think of your photos?”

He smiles half-heartedly. “They’re alright.”

I poke him in the arm quite hard, say, “You’re such a dick!” and he smirks.

A silt-ruined car. (Photo: Florence Charvin)

“I want to get Justin’s desk,” I say, to Flo, waving my hand over the piled up things. “Everything’s clean. And those trays.” I point at stacks of invoices in filing trays, those floor level shelves, all normal and not under mud.  

We tell Justin about the packhouse over the road, with filing drawers of old-fashioned solid plastic, no holes in their holders. “She pulled the tray out,” I say, “and tipped it and poured the water onto the floor. She had to hold the envelope by her fingertips, even in her gloves, because of the shit in the silt.”

We stare at each other. He looks at whatever he was looking at, the low sun in the office window picking out lights on the floating paper.

“All their records. Gone.”

Flo puts her arm across her heart, says softly, “All those AP-ples and fruit. Eet ees so HEART-break-eeng.”

There’s a silence, and then Justin says, “Did you take photos?”

He tells us about the desolation of Dartmoor Valley. “It was one of those most beautiful valleys you would ever see,” he says wistfully, and makes the shape of the valley with his cupped hands as he lists the tall old oaks, the willows, “and thenhe turns his hands palm down, flattens them as a solid mass and sweeps water across Dartmoor Valley.

A farmer came into his yard, he says, and stood there looking bewildered. He had no idea what he was there for, couldn’t even say what he needed. “He was hollow,” Justin says, making the shape of a vessel. He looks up at me. “Just a shell.”

Light streams in through the window behind him so he’s slightly shadowed. 

People don’t understand,” he says. “Those people out there,” he throws his arm out in the air, “they have no idea. Unless they live here.”

I’ve seen some amazing things,” he continues. “There’s a 40 foot orange container, just mounted in the trees by the golf course, stuck out like a rocket-ship.” He makes the Usain Bolt lightning rod with his arms for the angle of a spacerocket. He looks at Flo, says, “You should take a photo of it. It’s on Korokipo Rd, right by the golf links.”

He’s looking through us through the open sliding doors through all the tractors standing still. He says, “I saw an apple tree, with no apples,” his face lights up in wonder. “It was all hung with onions, hanging down from the branches, exactly as if they grew there.” He shakes his head in disbelief.

Where is it?” says Flo, very quickly.

“Swamp Rd. It’s the worst, by far, but you can drive through there easily enough. It’s residents only, none of those others can go there.” 

Roads are closed over the whole of Hawke’s Bay, and the new ways are a maze in my head, like in everyone else’s. Having to fathom only two working bridges is just too hard. 

I have to ask if we can get somewhere I’ve driven all my life.

Easy,” he says. “It’s on Korokipo Rd. You just have to go the Expressway, and then down Links Rd. You can’t miss it, it’s right beside the road.”

We queue to get onto the Expressway, wait on Links Rd at a STOP and GO for a single strip of metal over a hump over a solid sea of mud which used to be golf greens on the higher side. On the lower side, in the gully of the vineyards below, the new drainpipe pours a torrent of filthy water steadily onto the ruined vines. 

The traffic crawls; no one has ever seen anything like it. You can’t stop staring, and turning your head in awe.  We turn where you can only turn left and not right to the marae at Waiohiki. Siddesh’s coffee-coloured flag saying COFFEE flaps limply as it leans into the space where the horse-float was. 

Let’s get a coffee!” I say to Flo because our thoughts are a kaleidoscope, tumbling and folding old ones inside new ones in strange jumbled patterns. The flag flaps cheerfully against a blue sky and lush green sun and I’m looking right at it, leaning on a slant in the chaotic new art work in front of the Waiohiki Arts Community Shop in the old dairy factory, and the float has slipped right under then gone completely. 

Clumps of mud and deep pools of silt clog the holes and greens on the higher ground and soft piles of silt line the verges. Highway 50 is starting to crust. 

You look at the road, I’ll look for the container,” I say but the tattered trees are clear all the way to the sky.

The rivers have carved strange new shapes into a mad map where some trees stand clean and fruity and upright and right beside, others lie flat down and smeared. You can tell by the lean of the lowered trees and the slant of the vines which river rushed where.

The Tūtaekurī, carrying all the water pouring from the Kaweka ranges and foothills, and the weight of the whole smashed Dartmoor Valley, breached the stopbank in multiple places behind Swamp Rd and the maraes at Moteo. It roared onto the Puketapu Bridge, forcing packed-up water to split and the bulk to drill down and pop the central supports like a cork and the split to burst out and breach on the Moteo side and rush back up Swamp Rd to meet the split from the Ngaruroro rushing down. The rest rushed in forced torrents up and over Omarunui Rd as it breached all the way down those stopbanks and across the golf course at the bottom, where it met a split of itself coming round from the smash at Waiohiki Bridge. They met and married on Highway 50 in front of the clubhouse, by-passing it to head uphill on Korokipo Rd. 

The split that raced over Links Rd and the greens missed the clubhouse as it poured round the side and pushed back up Korokipo Rd to meet the heavier force of the Ngaruroro coming down. It had split at the bend by the hills at the end of the long straight of Swamp Rd, after it breached at the Fernhill Bridge just up the road; one half ran along the base of the hills and over Korokipo Rd, the other ran on down Swamp Rd to meet the breach of the Tūtaekurī rushing back up towards it.

The Ngaruroro hit the Fernhill bridge with the same force but the high old concrete survived when it smacked into it; the breach broke right beside Omahu marae and poured over it on its race down Swamp Rd, over four metres high when it smacked into the hills on the bend at the end of the straight and split, half to run down Swamp Rd to meet the Tūtaekurī running up, half to race round the base of the hills and across Korokipo Rd and funnel down the orchards and vineyards on the river flats on its way to meet the Tūtaekurī pushing upriver as it poured off the golf course and the heaviest water turned them both back to pour downriver and decimate the Awatoto road and rail bridges as it exploded out to sea.

The water washed up, then washed back and ferried a large macrocarpa log from its mill on Swamp Rd around the base of the hills and left it high-tide on the edge of the highest bend on Korokipo Rd as the Ngaruroro ran downriver over the top of the Tūtaekurī, pushing itself uphill against the tides of every which whirlpool.

We have to stop to give way at Fernhill to get onto Swamp Rd. All the houses beside us are ruined and people pull out sodden and stinking things.  

We sit there, and sit there, indicator ticking, waiting for a gap in the steady stream of trucks and cars coming over one of the only two bridges connecting Hastings to Napier. 

A small girl stands in the sun with a courtesy STOP sign. She must be all of 12 in orange fluoros and orange bucket-hat, and I’m idly watching her when it occurs to me that Flo doesn’t know road-blocks only operate at night.

“OK,” I say abruptly. “We need to get our story straight. We’re going out to help a friend who lives on Settlement Rd. We’re taking photos of the damage for her. Only the first six words and the last two aren’t true.” 

She snorts, but she’s starting to get nervous. 

Leave the talking to me,” I say, as we creep across Highway 50, crawl cautiously towards the girl, who smiles at us sweetly.

“DON’T TALK TO HER!” I hiss, and Flo jumps. “Keep driving, don’t stop unless she signals for you to.” 

Flo drives carefully past the girl, keeping her face averted. I smile and wave to her. 

“Oh, thank God, Mart-ee,” she says, now safely past, “I am a TER-rible LI-ar. I get so flustered.”

Inside Doug’s house. (Photo: Florence Charvin)

Swamp Rd is where the river raced the fiercest so we drive slowly, see the silt all around and slithery, one car wide, and sticky and boggy if you slide into the sides. We drive beside where the river hit the bend and split and tore in two. The kiwifruit blocks have nets over four metres high. The tops of the nets sag and inside them the vines hang like limp brown ghosts in a sea of silt, rotting at the roots. 

“Oh, my God,” Flo whispers. “Oh, my God.”

There’s nothing to say, nothing at all.

The road is a long straight high except where it sinks and, parked nose-to-tail, we can’t see why. A traffic jam on a single strip, and we have to go before 2.30 or they’ll never let us back in the queue to get onto the Expressway. 

“It’s called Swamp Rd for a reason,” I say, as a car creeps towards us. “It’s all undulating because it sinks with the marsh gas.” 

The trucks and cars are only parked and between them, people dig out driveways. We edge past and the last is a ute with guys in fluoro clustered at the tail-gate, eating and laughing. One with a cap and curls looks up and I blow him a kiss because there’s an oddly frivolous air of spring in the sun where some parts shine green.

“Did you see his eyes!” Flo says. “He was REE-lly smi-LEENG. And the COR-ner of hees mouth, around the edge of hees sand-WEEDGE.”

Look at the road,” I say, “and not at boys.”

We park on Omarunui Settlement Rd and there’s no hum and buzz of farm engine sounds. It’s all birds in the clear still air. The road’s a channel in piled silt, it’s slippery underneath and it’s easy to skid. The grass is flattened and stuck to the ground under apple saplings laid down and, smothered in mud, a yellow orchard sprayer peeps out of a dress of leaves.

“Hang on,” I say to Flo, “we need to ask.” 

Doug’s chatting to the Unison men, who stand in thigh-high mud at the bottom of a transformer. “I live just over there,” I say, pointing vaguely to Puketapu. “Can we take photos of the onions?”

“Sure,” he says happily. “Would you like to come around the back and see onions in a tomato plant?”

We have to be careful where we put our feet, it’s sticky and you can skid, and Flo is laughing. “You do NOT live just over there.” 

“I DO,” I say. “Just five kilometres away, not a hundred yards.”

“You’re such a li-ar.”

“You’re a flirt!”

“What do you mean?” she says, but she’s smiling faintly.

“Winky winky eyes at Justin,” I say. “I’ve NEVER seen you do that before.”

Onions strewn across an apple tree. (Photo: Florence Charvin)

There are onions strewn between the rows, there are onions hanging in the trees by stalks, there are onions strung down the fence all the way to the intersection, like someone wove them together, and hung them up for market. There are onions strung up like Christmas decorations all through the shelter belts on the other side of the road.

Flo crouches in the sludge at the bottom of a fruit tree below the untouched twigs with tattered leaves browning at the tips and in place of every apple is an over-ripe onion tied on by its string. Just as Justin said.

“Come round the back,” Doug says. “Would you like to see an onion in a pear tree?” 

“And a partridge?” I murmur, but he doesn’t hear. 

“Walk on the path,” he says, “it’s easier.” 

We pick past his tipped over pot-plants, their leaves caked and glazed by milky mud. The pear tree’s in its brown dress, the onions glow greasy and past-their-best in a tomato frame pushed up then trapped against the shed. The vines are withering at the root, cherry toms fat and red in sludge, winking among the onions. 

“Handy if you want a tomato and onion sandwich,” Doug says.

He can’t live in his house and he can’t afford to rent and he shrugs with no expression when he gazes at his ruined classic British cars. His wife’s written-off brand-spanking-new car is parked like a perky green apple up on the road. 

He has a bus parked by the road-hedge high that only got some silt so they can sleep in that. On the passenger window, in fading paint, it says HAPPY NEW YEAR.

Keep going!