People Power

On May 22, Meridian Energy withdrew its plan to dam the Mökihinui River, the wild West Coast river Forest & Bird spent six years working to protect.

Debs Martin gives a personal view of the river and why she led Forest & Bird’s efforts to save it.

120 people rafted and kayaked the Mökihinui River at Labour Weekend 2010. 

The mist of a cool autumn morning was lifting from the tops of rätä. The dark, still forest contrasted with the white rapids cascading over granite and greywacke boulders heaved from quake-shaken mountainsides. Beside  a deep pool below the rapids, I considered the conflict between the mystical wilderness opening up before me and the bulldozed track leading to where I stood.  

I knew Meridian Energy’s proposal to dam the Mökihinui River for hydro electricity was going to be much more than  arguments over mean annual low flows, opportunities for fish passage and possible riparian revegetation. It was about the story of a river.  

How could I hope to know the Mökihinui – its geological origins in the granite slabs, limestone bluffs and greywacke monoliths, its birth of waters in the outstanding landscapes of the 1000 Acre Plateau, its earthquake-shattered sides and mysteries of secretive animals. 

It holds the night scuttles of the great spotted kiwi, the soft fluttering of a long-tailed bat’s wings and the slow creep of the finely grained Powelliphanta lignaria – our giant land snail.  

There’s human history, too. It’s a mere drop in time, yet the ghosts of miners and explorers echo from the gorge ramparts. Their ventures linger around hastily made fireplaces now blanketed under moss and sphagnum and dwarfed by rimu glades.  

Over the past six years my journeys into the Mökihinui gorge have created a gallery of impressions as I’ve tramped  and rafted its narrows. My first steps into the gorge were under the guidance of Forest & Bird Old Blue recipient Pete Lusk and local resident Frida Inta – both ardent and knowledgeable protectors of this river. 

We stepped over roots of giant rätä draped with kiekie, and watched the last crimson blooms give nectar to our native honey-eaters. Photos and stories of the river told of the power of the river: raging more than six metres higher than where we stood, the flooding of Seddonville and the sluicing of the landslide dams from the 1929 earthquake.  

Forest & Bird staff, volunteers and experts rafted the river on many occasions under the guidance of Tim Marshall from Ultimate Descents. Tim understands rivers as though they are an extension of him. His calls of “hold on” as we plunged through frothing whitewater exploding over the front of our raft and “forward paddle” when we finally reached safety took us places inaccessible by foot.

While filming Craig Potton’s River series, strength was needed to hold the raft in line while the downdraft of a chopper nearly sent us into a wall of water. I valued these skills all the more on a later rafting trip when a guide – who shall remain nameless – led us into Jailhouse Rapid.

A sharp downward plunge resulted in a gasp of astonishment as the raft in which I thought I was safely embedded rose up like an unfurling sail and dumped our crew into a torrid brew.   

There were moments of reflection when we scrambled down a safe route to the river at Tyler’s Bend and discovered an old but still used campsite with a billy, small tarpaulin and campfire perched on rocks above the river’s grasp.

To sit in silence in such a cathedral, the scars of the 1968 earthquake still raw on the gorge sides above me … 

To see the giant slabs of rock lying in the river, the rounded boulder beaches decked with driftwood debris from floods past, and to wonder at the longfin eel that came without fear to explore my legs as they swung in the water ...  

We walked the gorge marvelling not only at the ancient köwhai that draped the upper reaches, but also at the  sculpting skill of ancient pick axes that hewed a pathway  wide enough for a donkey to carry its master’s load. It weaves 20 metres above the river, past almost vertical slopes of loose debris and granite slabs to a promised gold town at Seatonville. In the riverbed the old iron bridge to Karamea lies strewn and twisted by the 1929 earthquake at the confluence with the Rough and Tumble. Towards the head of the gorge awaited a test I feared: a traverse of the sheer cliff face tens of metres above the swirling Mökihinui – Suicide Bluff. With a quick two step and no looking down, 

I was through, thankful for the wire ropes to secure my way.  The highlight was Labour Weekend 2010, when, with the efforts of Hugh Canard and Whitewater NZ, we took more than 100 rafters and kayakers up the river on foot and by helicopter to spread the message about a river that needed saving. The river was the source of inspiration, knowledge and empowerment, but the battle to save it was not fought solely on the water. More frequently it was in the resource consent hearing room, the political debating chambers, Meridian’s offices, meeting venues around the country and even in our homes.  

Many individuals and groups embraced the Mökihinui not only for itself but as a symbol for all wild rivers, to protect them against the irreversible effects of damming. One of my favourite campaign actions was the Mökihinui share certificate. Artfully designed by Kieran Rynhart, the certificate acknowledged the creatures and landscapes of the Mökihinui and gave Forest & Bird members, ordinary New Zealanders, tramping groups and school kayaking courses an opportunity to help save the river.  

The Department of Conservation did a sterling job recognising the important values of the Mökihinui River and the forests that were to be drowned, and spared no effort in ensuring the case for protecting the river was well advanced. Even if we believe in David overcoming Goliath, the sheer extent of evidence required meant that with the department’s involvement an evenly balanced case was waiting to be heard in the Environment Court.  

That day never eventuated, thankfully. With greater understanding and awareness of the river, Forest & Bird is turning to the next step – ensuring we never again have to fight a battle to save the Mökihinui. The solution is to put the Mökihinui catchment into Kahurangi national park. We want to save it for the future, save it for the memories, save it for the recreational opportunities but, most of all, save it for itself.  It deserves no less.