By Clyde Williams, November 2016
First – A short history:
Work on the pilot tunnel, which pierced the Homer Saddle at the headwaters of the Hollyford River, thus connecting to the Cleddau Valley which led to Milford Sound, began in 1935 and was completed in 1940.
It was a rock tunnel with every foot of it having to be blasted and the rubble taken out, predominantly by wheelbarrow. It was 1.2km long and had a downward gradient to the west of 1:10; the tunnel was “wet” and the downward slope necessitated the installation of pumping equipment capable of pumping 40,000 litres per hour.
To work on that job in the conditions of that era – the workers were housed in tents at the eastern end – must have been sheer hell. At least three workers were killed and a number were injured.
In the late 1940s work began to widen and increase the height of the pilot tunnel. This work started from the Western Portal and worked back up the slope; the main reasons for the reverse direction was to facilitate the dumping of rock “waste” into the upper Cleddau and it solved the water problem by natural flow. The work was still “blast and remove the rubble” but more modern methods were used with electric lighting and diesel dumper trucks to move the rubble, etc.
The workers’ camp was still at the Upper Hollyford end, but instead of the 1930s tents, there were wooden huts for the workers and a cookhouse and recreation facilities.
The 1952 photograph of the western portal gives you a comparison of the “widened” and “pilot” measurements. From memory the basic work day was continuous except for Sunday which was a rest day. Two blasts a day were fired (11am and 11pm) with the period between devoted to clearing out, setting up for the next blast and consuming the shift’s main meal.
There was a period of about 90 minutes after each shot during which the tunnel was locked at each end and empty; I guess that was be to allow the tunnel to settle down, as it were.
In the spring of 1953 the job was largely completed and non-work related vehicle use was permitted. When I arrived at the tunnel in February 1952 the task was about 50% complete.
What happened next:
After I had parted company from Barney, the afternoon shift boss took me to the cookhouse for lunch and then with another fellow took me up to the tunnel mouth.
I had with me a couple of bags of mail and my suitcase. Both the men wore hard hats that had gas lamps attached.
We got into a ue with me in the middle and my “load” on the deck. Taciturn would have been the word for the two blokes. To my surprise the vehicle was turned around and we reversed into the tunnel which was just a black “maw” as far as I was concerned.
The reason for driving backwards was that there was not room to turn around for the return journey – as I should have guessed. I was not calm.
The farther we went, the light at the tunnel entry got weaker and it ultimately disappeared; the headlights did continue to show me where we had come from but I had absolutely no view of where we were going.
Ultimately we stopped and the headlights were switched off. The two men lit their head lamps and got out of the truck. I was told to remain in the truck and, no matter what happened, I was not to get out.
They then walked away from the truck and into the blackness of the tunnel. I could not see my hand in front of my face. I was definitely not calm.
Some time there after I could hear a loud noise like hitting something with a hard object. This went on for a minute or two, then suddenly there was a very loud crashing noise followed by a strong gust that really rocked the truck and filled my mouth and eyes with dust. Then there was silence.
I did not know what to do. I was convinced that the men had been caught up with something nasty and immediately thought of starting the truck and getting out of the tunnel and to help.
Fumbling in the dark I found that the driver had obviously taken the keys of the ute with him.
I was working up to a real panic when I heard the “striking” noise start again and it was followed by another loud crash and cloud of dust.
This went on for sometime and, while obviously one or both my companions were still alive, my unhappiness was not one wit abated. After what seemed an eternity, the driver returned to the truck and said we would wait in the truck while his companion went to the other end of the tunnel and the generators that provided electric lighting were started.
We sat in silence for quite a while, then suddenly there was light and I could see that behind the ute the tunnel was obviously wider. I could not see much farther as a wall of rubble blocked any view. I could, however, hear other people talking.
The shift boss said something along the lines of “it’s okay to get out now” and that I should take my suitcase and the mail, climb up the wall of rubble (there was about a three-foot gap between the top of the rubble and the tunnel roof) and that there would be people on the other side to help me on my way.
I did not like the prospect, but anywhere other than where I was, was to be preferred. I did this and was relieved: a wide, well lit cavern stretched into the distance. And I was still alive.
What had happened was that the first two men into the blast area would hit the rock face with long metal poles to discover, from the resulting sound, whether there was any loosened rock that had not yet detached itself from the mother lode.
Where the sound indicated it, they would lever the rock until it fell to the tunnel floor. This would continue until they were sure that the clearing out work could commence with minimal danger to the workers.
This was all normal to them but it surely was not for me. I was to get quite used to this as, once a week except for the snow and avalanche season, I would go up to the tunnel and pick up the mail. It took a few weeks, however, for any sense of normality to return.
I was still not at Milford Sound.
Clyde Williams was radio operator and postmaster at Milford Sound, 1952-1954.