July 20, 2008

These Things Take Time

Look around at the landscape, folks, and think about the forces that have made it so breathtaking.

Folding and faulting have formed the mountains and valleys right along the alpine spine of the South Island.

Nowhere are those forces more obvious than in the Queenstown area.

Geology teaches us that erosion continues to play with the landscape long after the big guns -- earthquakes and glaciers -- have laid the groundwork. Hillsides give way, sweep down to block rivers and form natural lakes.

That's what happened last year when a landslip blocked the north branch of the Young River in the Mount Aspiring National Park near Makarora. A new lake was formed behind a natural dam that initially made authorities and geologists nervous, but it looks like it's there to stay and they might have to find it a name.

That slip was a textbook copy of the thousands that have, over the centuries, formed the many larger ponds dotting the southern lakes region and the surrounding national parks. Thousands of tourists turn up every year to enjoy that terrain and the attractions developed to cash in on it.

But no one whose life puts them in contact with all this rock and water needs a geology lesson. They see the forces every day and realise the futility of man's attempt to hold it back. It is temporary, at best.

Why, then, are some of these people chomping at the bit to bring down an unstable hillside poised over the Shotover River near Queenstown.

Why? Because the slip has put on hold their tourism operations at a busy time of year.

The section of river where the slip will inevitably land is about 2km upstream from the Edith Cavell bridge, base of the world-famous Shotover Jet. The jetboat rides are still running but a couple of other companies have had to pull out.

Restrictions being enforced by the Queenstown Lakes District Council are entirely sensible. The council has to do everything it can to limit human risk.

While the council said last week it might throw a few "bombs" at the slip if it hadn't come down soon, it did a U-turn on Tuesday and announced it would leave nature to take its course. Anyone who wanted to hurry the process could do it at their own expense ... after they had the appropriate resource consent from the council.

(And everyone realises nature can sometimes work faster than getting a consent in the Queenstown Lakes District.) Councils don't change their mind on a whim. There will be a sound reason for this one to go back on its original intention -- risk of litigation if blasting goes wrong, the cost of "bombing" , the need to give itself consent, the lack of any real need.

Tourism companies setting up in these remote spots must realise what they are up against; that there are no guarantees. So, in this case, they should be prepared to sit it out or relocate.

Sometimes it is necessary to intervene, such as when Transit regularly sends abseilers down the Nevis Bluff rock face to prevent unstable rock from dropping on the State highway below.

That's a life-and-limb issue.

This isn't. The forces of rain, frost and gravity should be left to run their course with the Shotover slip. There's no need to rush.

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