Skip to content

Rough Science 3 New Zealand: Mike Leahy's diaries: Quakers

Updated Tuesday, 27th February 2007

How did Mike Leahy approach the earthquake challenges for Rough Science in New Zealand?

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Mike Leahy and Mike Bullivant in front of the tent Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team Day 14 - Rest Day
Election day

Today is a rest or prep day. Can’t remember which. Even so Mikey and I have a few tasks. We aren’t sure exactly what the challenge will involve for the third programme of the series but know that it will be quite extreme. Therefore Steve (the producer) and Martin (one of the directors) are taking us out for a recce. Before we leave, Mikey and I wander down to Ricky’s café, ‘The Cheeky Kia’, where we have a couple of ‘special hot chocolates’ (hot chocolates with added brandy - shhhhh). It’s a good start to the morning. We then drive north in one of the four-wheel drive Mitsubishi L300s. It’s still very frosty and the sky is a wonderful blue. We know that we are visiting a remote highland sight, so I take binoculars, GPS, camera and warm clothing. As we motor along the road we see ducks everywhere. They are as common as rooks or seagulls here and may well fill a similar ecological niche. The local bird life (feathered type Liz) is very interesting and I promise to buy a decent guide.


It’s pretty cold half an hour after we have left. So cold that the steam still rises from two cowpats when the culprit has walked maybe fifty metres away. We come to some woodland and have to slow. In the shade the road is still frozen. The Mitsubishi rumbles on. I open the window. Why do the lakes look so much like mirrors here? This has to be the most beautiful place in the world. I’m still blown away by the views even though I’ve been here for two weeks. If there is one thing that I would like people to do if they read my diary it’s visit this place, preferably out of season. Check out the people mentioned and have a great time.

Ecological problems exist even in this natural paradise. We messed up big time when we arrived here (we meaning Europeans), and the Maoris weren’t totally innocent before then. Today it is particularly introduced species that are causing problems. My first degree was in environmental biology, and I understand that the struggle to get rid of these ‘noxious pests’ is hard. Large areas are poisoned which some people think adds to the environmental problems in some ways, but what else can be done? No one knows. That’s the problem with natural systems - they tend to be very complex, and manipulating them is pretty tricky. Unlike knee jerk campaigners I realise that it has to be done though.

We stop by the side of the road in a lay-by just North of Hari hari. Martin speaks on the radio. Within seconds a small helicopter appears above the trees on the horizon, and within minutes is landing on the side of the road. We climb into the tiny Hughes 500D, apparently the ‘Rolls Royce’ of small helicopters, and take off towards Mt. Rangitoto. The others say that I should be excited. I check my pulse - 60 bpm. My resting pulse is 64 bpm. My pulse stays at 60 bpm until I see the ‘landing pad’. He’s having a laugh………..If only he was! We land on a pile of logs in a clearing, which isn’t much bigger than my Dad’s greenhouse and a good deal less level. It’s wild here. I fire up the GPS. We are 2,200 feet above sea level, but it feels higher because it’s cold. The sun doesn’t rise above the surrounding peaks in winter. It’s also very damp. Above us is rain forest, and above that impenetrable ‘monkey scrub’ which rarely extends above six feet in height (two metres approx).

We follow a very rough single track path to a creek. It’s steep. There is evidence of landslips everywhere. This is genuine wilderness. Mikey and I love it. A little further along the path is a rather ramshackle hut. There is plenty of evidence that someone came here and stayed in the hut until recently, but it is hard to believe because the place is so remote. We follow the track until it ends abruptly after maybe fifty metres and climb up the side of the creek. Maybe a hundred metres above the landing site is a reef of quartz next to a cave which is full of lichen, moss and ferns. It looks man made. Lower down the creek there is another cave - definitely an old mineshaft. Mikey goes into both, but they look pretty dodgy so I just take photos. He comes out of them very wet. "It’s damp and warm in there" he laughs.

Later we speak to Richard, a geologist with a metaphoric boulder of schist on his shoulder. It transpires that the caves are mine shafts that were probably dug in the 1870s when 30,000 men scoured the west coast of New Zealand for gold. The mineshafts were primitive, the mountain cold. A man could die up here and no one would know for weeks or months.

Day 15 - Waterproof Tent
Lizzie's Birthday

Our challenge is to make a waterproof tent and stay up near gold bearing rock to dig some out of the quartz reef. I can see that this is going to be painful for many reasons. For a start it is Liz’s birthday and I’m stuck half way around the world from her. It will be freezing up there but most importantly Mikey and I are terribly hungover after watching a local band in the village pub the previous night. In the event, we arrived back at 3 am after walking the 2 km from the pub, naked in celebration of the New Zealand National Nude Day.

Again the morning is very cold, even at the sawmill. The challenge isn’t a total surprise this time because we had already been up to the mountains and knew that we would be doing something based there. Getting the quartz will be time consuming, but the preparations for the trip will take two full days, so we will have little time to do our ‘mining’. We are expected to camp up in the mountains, but with a little homemade tent that is made out of cotton sheet and waterproofed by ourselves. After seeing the place at which we are expected to camp, I am worried. The frost doesn’t clear from the grass up there at all. It is almost like ‘permafrost’, so whether it rains or not we will be cold.

The waterproofs we plan to use are based on oils or waxes, which don’t mix with water. Our shortlist includes beeswax, lanolin (from sheep’s wool), the jelly from inside flax leaves and two fractions of liquid from a destructive distillation of coal (coal tar). In theory at least they should all work, but all are labour intensive, especially for Mike. In the process of making the ‘waterproof’ sheets Mike and I trip over, scald our hands, accidentally set fire to one of the sheets and burn holes in the aluminium teapots that we use to heat up the coal. NIGHTMARE!

We work on. Tucky, a local helicopter pilot buzzes the sawmill. A pigeon with weirdly noisy wings follows suit. Mikey and I are behind schedule so we work until late. I was glad to get back to the huts. Thanks to the previous night's nude walk everyone in town seems to recognise us.

Day 16 - Waterproof Tent
I wake without a hangover to look out of my window. Paradise is waiting for me just the other side of the log wall. Mike and I mess about for much of the morning trying to dry the various sheets and anticipating the camp out.

We escape from the sawmill at lunchtime in the little Hughes. From the air we can see the paths that the local rivers have taken over the last few centuries as winding depressions in the flat grassland near the coast. Even today the rivers constantly change course.

We approach Mt. Rangitoto, which for a short while will be our home and soon land in the tiny clearing. This time we are filmed, and have to be very careful to get things right. Our pilot, Chris Cowen, does a superb job. As the helicopter flies away the cold hits us.

While we are on the mountain Chris’ ground crew, Peter, will be looking after us. He is a great bloke and helps out with a chainsaw. He knows a bit about the bush and has strong, sensible views about the ecological problems that New Zealand is suffering. In particular the huge culls of Thar, which he thinks is tragic.

By mid-afternoon the shelter (nicknamed 'the Edifice' by Martin) is all but finished, so Mike and I start on a bottle of brandy that we brought up with us. All too soon it is dark. Martin has sorted out a makeshift kitchen in the porch of the old miners' hut, which is the only part of the place that isn’t rotten, and together with Peter, Derek and John (the cameraman and sound recordest) we have some dinner and drink more brandy and wine.

By the end of the evening Mike and I are amusingly intoxicated. Neither of us are capable of talking any sense to the camera and at one point Mike ends up laying on the ground amid frozen blades of grass claiming that he is going to sleep right there under the stars. I can sort of see his point. The stars are the best that I have ever seen and in the Southern hemisphere look very different to home. I crawl into the tent. It is surprisingly warm because of the hot rocks and would remain so until early morning. Amazingly it was one of the most comfortable nights that I have ever spent in a tent.

Note about filming this challenge
The tent sequence was filmed on private land (not government land administered by NZ DOC) with the full knowledge and co-operation of the owners. The production team were advised by a member of the Westland District Council and accompanied by an experienced bushman.

The area where the vegetation was cut down is a landing site for helicopters for the owners to access their land (the vegetation is cut back regularly in this area to allow safe landing for helicopters).

The production team worked closely with the Department of Conservation in New Zealand to minimise any impact from filming.

Day 17 - Waterproof Tent
I am woken by Martin well before it is light. As he was bringing me a cup of coffee it was probably pretty uncharitable to greet him with the immortal Leahy early morning greeting.

Although a thin cloud layer has spread over the night it is still quite frosty. It is nowhere near as cold as the previous morning’s –7 or –8 degrees, but is cold enough to put me off washing until after breakfast. Peter has already freshened up down at the creek. After eating I follow suit. The water is clean enough to drink safely and is very cold. I soon feel ‘fresh’ so walk back to the porch of the old hut to have another cup of tea before pulling the tent down to let Kate arrive by helicopter. Five minutes later, as we work to move/disassemble the surprisingly robust tent we hear the sound of a helicopter above the beguiling song of the bellbirds. Damn, Kate’s nearly here!

We ask Chris to give us five minutes to clear the landing site. Chris dips down, only to climb again a couple of times to blow any loose stuff from the landing site. The last thing he wants is a fern branch becoming entangled in his rotors. Then he comes down to land. It’s the first time that Kate has seen the clearing. I think that she is impressed.

A quick cup of tea and we walk down to the creek. I’m told to carry Mikey’s rucksack while he has mine. It’s because the crowbar that I’ll be using later is in Mikey’s bag. I’ll be in trouble when I get home because my bag was chosen by Liz to match my outfit. Not sure that Mikey’s is the right colour. I look across to Derek and John as they unplug from each other’s equipment to walk along the treacherously slippery rocks. Memories of the first ‘Rough Science’ series flood back. Those two guys work so closely together that they might as well be man and wife. I’m sure that they know each other better than many married couples. I love the close teamwork here and love working with five or six people rather than fifteen or sixteen.

Kate, Martin, Mikey and the crew walk down one of the old mineshafts. I am to stay near the surface with ‘Peter the ground crew’. I chat to Peter for another half an hour or so about culling in the interests of the environment and why you should never walk down a creek if you don’t know it. After a while I begin to worry about the guys down the mine. Peter and I have talked for ages. We haven’t heard landslips and there is no reason to suspect that the shallow mineshaft is full of gas but we’re a little uncomfortable. We walk to the entrance - no sound comes from it. We don’t have a torch but can hardly get lost so walk slowly down the claustrophobic passage. Still not a sound. God. I hope that they are OK. We slowly work further into the mine, now in total darkness, then I hear Derek’s laugh. They must be OK. We wait a while and then see lights. Apparently there has been a technical problem.

The others exit the cave and we climb up to an exposed reef of quartz. I hammer some rock off and Peter carries it to the hut while I hump Mikey’s bag and some tools back. We’ve finished filming a little early. Cool! We clear up and leave the place in silence again. Our next stop is a quarry where Kathy and J are trying out their seismometer. The final scene takes hours to film because each time Kate twists the lever to set the explosives off nothing happens and because the construction isn’t playing ball.





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?