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Past blasts: The shockingly tough lives of the Manapouri miners

Inside the Manapouri power station. Photo/Getty Images

The Manapouri hydropower scheme of the 1960s was one of the country’s toughest engineering projects and took an enormous human toll.

Whenever a man was killed on the Manapouri power project, work would stop for 24 hours. A serious drinking bout would begin in Deep Cove aboard the Wanganella, the ship that was home for 500 workers. They sold more beer on those days, recalls the ship’s storeman, John Mutton, than on any others. “Everybody would be drunk.”

Twenty-five years later, says Mutton, it is hard to describe how close-knit the workforce was. Everyone felt the death. Each worker gave £5 for the widow. “If anybody was found who had not put in their £5,” says Mutton, “they were thrown overboard.”

Eighteen men died on the job, which was one of the toughest engineering projects ever done in New Zealand.

Men from more than 40 nationalities worked together to bore a 10km tunnel through the mountains between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound, where the Wanganella was moored.

They hollowed a huge cave out of the hard rock at the lake’s west arm and built a power station in it. They blasted a 20km road out of the mountains over Wilmot Pass.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

One day, a man was blown to pieces near the summit. An “acceptable” rate of loss was one life per kilometre of tunnel.

When they brought a body out of the mountain, recalls Mutton, “the whole ship was in mourning. We’d go down to the picture theatre and hold a church service. Even if you didn’t know him, you would go down there. It was just respect and courtesy.”

The men on the Wanganella – some of them veterans from the Australian Snowy River project – were hard, macho types. There were Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Lithuanians, Estonians, Americans, Spaniards, Irishmen, Scots, Pacific Islanders and Anzacs. No language linked them except the language of liquor.

“When they found out that one guy had voted against 10 o’clock closing [in the 1967 referendum on pub hours], they threw him overboard,” says Mutton. Only beer was allowed in the Wanganella’s bars, but the workers smuggled in spirits as well. “When you opened a bottle of spirits, you threw the top out of the porthole.”

Whenever a quarrel broke out on the ship, the resident police officer would lead both men down to the gym, provide them with boxing gloves, and referee the fight. “When it was over, they would shake hands and go back upstairs for a jug,” says Mutton, who spent three years on the boat, from 1965 to 1968. In his last year, the two tunnelling parties – one starting from the fjord, and the other from the lake – met in the heart of the mountain.

The wages were terrific, says Mutton. He got £40 a week on the Wanganella, four times the normal storeman’s wage. The hard-rock tunnellers got as much as £60 a week, a colossal sum. Huge illegal gambling sessions took place in the ship’s gymnasium (it was soundproof).

“I went on leave once with a Greek fella and we couldn’t get a rental car in Wellington. He went down and bought a new Fiat – and it had to be red. He paid cash for it,” says Mutton. “He didn’t even have a licence. I gave him a few driving lessons; he was all right. He said he could handle it. I left him in Taupō, and he carried on and wrote the car off.”

This was not a major loss to his Greek friend, who made more money from the gambling sessions on the Wanganella than from his wages. He was the sort of card sharp, says Mutton, who “could give you an ace or whatever card you wanted. He showed me his bank book one day – and this was in 1965 – and it had £27,000 in it.”

Mutton, just in his early twenties, made enough to pay off his parents’ mortgage and renovate the house, as well as spending a good deal on cars and drink. The workers made regular trips to the fleshpots of Invercargill. Often they would take a taxi from Manapouri, a distance of 155km.

“It used to cost £5 between four of us. We could stop at the pubs. We could just drink in the car. We might even give the driver an extra quid. If he went over 100 miles per hour, we’d give him extra money, all these silly sorts of things. Oh, the taxi drivers loved us, mate.”

Prostitutes from the north heard about the high-rolling Manapouri men and shifted to Invercargill to welcome them.

The husbands and boyfriends on the Wanganella spent months away from their loved ones. Mutton frequently found men crying with a “Dear John” letter in their hands. “A lot of that happened. Oh, Christ, yes. There were a lot of divorces and separations from that job.”

The spirit of comradeship among the men lasted a long time after the project finished in 1971. Mutton still keeps in touch with old mates from the Wanganella.

A fair number of the immigrant workers married New Zealanders and settled here. “A Yugoslav married my sister. Took him home for the weekend and that was it,” says Mutton.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.