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Roger "Snow" Finlay and the history of the Takaka Hill Road

February, 2010
by Murray Owen (first published in The Guardian)

Roger "Snow" Finlay certainly earned his passage as the principal machine operator for Transport Nelson and Fuel and Freight on several roading excavations in the region, from 1947 to 1983.

He operated front-end loaders and bulldozers and, in the earlier years, a Ruston-Bucyrus excavator.

For years the often maligned Takaka Hill road, with its myriad of turns, was a constant force in Snow's working life. He was at the coalface of all the developments, with a modern, reasonably fast road emerging from the narrow, challenging 'goat track' that it was in places.

Still, it was the 1960s before the road was widened to any degree, averaging 12 to 16 feet in extra width along its winding course. Being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, meant Snow negotiated, dug and cleared the road under all circumstances and conditions.

As we travel the road with Snow, he says, "One thing I still can't do is go over Takaka Hill with my eyes shut."

He recalls it was often a "dark, dark trip and you didn't know whether you were on the road or not" when he was required to get it reopened in the early days after slips or snowfall. It would be daybreak before other workmen would arrive from their bases at Upper Takaka and Riwaka.

Water, of course was a major problem in the construction of the road. "What is your best friend but it's the enemy too," says Snow. He can't express enough the importance of culverts and water tables on this route. He recalls culverts were always undersized, never big enough to carry the volumes of water. "They're waking up to the idea now of making them bigger," he says.

The section of road at the start of the climb, known as Drummond's Corner, offers Snow his first bone of contention. It always needed building up to take the weight off the Riwaka Valley Road below. It needed taking back from the edge, with the sharp corner pushing the loose face down to the lower road. "An enlarged culvert would have been a start," he grumbles.

Actually, work on widening the road here did begin but orders arrived to cease operations because of monetary concerns. "They're frightened of touching it (Drummond's Corner) even today," Snow adds, "because if it does drop it will block the entrance to the Riwaka Valley".

Snow clearly doesn't have much time for a lot of the decision-making. "Everything was done from an office in Wellington. They knew all about roadbuilding with a pen."

He reflects that only when nature plays its telling hand was something done, as opposed to any incisive planning. At Eureka Bend they've deeped the water tables in the last 12 months, he says. "That's something we really wanted to do all those years ago."

Snow has a tale to tell or informative comment to make on every patch of the road. He draws attention to spots where cave openings once existed, where there was once a corduroy bank, vanished roadmen cottages, a bygone school (Canaan), all the places where due to the forces of nature the road had simply dropped out, remains of the original road - indeed the original, camouflaged roadpeg (1894) at Fossil Point. "It's still there," Snow enthuses, "and no vandal knows it's there!"

He talks of the holding paddocks for the stock drivers, usually plying their trade from the Westhaven area. His rich vein of knowledge leaves one eyeing the road differently as we drive on.

He spent 10 months on the Whisky Creek section on the Golden Bay side, moving 97,000 cubic yards of material. For a long time Whisky Creek was the watering place for horses and coaches. When it builds up it empties a very large watershed into the gully.

Snow Finlay also confronted some unusual incidents up on the hill. He remembers being called out once to unearth a car believed to have been buried under a significant slip on a trip back from Takaka. Snow cleared the slip but there was no car - the vehicle at the centre of the emergency had, in fact, gone through just prior to the landslide. Oblivious, the occupants had driven on, safe and well.

Another time he had to ask a couple tenting overnight on the road above Rocky Angle to move on.

Our hill trip descends to the Takaka Valley and to the site of the former Rat Trap Hotel, where Snow often stayed. In his heyday the journey to the top of the hill from the Rat Trap took and hour in 28 horsepower trucks. Now the trip to the top is achieved in 22 minutes.

Naturally, Snow Finlay also worked the roads throughout Golden Bay. "There's not much of the valley I haven't had a nibble at", he said. But that's another story.

[Editor's note: Snow passed away peacefully in Motueka on the 27th May 2017, aged 92. RIP Snow - "gone fishin'".]

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