Queenstown Calamities

5. The Wrong Snow Chains (Near-death Experience I)

Fact file:

  • Transportation: Mitsubishi Sportpac L300
  • Location: The Remarkables, New Zealand
  • Date: Winter 2011
  • Injury: Forced to reflect on life
  • Damage: Broken snow chains
  • Cost: None
  • Fault: Barry McGuirk, Anthony Groome, snow
The  guilty Queenstown crew: never trust a mechanic with a tie (Anthony; far left) or someone so greasy in court (Barry; back centre)

The guilty Queenstown crew: never trust a mechanic with a tie (Anthony; far left) or someone so greasy in court (Barry; back centre)

Story:

My first tale of New Zealand transport misdemeanours actually features me only as a passenger.  I list my Queenstown housemates, Barry and Anthony, as the unquestionable culprits but include this incident as one of my near-death experiences during my glorious time in New Zealand`s adventure capital.

Early in the season, after a decent period of snowfall, I went with Barry to The Remarkables ski field to ride the powder.  Barry offered to drive us up the mountain road in his van as he had recently purchased snow chains with the assistance and recommendation of our housemate mechanic, Anthony.  Once we reached the recommended point along the road to fit snow chains to our vehicle, we pulled over and got to work.  Both Barry and I were required to fit snow chains by our jobs – Barry worked for a car rental company, while I drove the company car to the ski resort every evening to get to work.  However, as we were trying to fit these particular snow chains it became clear that they were not big enough for the van`s tyres.  Cursing Anthony, we fitted them as best as we could and proceeded cautiously up the mountain road.

Barry's beautiful illustration!

Barry’s beautiful illustration!

We encountered no problems on the uphill journey and so enjoyed a day of skiing and snowboarding.  Back in the van, I strapped myself into the passenger seat and continued removing my uncomfortable ski boots and the wet outer layers that I was wearing.  But as Barry slowly exited the car park he lost control of the van and it began to drift towards the edge of the road.  As the van twisted 180° my side of the van approached the sheer drop, while Barry reached for his door handle to jump out to safety.

Fortunately, the van stopped before it drifted off the edge because there was no way I would have had time to remove my seatbelt and jump to safety.  A little shook up, we found the maintenance team to assess the condition of the snow chains, which had buckled out of shape.  They managed to knock them back into some resemblance of their working shape and fitted them instead to the rear tyres for our descent.  But neither of us felt confident to drive the van down the winding, snowy road.

One of the guys kindly offered to drive the van for us, so we edged our way down the road with one hand tightly gripping the door handle!  On several occasions we lost grip but the man managed to direct our drifts away from the edge.  With the snow chains ineffective, he eventually made the decision that it was unsafe to continue so found a safe passing point to leave the van.  He called ahead to one of the bus drivers to pick us up on his way down the hill and we were safely dropped back in Queenstown.

Barry and I were more comfortable with the apres-ski anyway!

Barry and I were more comfortable with the apres-ski anyway!

Barry had to wait a few days for the snow to melt so the road would be safe enough to bring his van back down, then had to purchase a new set of snow chains that were the correct size.  Needless to say, I was in no rush to accept another offer to drive there in his van!

6. Black Ice (Near-death Experience II)

Fact file:

  • Transportation: NZSki truck
  • Location: Coronet Peak, New Zealand
  • Date: Winter 2011
  • Injury: Forced to reflect on life
  • Damage: None
  • Cost: None
  • Fault: Black ice
Skiing at Coronet Peak,  my workplace :)

Skiing at Coronet Peak, my workplace 🙂

Story:

As the winter season neared, I finally managed to secure a job working for NZSki as the Head Custodian for Coronet Peak ski resort.  While the title sounds impressive, I essentially ran a small team of cleaners and spent my nights cleaning a vast number of toilets, amongst other tasks.  One of the perks of managing the team was that I was paid the extra hour to drive to and from the resort every shift.  I thoroughly enjoyed driving myself and a colleague along the winding mountain road in a new 4WD company truck.  Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures were a regular occurrence, so we were equipped with snow chains and would always check on the road condition with the groomers (the guys that groomed the pistes every night) before leaving.

On one particular night, we confirmed by radio that we were leaving the building (at the usual time between midnight and 1am) and asked on an updated report for the road’s condition.  We were told that snow chains would not be necessary but were advised to be cautious.  Heeding this advice, I drove carefully downhill along the snowy road and reached the end of the snow cover without incident.  Once the road appeared clearer I felt more confident in maintaining control of the truck at a slightly higher speed.

No sooner had I accelerated than I felt the tyres lose grip with the road as I found myself driving across black ice.  A light tap of the brakes produced no reaction while I had completely lost the ability to steer the truck.  We continued to gain speed as we headed downhill and slowly veered towards the slope off to the left side of the road.  Although this drop-off was not as sheer as in the previous episode at The Remarkables, it was again the passenger that was in more immediate danger.  My French colleague, Gilles, remarked afterwards that the mass of trees had appeared imminently in the windscreen in front rather than safely in his side window.

As I neared the edge of the road, the truck’s left tyres found snow beneath them and were able to grip enough for me to steer us back onto the road.  But the danger was not yet over because being back on the road meant encountering black ice once again.  Fortunately the truck had slowed a little and tapping the brakes was also proving more effective now.  After zig-zagging a few more times, I eventually gained full control of both speed and steering, so I brought the truck to a stop.

We took a moment to assess our snowy tracks and recover from the shock as our adrenaline gradually ebbed away.  It was difficult even to keep our balance as we walked over the black ice as we surveyed just how close to the edge we had come.  Sadly I don’t have photos to illustrate this but I will explain that the build up of snow at the edge of the road was not very wide and so my window for steering us away from danger was very brief.

The rest of our cautious journey into Queenstown was gratefully uneventful, as were the vast majority of my other commutes to work…

7. The Birth of Boofy

Fact file:

  • Transportation: NZSki truck
  • Location: Coronet Peak, New Zealand
  • Date: Winter 2011
  • Injury: None
  • Damage: None
  • Cost: Written warning, driving privileges for 1 shift
  • Fault: Bus driver, night skiing, NZSki

Story:

Not in the least boofy!

Not in the least boofy!

To introduce this next, very disputable incident I will first need to describe my questionable appearance at this time.  Urged on by my Australian girlfriend, Dasha, I had decided to let my hair grow and allow the curliness to take over.  Since November (approximately 8 or 9 months before), my hair had grown outward into some sort of curly ‘afro’ which became progressively tangled and voluminous.

Beers sitting on Maria as we await night skiing

Beers sitting on Maria as we await night skiing

Maria...you gotta see her!

Maria…you gotta see her!

Driving to work at Coronet Peak was usually a quick commute along empty roads because the resort had already closed.  In fact, we shared a truck with a different department so could not begin our commute until they had returned from their day`s work.  The exception to this was on days where night skiing was taking place until 9pm.  Indeed I thoroughly enjoyed my Saturdays spent at Coronet Peak with Anthony where we sat on his car drinking beers as we waited for the pistes to be re-groomed and for the lifts to re-open.  However, on the occasions that I was working, night skiing disrupted my peaceful and speedy drive to work.  Over-cautious tourists and slow buses slowed my progress, but I used my knowledge of the road to confidently and safely overtake these vehicles.

On one such occasion, I found myself behind a bus carrying tourists uphill to the resort.  Patiently observing the road, I judged that the road ahead was clear and swiftly but safely overtook the bus.  I had had sufficient time and vision to observe the upcoming curves of the road to determine that I would safely be able to complete the overtaking manoeuvre before any returning vehicle could reach this part of the road.  I can confidently say that even Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton or perhaps the legendary rally driver Colin McRae could not have swung round the upcoming blind corner before I had merged back onto the correct side of the road.

I continued to work without this incident registering in my mind to any significant degree.  Later that night, while completing my cleaning tasks, I passed a colleague who asked me if I was driving the company vehicle that night.  I confirmed this and continued my shift without giving too much thought to this unusual question.  It wasn’t until the next day when I opened the door to our company truck that this incident re-entered my conscious thoughts.  On the driver’s seat was a note addressed to me containing instructions that I was not to drive the company vehicle that night, referring to accusations made by the bus driver about the previous night’s alleged incident.

My hair was certainly not boofy after Jules straightened it at Carragh's leaving party!

My hair was certainly not boofy after Jules straightened it at Carragh’s leaving party!

Grumpily, I was driven to and from work by my colleague, Sebastian, then returned home to rant about the note to my friends.  The bus driver alleged that I had recklessly overtaken a bus containing customers in a vehicle with the company name and logo displayed on the side.  To incense me further, yet much to the delight and humour of my housemates, he described the driver as having “boofy hair” – a name that stuck!

The following day I attended a disciplinary meeting where my driving conduct was assessed for this incident.  They played a video of the section of road to point out any blind spots and explained that, by the letter of the law: “[you must] be able to see at least 100 metres of clear road ahead of you once you have finished passing”.  The most ridiculous reasoning for my “poor decision-making” was that there could have been a parked car around one concealed curve of the road.  Nobody parks halfway down the mountain road unless there is a lay-by.  I maintain that I had viewed the entire stretch of road over a long enough period to determine that I had sufficient time to pass safely – maybe not 100 metres (an excessive amount on a winding mountain road) but certainly a reasonable distance.  To anyone left doubting my case, I will also remind you that a bus full of customers and their gear heading uphill takes very little time to overtake in the powerful 4WD vehicle.

Alas, I was found guilty of not adhering to strict overtaking technicalities and failing to consider vehicles that could teleport to a blind spot along the road.  I received a written warning, had to pass a urine test, then was immediately subjected to a patronising re-training lesson.  This consisted of safely overtaking deliberately placed vehicles and identifying “here is unsafe…now would be unsafe…and now I am able to see 700m of clear road without any vehicles parked in ditches ready to jump out as soon as I overtake”.

I managed to pass my driver’s re-training and my driving privileges were restored.  My drug testing was clear too and my certificate hangs on the fridge at home to this day.

8. Maria’s Roast: Planning Tamsin’s Surprise Party

Maria was a good sport when we played a prank while Anthony was at work in Arrow town one evening!

Maria was a good sport when we played a prank while Anthony was at work in Arrow town one evening!

Fact file:

  • Transportation: Mazda 636 (AKA Maria)
  • Location: Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
  • Date: September 2011
  • Injury: None
  • Damage: None
  • Cost: NZ$70 (£36)
  • Fault: Anthony Groome, Tamsin Foster, Martin Murray, India Lunan, McDonald’s breakfast

Story:

Karma –  (Hinduism, Buddhism) action, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation

To my understanding, karma is supposed to reward a person for doing a selfless deed with good fortune, not with another costly transport misdemeanour.

The guilty parties involved: (Martin, Tamsin, India & Anthony)

The guilty parties involved: (Martin, Tamsin, India & Anthony)

When my housemate, Anthony, approached me for assistance on planning his girlfriend’s birthday surprise, I of course consented as I am a good friend.  To celebrate Tamsin’s 30th birthday, Anthony was trying to organise a surprise gathering of friends to have drinks and a BBQ along the shore of Queenstown’s beautiful Lake Wakatipu.  He requested that I borrow his car while he was working to find a suitable spot.  I asked my two other housemates, Martin and India, if they would like to join me for the drive.  Their condition was that we stop for McDonald’s breakfast so I dropped them outside and left the car running as I was not in a designated parking spot.

I should now explain that, as a mechanic, Anthony had repaired and calibrated his engine cooling fan to start manually with a switch rather than automatically when the engine’s temperature rises.  While I was aware of this modification, Anthony had not specifically reminded me of this important tool on this particular morning.  And so I feel that this lack of reminder excuses me from the following sequence of events.

As I sat in the car waiting for Martin and India (they reported that service was particularly slow that morning), I noticed steam rising from the car’s bonnet and quickly turned off the engine.  A passer-by also reported that there was some sort of liquid leaking onto the road.  After lifting the bonnet to allow more heat to disperse, I called my mechanic and he reminded me of the manual switch for the cooling fan.  I was given the go ahead but warned to drive cautiously and instructed to pay attention to the engine’s temperature.

The finders of this secluded surprise spot!

The finders of this secluded surprise spot!

So away we drove, following the scenic road alongside Lake Wakatipu in search of a secluded location for the surprise party.  I was very wary of Maria’s temperature and stopped on numerous occasions to allow her to cool down.  The mission was a success as we came across a lovely spot by the water, accessed by a narrow path from the road through the trees.

With high spirits we began our return journey back towards Queenstown, stopping partway at temporary traffic lights due to roadworks.  When I attempted to move away the car did not respond and now I could not re-start the engine.  One of the nearby workers came to our assistance and identified that the coolant had completely diminished.  He instructed me to fill a bottle with water from a nearby stream as we attempted to rehydrate thirsty Maria’s radiator.  After several trips to the river, our helper identified a leak in one of the radiator tubes – something that a knowledgeable driver/mechanic could have deduced from the leak that was noticed outside McDonalds.  (I must have neglected that detail when calling Anthony earlier…oops!)

Anthony works on Maria outside our Queenstown home

Anthony works on Maria outside our Queenstown home

Maria's organs with wrecked head gasket exposed

Maria’s organs with wrecked head gasket exposed

Dead gasket

Dead gasket

Anthony received the bad news at work and managed to borrow a colleague’s car to come to our rescue.  He eventually managed to coax Maria back to life and nursed her home while I followed behind in his colleague’s vehicle.  Here he got to work on dismantling the entire engine to assess the damage.  He discovered that the head gasket (a thin metal sheet that sits between the engine block and cylinder heads) had melted onto the engine as the car overheated excessively.  This gasket acts as a seal to prevent leakages of water or engine oil to the cylinders while ensuring maximum compression.  When the head gasket had split water had seeped into the cylinders, which is where the fuel and oxygen goes to ignite.  By flooding the cylinders with water, this fire had been put out and could no longer ignite again.  Anthony had managed to nurse the car home by removing the spark plugs from the cylinder then turning over the engine to clear the water out – using the pistons to squirt the water out.  He had to repeat this several times on the journey home as the cylinders kept flooding with water.

Maria's beating heart lays momentarily still on a Tui beer box - but why do they call it a tui?!

Maria’s beating heart lays momentarily still on a Tui beer box – but why do they call it a tui?!

While the part only costed me $70, the great expense in replacing a head gasket is normally due to the lengthy labour costs (around NZ$350) involved in removing all parts attached to the engine to access this area and re-connecting them afterwards.  In this specific case, there was particularly arduous effort required to scrape the melted metal from the engine.  As it was not entirely my fault, Anthony gave me ‘mates rates’ on labour so I repaid him for this work by making him refreshing milkshakes!

Tamsin’s birthday was a great success as we celebrated in this pristine location with a BBQ, beers and other beverages, as well as three of us taking an icy dip in the lake!

Maria survived for the rest of Anthony’s ownership, which included a 2-month trip that we made around both islands of New Zealand.  Anthony did not trust me to drive very much on these journeys but I feel I learned another valuable lesson.

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The final Overseas Transport Misdemeanours take place in South-East Asia. 

 

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