Nature always bites back, puny humans!

Last week’s discovery of yet more unstable cliff-side tells me the Manawatu Gorge is at its use-by date as a road.  Damn – it’s a fantastic scenic area.

Photo I took of the Manawatu Gorge from the Palmerston North end, looking east, before the landslip frenzy.

I’m not surprised. It’s one of the few places in the world where a river goes through a mountain range – and the river, the Manawatu, was there first. As the Tararua and Ruahine ranges rose up under the tectonic forces of what’s generally known as the Kaikoura Orogeny, from about 5 million years ago, the river kept flowing, cutting through the rock as fast as it rose. This also means that the slopes of the gorge, right up to the peaks, are essentially old river bed – alluvial. Go figure.

For almost all of that time New Zealand was uninhabited by humans – a real ‘lost world’ that still had most of its late-Cretaceous era biota in the form of forests and birds, among other things. But even then Polynesians arrived around 1280 AD there wasn’t much change to the gorge. Maori, who emerged indigenously from the Polynesian settlements, used the river as a regular transport route, man-handling their waka (canoes) upstream against thrashing torrents.

Enter Britain. By the 1850s, settlement was expanding on each side of the gorge, and that meant not just road and rail – but also the wholesale destruction of a good deal of bush, including forests that grew on some of the lower slopes of the gorge entrance. Pictures from the 1890s are very different from those of today. Since then the road has become the main through-route between the Manawatu and southern Hawke’s Bay, fuelling the town of Woodville which is just to the northeast of the eastern gorge entrance.

Photo I took of Woodville’s main street, looking southwest, in February 2017 – before the current slips in the gorge.

The problem has always been the road. For a while it wasn’t too big a problem, but it can take years sometimes for water to seep through cracks in rocks and for changed drainage patterns to make themselves felt. Progressive widening and other work didn’t help. By the 1980s, as far as I can remember, there were problems with slips in increasing numbers. All sorts of remedial work was done, including putting steel netting across the worst of the slopes to stop motorists being hit by random boulders.

Then in 2011 about a cubic kilometre fell in, closing the gorge for 14 months. And now there’s more – multiple slips since April, which now can’t be cleared because it turns out the slopes above aren’t stable. They pulled out the clearing teams for safety last week.

What now? I guess it’ll come down to money, but there’s now talk of upgrading the alternative route across the south Ruahines. That’ll come as a relief to Woodville residents, who need the gorge through-traffic – and whose nearest large town is Palmerston North, on the other side of it.

Still, it’s pretty clear to me what’s happened. It’s taken a century or more, but the act of monkeying with the southern slope of the gorge to put a road in has destabilised the whole thing. Figures. Back then we were so arrogant as to suppose humanity could dominate nature. The reality? Nature bites back. Always.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017


11 thoughts on “Nature always bites back, puny humans!

  1. Great post Matthew. Nature always bites back, sometimes I consider how small our planet is and that 7 billion inhabitants (and that figure is set to substantially increase) surely can’t be sustained in the long term.

    I am reminded of the line in the Matrix movie by the ‘Smith software virus’: ‘I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings  are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure’.

    I sometimes think that our planet, nature, and it’s relationship with us, is rather like a dog with an annoying flea on it’s back. One day there will be too many fleas and the dog will scratch them off. Thanks again for a great post.

    1. Thanks. And too true. I think Attenborough made a similar comment about humanity being the scourge of the planet, and we have but to look at the way Easter Island was run out of resources. The planet simply can’t sustain our current population, still less where we’re going with that. I’ve heard that the reason why humans do this is something to do with a survival tactic from the ice age, which worked pretty well back then when our populations were only a few thousands. Now? Not so much. And nature WILL win, in the end.

      In update to the gorge story, the news today (after I published this) is that the traffic is being diverted via a small town on the western side of the gorge, Ashurst. Not only was its main street never designed to take main highway traffic, but apparently drivers are dodging through residential side-streets to get around the jams, and residents are rightly concerned about their kids getting run over.

      1. One wonders if this issue with increasing cars on the roads will be solved or exacerbated with the introduction of electric cars. Volvo announced this week that they will be producing only electric cars in their range within two years, Germany is withdrawing petrol and diesel cars by 2025, and many European nations plan to do the same by 2030. I suspect that families will still want at least two cars (I’m guessing the price of electric cars will come down as they increase production), perhaps the problem of congestion won’t be solved. As for the environment, these cars don’t pollute, but components need to be manufactured, and what do we do with the batteries once they are spent?

    1. We do. Actually, just northeast of that gorge used to be a forest – variously the ‘Forty’, ‘Seventy’ or ‘Ninety Mile Bush’ depending on where you measured it from. It was felled and burned in the 1870s-1880s, deliberately, to open the land up for farming. They saw it as an improvement, and the only voices calling to slow down the destruction were the ones who thought the trees could be felled and sold for timber instead.

      1. Ugh. I’m no historian but I’ll bet the same thing happened over here as well. Transplanted Englishmen could see no beauty or worth in our kind of country. Sadly, many true blues still don’t.

  2. As everyone else has indicated, good for nature. I doubt we will take the hint, puny humans that we are. Spot on, Mathew, as always .:-)

    1. Thanks – much appreciated! The sad part of the Manawatu Gorge issue is that its such a fantastic and unique piece of scenery, our equivalent of the Grand Canyon geologically speaking. There’s a wonderful description of an up-river transit by canoe in 1850, which I found in the diaries of Donald McLean and published in the bio I wrote of him a few years ago. Just stunning. And then along came the settlers and their road-digging crews. That’s quite apart from the bush-burning on both sides of the gorge. Today there’s a problem with the river itself which is one of the most polluted waterways on the planet thanks to dairy farm effluent (also affecting its feeders) and downstream sewerage from Palmerston North. There was always that sense of ‘transformation’ as a symbol of ‘progress’ – of unlimited expansion and human domination of the environment to serve solely human requirements and hey, the science can be ignored because it might hamper the complex of socio-economic and political systems that let a minority expand their power and wealth. Have humans learned? Um…

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