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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2000

A Geologist Remembers – Recollections of Fieldwork

page 70

A Geologist Remembers – Recollections of Fieldwork

Geological Society of New Zealand miscellaneous publication 102 (Geological Society of New Zealand PO Box 303 Waikanae) 52 p. 1999. $ 18.95

This small soft covered book records some of the recollections of Max Gage. As one of New Zealand's leading geologists from the mid 1930s, Max undertook investigations in many parts of the country, including Golden Bay and Reefton. While enrolled at Victoria University, Max obtained a vacation job as field assistant to the Geological Survey in the summer of 1935/36. This was an ideal way of getting training, while also putting oneself forward as a prospective permanent employee – the reviewer did this in 1962, when he obtained a similar job at Greymouth but, with the demise of the Geol gical Survey, it is now very much a thing of the past.

Like all student field assistants Max, as he candidly admits, was very much a novice and had much to learn from the field geologists of the time, including the eccentric Mont Ongley who came from a prominent legal family and was to become a Director to the Survey. Other geologists were the parsimonious Director, Dr John Henderson, who took financial management to an extreme, beyond what was required in those depression years. Max's first taste of geological mapping was in the Wairarapa, inland from Castlepoint, an area that later became the reviewer's thesis area.

Because there were no topographical maps, the geologists had to construct their own base maps before they could add the geological observations. Base maps ranged from pace and compass surveys to, in critical areas, having professional surveyors attached to the field teams. Fieldwork made much use of bicycles on the gravel roads, although legwork was the norm. Bits of clothing left on barbed wire fences were silent testimony to unaccepted challenges from the local bovine population. More friendly were the human inhabitants, including the families running the country hotels that were utilised as field bases. The daughter of one family at the Porangahau Hotel was later to become Max's wife.

After being appointed to Geological Survey, one of Max's first projects was to assist in the remapping of the Reefton Goldfield. In charge was "Mac" Macpherson who had a reputation for a somewhat unpredictable temper.

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Mapping also involved the use of the new science of geophysics, and one of the surveyors assisting was Harold Wellman who later, as a Survey geologist, was the first to propose the 480 km of horizontal shift on the Alpine Fault.

Max gives a vivid account of the geological survey camps, often in old run down mining villages such as Tin Town at the Big River gold mine, and a revealing insight into the survey staff, be they geologists or temporary employees such as bushmen and cooks. Then of course there was the fieldwork, which involved much physical and mental effort in difficult mountainous country of complex geology. Superb, very clear and fully documented photographs taken by Max illustrate all of these aspects of being in the field for long periods of time. In winter the permanent staff returned to Wellington where, in a cramped two storied wooden former residence on The Terrace, the fieldwork was written up.

After completion of the Reefton survey, Max migrated to Greymouth and became involved with black gold. At that time a systematic assessment was being undertaken of New Zealand's coal resources. As well as the major coalfields, including the Greymouth field, the survey geologists carried out a host of other work. One diversion for Max Gage was to Onekaka in Golden Bay, where a blast furnace had been built by government in 1926 but which, after a brief period of activity, was now idle. Despite earlier geologists having described Onekaka as a mountain of iron, it had been discovered that only a thin, superficial layer existed and as mining progressed, bedrock appeared in the quarry floor. With Max confirming that the mountain of iron was an illusion there was considerable embarrassment, not only for geologists, but also the politicians who had to close the works.

With the onset of World War Two Max was transferred back to Wellington, but was soon reassigned to the Greymouth Coalfield, work of strategic importance. This was interrupted when he was transferred to a top-secret project to establish a coastal radar defence network. However, before this was complete Max, on the insistence of the Under Secretary for Mines, was sent back to Greymouth to finish the coals survey.

After the War he worked inland from Oamaru before commencing a career at Canterbury University, where he became Professor of Geology. On retirement Max and Molly lived in Nelson for several years, during which he wrote Legends in the Rocks, which was a guide to New Zealand's geology. The cover was fittingly illustrated with a photograph of the rocks at Magazine Point.

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Although A Geologist Remembers is perhaps largely a narrative for geologists, it is easily readable and provides an insight into how fieldwork was done with limited transport in difficult terrain. It also records the end of an era in which the horse, bicycle and legwork were very much to the fore, with prolonged periods spent in areas that still very much displayed their colonial origins. The lack of adequate basemaps and no aerial photographs were a major hindrance.

The book, with its accounts of the Reefton Goldfield and the Onekaka ironworks fiasco is of particular relevance to those with an interest in the history of Nelson. The Geological Society and Simon Nathan are to be commended for having these fascinating reminiscences, and the excellent contemporary photographs accompanying them, published. Max's collection of over 800 photographs is now housed at the Alexander Tumbull Library.

Mike Johnston