This is a guest blog by Genevieve Long. Genevieve recently volunteered at Fox Glacier, along with her husband and numerous volunteers, in an effort to clean the Fox River of rubbish from the landfill that was swept downstream in the March flood. She kept a journal of her time at Operation Tidy Fox and kindly shared it with us, to share with others. This is her story.
My husband and I consider ourselves ‘environmentally aware’, in as much as we have considerably reduced the amount of rubbish we send to the landfill; we grow our own vegetables preserving the excess. We’ve also reduced our meat consumption, and are experimenting with vegetarian meals. We are heavily involved in our local community, planting, weeding and mulching along the river which runs close to our home. Being semi-retired, we have the time to contribute. The devastation in Fox Glacier caused by the flooding of the landfill spurred us into action, and on Monday 8th July we drove to Fox Glacier to report for duty.
This environmental catastrophe is worse than anyone can imagine. It’s difficult to tell from the photos and news broadcasts just how extensively the rubbish has been spread across the riverbed and surrounding areas.
Tuesday, 9th July
The weather stayed fine all day, and together with the other 96 volunteers we were transported to the drop off point after the 8.30am briefing. The sacks fill quickly, and are made heavier with the silt that sticks to everything. When the sack is about half full, it’s usually too heavy for me to lug about, and at that point one of the DOC workers takes it and replaces it with an empty one. The fadges are placed at regular intervals for easy emptying of sacks. Regular yells of ‘What was this off?’ come from the volunteers, and someone then tries to identify it. The leg off a dinosaur toy took a while to identify, and this type of working together keeps the spirits up. The camaraderie is strong, and there is constant laughter coming from one group or another.
Plastic bags feature in the main, but they have been shredded and are buried underneath rocks, silt and branches. It’s a matter of carefully pulling the pieces of plastic that are showing above the surface, while moving rocks and other debris to retrieve the complete item. Plastic is also wrapped around and around branches and uprooted tree roots. Tangled amongst the plastic are many items including polystyrene, chupa-chup sticks, and straws. Working on an area a meter square can take 15 – 30 minutes. Another worker close-by can often be asked to help to move rocks, and a gardening fork is quite useful for digging the silt away.
Morning tea, and lunch (delicious and wholesome) were provided on site, and the enthusiasm was infectious. We knocked off at 4pm and after signing out and debriefing we all headed back to our lodgings to shower and change. Dinner is provided at one of two restaurants/ bars – we chose Cook Saddle where the meal and atmosphere was superb every night.
14 tons of rubbish was collected that day.
Wednesday, 10th July
The forecast was for rain, but we went headed out prepared to continue from where we left off the previous day. However, the rain firmly set in, and at 11am, after stopping for morning tea, some of the volunteers asked to be taken back. A few others then joined in, and it was decided to stop for the day. We were disappointed, but understood that to do this work in the rain, the correct gear is essential, and the health and safety of the crew is paramount.
Thursday, 11th July
We met at 8.30am for briefing, where the DOC workers informed us that the start was postponed until 11.30am, as the rain was heavy. At the 11.30 briefing, it was deemed too wet to go out at all. Some of us voiced that we would be willing to go out for three or four hours no matter the weather, and Jake from DOC said that they would take that into consideration for the next day. Many folk have travelled from all over NZ to help with the pick-up, and it was made obvious that there would be support from the volunteers to go out no matter what the weather. Some of us went out on our own to various beaches in the area, and picked up a good deal of rubbish, although not from the Fox landfill disaster. Still good to be out doing what we all came to do.
Friday, 12th July
We met for the briefing at 8.30am down at HQ, and it was raining fairly constantly. The rubbish collection was to go ahead, but we were all checked for layers and water-proof gear. People were told that they were only to agree to come if they had appropriate gear. I’m not sure how many people turned away; it was still a big group who came out. Fox Glacier Guides lent some jackets to folk who did not have these, which made it possible for most people to come.
There was a different approach to this pick-up. On previous days, we were given a large area to clear, but on this day the DOC rangers kept us in tight group, and checked on us all regularly for warmth. The rain was constant, but not too heavy. We were asked not to stay working on a log-jam for too long, as that is when people get cold. We were kept walking and told to be ‘emus’ – walking along and picking up as we walked. It was really difficult as we could see the log-jams filled with rubbish, and we wanted to stop and clear it all. We were assured that these log-jams would be cleared when the weather had improved. Often others joined in, so it didn’t take long to clear these of the usual culprits. Shredded bags, chupa chup sticks, bottles, nappies, Intercity labels and polystyrene feature mostly, although a fire extinguisher and a number of gas bottles have also been tossed down with the flood.
The camaraderie was amazing. Lots of laughing and joking came from all over the area, with the DOC rangers still checking on us, replacing our sacks, and bringing us cake. The decision not to stop for morning tea was made because stopping made us cold and that was when people decided they’d had enough in previous days. I’m sure it wasn’t part of the DOC rangers’ job description to run around handing out banana cake to volunteers in the pouring rain, but doing this kept us working and that kept us warm. We were told to stop at around midday, and to make our way back to the bus, which was due at 12.30. It was really hard to stop, as there was so much more to collect just in our small area, but tomorrow is another day.
Back at the Community Centre, we were provided with a delicious lunch once again, and another debrief. It was going to be the same plan the next day, and we were urged to get all our gear dry over night. That afternoon the rain pelted down in buckets, and it was very clear that the decision the DOC guys had made was the right one.
Saturday, 13th July
Our fifth and last day began in torrential rain, but it cleared up mid-morning. During briefing it was stressed to have the correct gear, and to let the DOC people know if you were getting cold. It was ‘emu’ work again to stay warm, but as it cleared the billy was heated in the Ute for people who needed a hot drink. It became clear enough for DOoC to allow us to work on the intensive log-jam areas, where most of the really concentrated debris is caught, and this is the most rewarding work. You can fill your bag quickly, and usually end up working in close proximity to one or two other people. We put in a good five hours on our last day, and were rewarded with another delicious lunch back at the Community Centre.
New Zealand must wake up to the fact that rubbish never goes away. Never. It stays in the landfills, and now with climate change, many more of our so-called forgotten landfills will wash away in storms. We need to stop buying goods in single-use plastic. It’s no use telling corporations to stop making it, we as consumers have to stop buying it, and then and only then will they be forced to rethink their packaging.
Congratulations must go to the DOC staff at the coal face of this horrendous job. They are all brilliant. Their people skills, ability to keep the mood light and happy, being bossy when they needed to be, encouraging us to look after ourselves and each other, together with all the work that goes on behind the scenes such as washing and pairing the gloves, all the administration, and stressing the H & S details. Hats off to each and every one of them.
My advice to anyone thinking of going:
- Take wet-weather gear, and if you can score two lots, take that as you will need to get dry over night – (tricky in the lodge). Pants and a coat.
- Warm hat.
- Good Boots. Either tramping boots with putties, or gumboots with tread.
- Thick warm socks -two pairs.
- A woollen layer. Get a thick woollen jersey from the 2nd hand shop if you can.
- Take a flask of hot water and a cup each day.
- Lip balm.
- A sense of humour.
It’s a fantastic experience. One in which every able body in New Zealand should participate.