Just to the south of Ross Webber’s house is a little building made of lightweight metal panels, tied down with wire and with a locked door. At the rear is a telephone pole with climbing spikes, giving access to an old aerial and a solar panel from the 1980s. On our first visit to the island after purchasing it in the mortgagee sale, we brought out a locksmith who had driven over to French Pass from Nelson to meet us. He quickly gained access to the house and shed and installed new deadlocks, since beefed up with various other devices. We also encouraged him to cut a key for the little hut and I gather he got permission from the appropriate people as presumably the equipment inside was not owned by us.
Inside was a pile of grumpy geckos, several hundred metres of old cable, a deep-cycle battery and solar controller, an auxiliary telephone handset, a “Country Set” for receiving and transmitting over a microwave link to the mainland, and several old inspection forms filled out and left. On our pre-purchase visit we had been able to spot that there was a telephone in the house, by jumping up and grabbing brief looks through the salt-covered kitchen window (funny, we have never had the windows covered in salt since). I’d arranged with Telecom to get a subscription to start on Settlement Day, which was slightly complicated by the previous account having not been paid for some time. We were delighted to discover that the phone worked perfectly, if a little scratchily on the incoming side. People back on the mainland could hear very clearly however.
The Telecom hut is next to one of the kohekohe forest remnants, the only piece in the central western part of the island. We instantly dubbed the forest Telecom Bush, which also alludes to a remnant back in the Makara area of Wellington called Post Office Bush, which I have had the pleasure to visit with Wellington Botanical Society. Telecom Bush was good sheep shelter, and although no longer under pressure from the sheep, is only slowly getting its understory back. It is however in the territory of one of the original robin pairs, and Peter found one of the first nests after translocation had been built in Telecom Bush.
Ross told us that he had had the telephone connected in the 1980s, just before Telecom was privatised. For the cost of a city telephone connection, Ross got special equipment installed in one of the more remote places in New Zealand. I gather they may have given him some decommissioned lead-acid batteries and a solar panel too. (When we arrived there were two generations of solar panel on the shed roof, supplying electric light to part of the house. The 80’s-vintage one was the same as on the telephone pole but the connections had long rotted out. A more recent panel was charging some batteries in the porch, and there was a little post-Ross electric water pump also to supply running cold water to the house. We had no idea how to maintain the system but it did limp through to the time we did a major electrical upgrade.)
Not everyone comes out on the right side of a deal with a major corporate like Telecom but I guess it was their remit to provide telephones regardless of whether an individual connection was economic for them. Imagine how useful it would have been for Ross to be able to keep up with family and friends, and to order supplies by telephone after 25-30 years of not having one, not to mention how much it would help if Ross were to suffer an injury or illness that needed outside intervention.
Gerard Hindmarsh wrote in one of his lovely articles about Ross that the phone was hidden in an alcove in the wall behind a calendar, so trespassers couldn’t sneak in and make toll calls at Ross’ expense. Ross vehemently denied this. There is a framed message board on the kitchen wall which might well have such an alcove behind it, but from the way the phone is installed over on the opposite wall it’s pretty obvious it has been there forever, with nothing which might have given cover from the freeloading yachting fraternity. Indeed Ross enquired whether we found useful his pencil drawing, on the wall next to the phone, of the set-up and location of buried cabling from the house through to the Telecom hut. Regrettably the drawing is most probably under a layer of lurid purple paint courtesy of the intermediate owner.
The line had non-existent bandwidth and would not support even dial-up internet, but we greatly valued the security and connectivity it gave.
We were checking the equipment in the Telecom hut one day in 2013 and found a new inspection report dated that February. We had had no idea that a technician would come out regularly to check the equipment over. I was quite concerned about possible implications for biosecurity and so penned a lengthy note about the new status of the island and left it in the hut with a request to phone me. Next February I got a very friendly phone call from John the technician, who explained that he came out once a year by helicopter (when the bill is paid at least). I was able to tell him the latest of Ross, with whom he had got on well, and we established that there were no concerns about dogs, or rats hiding in equipment, as the tech serviced the public estate conservation islands as well and was well up with the special requirements for gear checking and so on.
(The tech works for a company which was spun off from either Telecom or one of the electricity companies. I lose track of all that and am tempted to refer to everyone as either The Post and Telegraph Office or the Electric Power and Gas Board, but shall use Telecom in this article and forget either their previous or subsequent incarnations.) Whilst it is hilarious that we received a $1500-plus helicopter visit once a year to check our fifty-dollars-a-month phone line, I did say to John that he might want to coordinate with us and share a boat to the island. He explained that they used to go by boat but with the helicopter they can do eight visits a day compared with two previously.
The phone line was dead one visit in Spring 2014 and after experimentation Peter and I figured it might be a cable fault somewhere between the Telecom hut and the house. Out of natural love and affection for Telecom we thought we should have a go at fixing it rather than contact Faults and assert that the $4.95 monthly line maintenance fee might be spent on another helicopter trip. I fronted at the electrical wholesaler back in town, asked a bunch of dumb questions which were helpfully answered by the sales clerk and a customer, and returned to the island with 63 metres of the latest gel-filled cable, a new handset, connection box and the like. We hooked up the new cable in a temporary manner and from first principles were able to work out what the blinking lights on the Country Set meant, and that all the existing equipment was indeed OK apart from the old cable. At that point I realised that my pacing out of a metre needed recalibration and we were 4 metres short on new cable. Fortunately we were able to shake the geckos out of the enormous coil of spare cable in the hut- which I had clean forgotten about- and spend a hot afternoon putting it in a new trench.
A year later the phone gave trouble again and it was clear that the battery was not charging enough to work the transmitting and receiving equipment. This did mean contacting Faults and I crafted a careful email, explaining that the fault was in a remote location, was related to the solar panel and/or battery, and that there was no point sending me a standard reply inviting me to walk around the house, check all the extensions, unplug the ADSL line filters and whatever else they say to do before they will send out a technician. They duly sent me a reply inviting me to walk around the house, check all the extensions, unplug the ADSL line filters and whatever else they say to do before they will send out a technician. Fully expecting this I had copied the email to John the technician and eventually he or I was able to get the help desk to actually read my message and assign him to the job. We got another helicopter visit and a working phone once again.
We have since found that the island has reasonable Vodafone cell coverage, at least on the open headlands with a view to the tower at Bulwer. Telecom’s tower is a bit further away but we can access their network from the high points. The corrugated iron roof of the house cuts the cell signal inside to zero, but we bought an approved repeater with a Yagi aerial clamped to a tall piece of pipe up behind the house, pointing it at Bulwer and occasionally trimming trees from the line of sight and making sure the aerial doesn’t spin round in the gales. The repeater gives good 3G connectivity on the 900 MHz band. We have also hooked up to the RBI broadband service on Band 28, which gave 100 Mbps download speeds inside the house until Vodafone throttled it to 30. The RBI connection also has a VOIP phone and we decided to dispense with the old Telecom service, assisted by some obtuse behaviour when they contacted the QE2 Trust (not us) and claimed that the set-up was a Health and Safety nightmare which could be fixed with a bulldozer and some bush clearance. More silliness ensued when the infrastructure in the Telecom Hut was cleared out some months ago in another special helicopter visit, despite our offer to dismantle any pieces that could be recycled and help get them to the mainland.
I’m really happy to have had and used this somewhat anachronistic piece of infrastructure. It was important to our safety and it reminded us of Ross’ time on Puangiangi and what a step forward it must have been for him to get the phone on. These days the kereru like to perch on the pole at the Telecom hut, the guy wires moan in the wind, and the empty shed awaits the next cunning plan.
(Original article 2015, updated 2022)