Thursday, March 09, 2017

Great Smash Road


Other people flee natural disasters: Geoff Mackley hurries towards them. He has chased hurricanes across the plains of America, donned a silver, lava-proof suit and abseiled down the crater of a Vanuatu volcano, and waded through the tsunami-flooded ruins of a Sumatran city, avoiding sea snakes and infected corpses.

Mackley's risks have brought rewards. He has never won an Oscar, or even shown his work in a movie theatre, but Mackley is one of New Zealand's most successful film makers. His images have led at least five hundred news programmes; he was the star of Dangerman, a series produced by the Discovery Channel; Fox News and the Independent have run admiring accounts of his adventures.

When he talked with the New Zealand Herald's Viki Bland in 2005, Mackley explained that he was not frightened by volcanoes or tsunamis. What worried him more, he said, was the prospect of 'dying staring at the ceiling'. Mackley remembered how, as a child growing up in Christchurch, he had been fascinated by the 'violence of nature'. He watched the storms that blew across the Canterbury Plains from the Southern Alps, and began to photograph them.

Towards the end of the 1980s imported scanners made it possible for New Zealanders to listen to the shortwave radio calls of their police, firefighters, and ambulance crews. The Radiocommunications Act, which parliament passed in 1989, legalised this eavesdropping. Mackley bought a scanner, and followed the directions emergency workers gave to burning houses and smashed cars.

At first the police were startled by Mackley's alacrity; he was often accused of being responsible, in some obscure way, for the tragedies he was filming. Media bosses were also sceptical. When Mackley offered TV3 news director Mark Jennings footage of a fire in the early '90s, Jennings wondered whether the cameraman was also a pyromaniac. TV3 was used to showing the aftermath of fires: blackened buildings and drifts of ash. How could Mackley have filmed a fire in media res, if he were not an arsonist, or at least the confidant of an arsonist?

Eventually, though, cops and journalists accepted Mackley's work, and he achieved the invisibility that all voyeurs crave. He had begun his career in Christchurch, but by the late '90s he was often filming in Auckland, where there are more people and therefore more tragedies. Mackley began to follow the police and other emergency workers to the sites of stabbings and shootings, as well as fires and crashes. His shots of glass-covered tarseal and speeding ambulances appeared week after week on television news broadcasts. The Great South Road, with its traffic clots and recondite intersections and open-late booze barns, was a favorite hunting ground. Mackley's overseas adventures were funded with the help of his footage from New Zealand's roads.


When he is filming natural disasters, Mackley's camera moves rapidly and excitedly, as it follows a surge of lava or a rising wave or a strengthening tornado. Viewers are constantly aware of Mackley's closeness to death; we wonder whether he will become a part of the disaster he is filming, and are relieved when he withdraws, at what seems like the last moment, to safety.  The clips are filled with noise: lava bombs explode, waves smash buildings, skies thunder.

By contrast, the films Mackley makes on the Great South Road seem silent and almost still. His camera moves slowly, if at all. Many of the clips were made late at night, when the road is quiet.

In his most famous works, Geoff Mackley shows us natural disasters as they are unfolding; in most of his clips from the Great South Road and its tributaries, though, he shows us the aftermath of human-made disasters. His scanner can lead him to car wrecks, but he inevitably arrives after the glass has shattered, after the wheels have stopped spinning. Mackley documents the rituals that follow disaster: ambulance officers feeding their vehicles prone bodies; cops muttering into transmitters and opening notebooks; transport workers with orange vests sweeping glass off the tarseal. He show us roads reopening, and oblivious traffic flowing over the site of another tragedy.

In 2015 Mackley uploaded a clip called 25 years of Geoff Mackley adventures in 2 minutes to his youtube channel. It shows footage from a dozen or so of the cameraman's adventures: there are volcanoes and storms and big waves. But Mackley's summary of his career excludes the hundreds of films he has made on the roads and berms of New Zealand. There are no smashed and smouldering cars, no bored-looking cops, no plastic cones.


In 1898 a Wellington businessman brought the first two cars into New Zealand. In 1906 Janet Meikle was driving to her farmhouse near Timaru when she rolled her eight horsepower car and became the first New Zealand victim of the internal combustion engine.

The O'Rorke family owned one of Auckland's first motor vehicles. George O'Rorke was a businessman, veteran member of parliament for Manukau, and a patron of Auckland's university and libraries. His son Eddie was a leading member of the city's horsing and hunting set, and by 1910 he had acquired a car and a chauffeur. But O'Rorke was not in his car when it sped over the Razorback hills stretch of the Great South Road, missed a bend at Bombay, and smashed into a ditch. The New Zealand Herald reported that O'Rorke's chauffeur had been taking four of his 'personal friends' for a 'spin'. The chauffeur was knocked out; his playmates were 'considerably shaken', but able to return to Auckland using older methods of transport. They caught a coach from Bombay to Drury, then a train north.

In 1921, when the government began to count, 69 New Zealanders were killed in motor accidents. By 1930 the death toll had more than tripled to 246. Newspapers ran photographs of buckled Morris Cowleys and Model T Fords submerged in hedges.

The road toll fell slightly during the Great Depression and greatly during World War Two, when hundreds of thousands of young men and women were overseas and petrol was rationed, before reviving in the 1950s and reaching a high of 843 in 1973. In the late '70s and the '80s the toll remained high, but in the last years of the century it began to fall, and by 2011 it had dropped below 300. Police and Ministry of Transport campaigns against drink driving and speeding, better quality cars, and the widening and smoothing of roads were all credited with slowing the slaughter. Since 2011, though, the road toll has begun to rise again.

The clip that Mackley calls Car versus tree, Papakura persons trapped shows black metal buckled against one of the row of ancient trunks that give Selwyn Oaks Retirement Village its name, and protect the village's residents from the Great South Road. The oaks mark the southern end of Takanini Strait, which runs for a couple of kilometres between factories and hardware stores and fast food joints, connecting Papakura with Manurewa. Because it is almost unmarred by bends or undulations, the Strait is a favourite of boy racers.

The car in Mackley's clip has been encircled by orange-vested men and women. Two fire engines and a police car sit with their engines running; their flashing lights make psychedelic patterns on the road's glossy deserted dancefloor. Ambulance officers stretcher a body - we do not know its gender, or its age, or even its injuries, because of distance and darkness - into their van.


In interviews Geoff Mackley emphasises his difference from ordinary people, his special mission. He defies the 'fleeing masses' and travels towards disasters; 'nothing else in life' could compare to the 'rush' he gets from his adventures. Besides his youtube channel, Mackley runs a website with the domain name The phrase 'Life is either an incredible adventure, or its [sic] nothing at all' is pasted across the site's homepage, above a photograph of Mackley facing a wall of lava. In his silver suit he looks like some astronaut set down an alien planet.

But it is hard to believe that Mackley gets much excitement from his journeys up and down the Great South Road in search of wrecks. The clips he has brought back from the road and its tributaries are filled with ennui rather than awe; they catalogue routine rather than extraordinary deaths. Violent death is a necessary condition of every functioning road network; it must be planned for rather than denied. Ambulances must evacuate the injured and dying efficiently from crash sites; police must complete rapid analyses of those sites; tow truck drivers must remove obstacles to traffic; firefighters must wash away slicked blood; the Ministry of Transport's workers must sweep the road clean of glass.

By showing us the routinisation and bureaucratisation of tragedy on our roads, Mackley tells us something important about our society. The dull and unpleasant footage he brings back from the Great South Road is more valuable than his famous clips from exotic locales.


The administrators of New Zealand's roads have to anticipate and analyse accidents and wrecks, injury and death. Every year the Ministry of Transport publishes a report into Motor Vehicle Crashes in New Zealand, in which the appalling details encountered by emergency workers - the whiplashed necks and glass-filled eyes and headless babies - are transmuted into data.

Land Transport New Zealand is the branch of the Ministry of Transport charged with monitoring traffic accidents. Like intra-Maoist polemics and electricians' manuals, Land Transport's reports and analyses teem with acronyms. Its 'Guide to the Treatment of Crash Locations' is only fifty pages long, but begins with a guide to abbreviations that runs to three double-columned pages. Sometimes one acronym breeds another: the guide to abbreviations explains that CAS stands for Crash Analysis System, then tells us that this system consists of various pieces of software and a collection of 'TCRs'. TCR, we soon learn, stands for Traffic Crash Report. Like the technical language they compress, the acronyms seclude us from the smashed dashboards and amputated limbs on our roads.
For the anonymous authors of Land Transport's documents, abstraction is the supreme aesthetic virtue. From report to report Land Transport's language becomes more anodyne, less evocative, as new terms and acronyms are minted and repeated. For years Land Transport used the vernacular phrase 'black spots' to describe stretches of road where accidents are especially frequent. Besides its literal meaning, the phrase has rich and ominous connotations. It reminds us of the fatal markings of the bubonic plague, of the scabrous 'black sites' where trade unionists refuse to work during strikes and lockouts. In 'Guide to the Treatment of Crash Locations' and other recent documents, though, Land Transport has substituted the bloodless term 'crash clusters' for 'black spots'. Land Transport's authors cannot do without 'crash',but they try to render the word abstract and painless, by defining it as a 'rare, random, multi-factor event'.


In 1840 the Anglican missionary Richard Taylor raised a basalt column beside a dirt road in Northland to commemorate his ten year-old son Arthur. Richard and Arthur had been riding toward Kerikeri when Arthur whipped his horse and the creature bolted. The boy fell from his saddle and got caught in his stirrups. Arthur's horse dragged him down the road for one hundred metres, kicking him repeatedly in the head. Arthur's Stone, as it has become known, is an ancestor of the thousands of memorials - crosses, wreaths, white bicycles, piles of toys and teddy bears - that have risen over the last quarter century beside New Zealand roads.

The first modern roadside memorials were created in 1990, when residents of the Bay of Plenty town of Katikati placed white crosses along a stretch of road where their kin and friends had been killed. Despite opposition from the Ministry of Transport, other communities began to imitate Katikati. Bruce Horrox, a volunteer firefighter, nailed together crosses in the basement of his Huntly home, then raised them at crash sites he attended on the Great South Road, aka Highway One, between Taupiri and Rangiriri. By the middle of '90s white crosses stood like strange plants along grass berms and gravel banks across New Zealand.

Memorials became increasingly baroque. Grieving parents left teddy bears or dolls where their children had been hit by cars; a father mourned his cyclist daughter by painting her last bike white, and attaching it to a fence; motorists crossing the Hauraki Plains were astonished by a cross made from empty beer bottles.

But the roadside crosses and relics act as warnings, as well as memorials. They tell motorists to slow before a bend, or change gear before a ridge runs down into a gully. When Abigail Fox and Welby Ings wrote about the memorials for New Zealand Geographic they remembered the crosses that early feminists sprayed onto city streets to mark sites where women had been raped, and the black crosses on pink triangles that activists of the 1980s painted on public toilets where gay men had been bashed.

The white crosses that stand beside many roads recall the decorations on the graves of New Zealand soldiers. The flowers laid beside roads remind us of the rituals of Anzac Day. There is an affinity, mourners seem to be saying, between the slaughter of war and the slaughter on the road, between the New Zealanders who fell on battlefields and those who die amidst the wreckage of cars.

For years the Ministry of Transport deployed its orange-vested workers against roadside memorials. Crosses were uprooted; flowers were swept into plastic bags. But the memorialists were stubborn. At Katikati they planted new crosses again and again. The Ministry of Transport now generally tolerates crosses, especially when they stand beside rural roads. More elaborate memorials still risk removal.

It is not hard to see why the Ministry of Transport was antagonised by roadside memorials. The administrators of New Zealand's roads seek to de-emphasise crashes and to turn their hideous details into statistics and acronyms; the creators of memorials insist on the significance of individual tragedies.


Mackley shot the clip Fatal Accident, Karaka, South Auckland in daylight, on Blackbridge Road, a rural feeder for Karaka Road, which in turns flows into the Great South Road near the edge of Auckland. A white Toyota Altezza has stopped in the middle of the road. The car's roof is missing, and its front seats have been lifted partway into the air. It is as though the car were an aeroplane, and its pilot had pressed a button marked EJECT.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Feasting again on the miseries of others! Totally trivial stream of words. Nothing new here. Focus on your family and your two lovely sons, but please, please stop telling them lies. They will hate you when they find out you have deceived them about guns. They are not telescopes. Such hypocrisy, writing about crashes but telling your kids such big fibs. No normal parent will do what you are doing.

6:36 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Au contraire, I found this a great essay! Not my cup of tea chasing disasters of this kind. The police and road people do good work despite their acronyms and the tendency towards banality. I think if the police hadn't caught me (at least twice) for drunk driving and speeding I would either be dead or I could have killed someone myself. This is a point people fail to realize. By their efforts (and it must be terrible to see these accidents and dead people (of all ages) the road toll seems to have been reduced. There were no seat belts in the 70s. I drove for so long without one I am still not used to wearing one. I notice now that people seem to drive to fast: far too fast, not realizing that various places on the road are at different times more dangerous.

This bloke I hadn't heard of. I recall getting a ride in a hurry in the 70s to photograph a fire. I had camera in the 70s and too shots of central Auckland. Some included the development of the motorway and road system that wiped out Grafton Gully which I recall walking up. It was beautiful, like a bush walk. And the motorway through Newton didn't exist.

It always seems a strange kind of person (or possibly someone who is rather psychotic in some way) who needs the kind of "rush" from late night car crashes or going into volcanoes. I think such people lack imagination. I can read a book and I am on an adventure and don't need to be where that place is. It also smacks of J G Ballard and his 'Crash'; albeit a great book, but was it necessary to write it?

Certainly he is an interesting person and clearly a talented film maker but I think I will leave it all aside. I prefer to avoid awful accidents.

I was in one big accident on the motorway overbridge in 1988 I think it was. I couldnt stop, someone had stopped on the Newmarket overbridge. I went into her car and this had a chain reaction causing a 10 car pile up. I don't think anyone was killed. I recall in those days there were still "traffic cops" separate from the Police and also the Auckland City Council had their own traffic cops as they were called, and the Ministry of Transport had theirs. At that accident two of these were arguing, I think it was the MOT versus the Auckland City Council.

I wasn't hurt. When I realized we were going to hit I got Vic to open his passenger door in case it buckled and we would be trapped in. Everything happened so fast as they say. Then it was bang bang bang as cars careened into each other. Someone was hurt and taken by an ambulance. We weren't all going at too high a speed. It was wet and I aquaplaned. The result for me was shock. After the accident I started going into a deepening of a kind of depression, or it was more like a kind of 'disconnection' that I was experiencing at the time.

Well, interesting essay, it reminds me of those I read by St. Clair McKelway (In "Reporting at Wit's End" about embezzlers, a black man who believed he was God, a N.Y. police man and others.), a "fire preventer"...and others. Very good essays.

12:29 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Yes, a car crash is a shocking experience, isn't it, RT? I put this draft chapter from the Great South Road book up here in incomplete form, but in the final version, which we're bringing out on the 28th of October*, I'm going into my experiences back in '99 and the various issues relating to my recovery from that crash.

*Ghost South Road by messrs Hamilton, Janman, and Powell is coming out alongside a big manuscript Paul Moon has given Brett that documents a journey down the Waikato River. So we'll have the road and the river covered! Paul is gearing up for a Great South Road based exhibition in May-June and a one-day festival on June the 10th at Nathan Homestead. How's your mss coming along?

Anon is as mad as a meataxe, I'm afraid.

12:52 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

By the way Richard I'd be keen to interview you sometime about the '88 accident. I've got a talk with someone who worked in one of the motorway crash teams back in those days going into the book. He remembers his job with considerable pleasure, despite the gore he regularly encountered. The motorway - the teams didn't distinguish between north and south, east and west motorways - was a sort of liminal zone for him, where his authority was unquestioned and where nobody could micromanage his work. He spoke about as a sort of frontier, and I thought of Ballard.

1:06 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Strange thing is up until I was about 44 I used to drive very fast, take huge risks, etc, not sure why. Sometimes I would time a move from an outer lane to an inner just to see if I could 'shave' off the other cars and exit...I would shoot straight through roundabouts and so on. Drunk, I even tail-gated the cops once, the overtook them and sped off, as it happened I knew the detective in the police car, so I got off that one! But one day I saw an accident with a car upside down on the motorway and for some reason, THAT gave me a big shock. After that I slowed down, also being caught by the police was good. I had to pay when I had littel money, but it helped me to think about the craziness of drinking and driving and driving too fast...

I knew you had an accident. Are you going to the PNZ Review Launch on Tuesday Night?

I like Paul Moon's books, I read one on cannibalism and have one (The Edges of Empire) on the 1850s on. He writes well.

Yes, there were Traffic Cops and the Police who were separate. Driving was different in the 70s but when they had the carless days the accident rate dropped dramatically as people also, realising that petrol was getting short, used to keep to the speed limits...It was a pleasure, for once to drive. Speed not only kills it slows things down overall.

More people are killed by motor cars that have ever been killed or injured by terrorists. "Terrorism" is moot in any case, who are the terrorists? And the British mostly just shrugged their the big issue of car and gang gun deaths and certain social issues are ignored while Trump etc rave on and achieve it is business is usual in Madland....

Interview o.k. I was meant to talk about the Railways and so on also!

12:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Re the MSS I am at the moment collating the posts. Some I cant 'energize' but that doesn't matter. I will look at all when I have them saved. Then I might mock something up to go inside, as thinking over what I have might incite a brainstorm.

Then I'll run it past you and Brett et al...... See how it works out. I never have too high hopes as such can be dashed....

Your project sounds interesting, especially as Paul Moon is doing the Waikato, as I say he writes well on history. Yours seems more visceral, direct. Surely with the data you have it could make quite a large tome? And there's to be a film also?

Regards, RT

1:09 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous Anonymous said...
Feasting again on the miseries of others! Totally trivial stream of words. Nothing new here. Focus on your family and your two lovely sons, but please, please stop telling them lies. They will hate you when they find out you have deceived them about guns. They are not telescopes. Such hypocrisy, writing about crashes but telling your kids such big fibs. No normal parent will do what you are doing."

Is this your Mr. Hyde crying out to Dr. Jekyll?!!

Your not "fibbing" are you? "Fib" I had forgotten about. A word I used or heard as a boy in the good old 50s when I was alive....

1:12 pm  

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