Island life

Norfolk Island is a holiday destination situated about 1400 kilometres northwest of Auckland and about 1100 kilometres from Australia’s Gold Coast. It was MALCOLM ABERNETHY’S destination for the Christmas break – a remote location, with the opportunity to lie in the sun and relax ... or not.

Norfolk.jpgNorfolk Island is the ideal location for relaxation away from it all, and during summer one can usually rely on it for good weather. Over Christmas and New Year just past, however, lying in the sun was far from possible.

Two days into the 14 scheduled for our holiday, a gale warning for the sea area around Norfolk was issued. So while New Zealand was experiencing a sunny and warm Christmas holiday, the tail of the cyclone sitting just off the Australian Gold Coast brought rain and 40 knot winds directly on to Norfolk Island and our hotel.

After seven days of gale force winds and daily rainfall in excess of 60mm, cabin fever had set in. The water storage tanks were overflowing and the road to Captain Cook’s memorial was closed, as were walking tracks, tours – in fact, any activity that included an outdoor element was cancelled. Flights to and from Australia were either cancelled or rescheduled and just a few flights operated from New Zealand. Accommodation was stretched as holiday makers seeking a subtropical holiday were stranded.

With little to do I thought I would visit some local contractors (there are only two civil construction contractors on Norfolk) and found Brendan Christian of BC Excavations willing to chat about contracting on the island.

Christian (34) established BC Excavation five years ago after working for DAS plant contractors in and around Sydney for eight years. On a visit home, he identified a need for an island-based contracting business and decided, along with his Australian born wife, to settle on Norfolk and raise a family.

Historically, contractors would come to Norfolk from New Zealand or Australia to construct roads, drainage, airport facilities and jetties. So Christian started his business by constructing private driveways and other minor works.

Outside contractors are required to use as many of the island’s resources, labour and materials as possible. So Christian positioned himself to take advantage of this requirement by providing both resources and labour support to off-shore contractors, and by filling the role of on-site project, construction and contracts manager on behalf of these contractors.

Naturally, Christian’s experience and abilities grew, as did his business. He now employs five staff and the company has a track record of quality construction for many of the island’s critical infrastructure components.

One of his first jobs was to manage the reconstruction of Mt Pitt Road, which provides access to the island’s highest point and carries high tourist traffic flows.

BC Excavations also provided resources and local advice to main contractor GeoTech Engineering of Melbourne for the construction and rehabilitation of the original convict-constructed jetty at Kingston. A demanding job that strengthened and extended the pier while still retaining the historic significance of the jetty. The project employed sheet piling and concrete work, and improved access for the lighters (long boats) and passenger access from the jetty.

While these big contracts were let to off shore contractors, Christian started thinking, ‘hey, I can do this for myself’. The government agreed and in 2007 let the contract for the reconstruction of Duncome Bay Road (leading to the Captain Cook memorial) to BC Excavations.

This is the first large job the company has undertaken as head contractor, and it appears to making an excellent job of it.

The biggest difficulty encountered by Christian in his contracting business is the supply of materials, as they all come by ship from either New Zealand or Australia. Plant in the form of trucks, excavators, compactors, etc are all brought to the island from New Zealand.

Large quantities of materials, including bitumen emulsions and bitumen, are sourced from New Zealand, while steel and concrete products generally originate from Australia.

Whatever the material or resource, they all require a long ordering lead time to ensure space on the ships, accounting for the travel time and, of course, calm weather for unloading.

When a ship arrives at Norfolk Island it anchors about one kilometre off shore at either Cascade Bay on the east coast or at Kingston on the south coast (the only locations where there are jetties). All materials are loaded from the ship onto lighters that transport goods to shore and vice versa. A precarious journey for the larger items and an occupation that is not for the faint hearted. Christian worked on the lighters before seeking the bright lights of Australia.

Regulatory requirements are not as severe as they are in New Zealand or Australia, but Brendan is seeing a significant increase in health and safety requirements on the island, and a greater importance on environmental issues.

However, quality does not appear to be a problem for BC Excavations, with many of the locals commenting on the excellent workmanship of the company’s projects both large and small.

Contractor Vol.32 No.1 February 2008
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