It's a penguin's world

As if working outdoors in the Deep South, in the middle of winter, wasn’t enough of a challenge, Beeby Construction also had rigorous environmental restraints to contend with in the course of building and installing DOC’s new Curio Bay viewing platform.   BY RACHEL MACDONALD

Beeby.jpgStanding at the top of the cliffs above Southland’s Curio Bay, you might be forgiven for feeling that the frigid wind trying to bowl you backwards and bending the scrubby trees at 45 degrees was blasting in from the edge of the world. In the colder months it howls across the Catlins, driving the rain horizontally before it and bearing that distinctive Antarctic nip.

Imagine, then, dangling a pre-built viewing platform over the edge of that cliff on a 20 tonne crane in such conditions, and trying to work out by eye how and where it might look best. It was something like hanging a picture in the dark, says Beeby Construction managing director Stephen Beeby, except chillier.

And it was happening like this because…?

“The Department of Conservation put out an attribute-weighted tender, worth about $200,000, to build and install a new penguin-viewing platform at Curio Bay,” says Beeby. “While we weren’t the cheapest price on the table, DOC liked our methodology, particularly when it came to how we intended to deal with certain key environmental issues.”

Curio Bay’s two key attractions are its 160-180 million-year-old fossilised forest, and its established population of New Zealand’s rare yellow-eyed penguin. Together, these phenomena draw more than 60,000 visitors a year to the coastline here, despite the less-than-temperate climate.

The forest, growing at a time when New Zealand was part of the eastern fringe of the massive continent of Gondwana, appears largely to have comprised low-canopy trees sheltering ferny undergrowth. Over 20,000 years, it was destroyed at least four times by massive floods of volcanic debris. Over millions of years, the remains became more deeply buried and impregnated with silica, eventually turning the wood to the fossil rocks we see today. In the last 10,000 years, as the Catlin coastline was formed, the sea washed away the layers of sandstone and clay, laying bare the remaining stumps and logs in a scene eerily akin to the mess left behind by modern forest clearance.

In the coastal reserve above the petrified forest lives a community of one of the rarest penguins in the world – the timid yellow-eyed penguin. A native to New Zealand, its total population nationwide is estimated to be between 6000 and 7000, and is constantly at threat from habitat erosion, the big feet of grazing stock, and the incursions of predators such as stoats, ferrets and dogs.

The DOC platform at Curio Bay allows the public to view the fossil forest, with a flight of steps down to the beach allowing them to get up close and personal with this important slice of history – although taking bits home is discouraged. It also provides a window on the penguin lifestyle. And these birds are seriously creatures of habit, says Beeby – they’re gone out to sea to feed first thing in the morning, but you could set your watch by their noisy afternoon return, he explains. 

DOC reviews the safety of its built structures every two years, and all platforms and bridges with a fall-height of 1.5 metres or more are also inspected every six years by an engineer. It had been deemed time for the structure at Curio Bay to be replaced.

 “The new facility – like the old one, a staggered series of three landings connected by steps – had been architecturally designed before we got involved,” says Beeby. “We then took those plans and pre-built the platforms at our Green Island, Dunedin workshop.”

The ability to do this, he says, was one reason the company won the job. This is because among the terms of the project contract was a number of hefty environmental protection requirements imposed by DOC.

“Among them, there was no tolerance for sawdust at the site, and disruption to the soil and vegetation had to be kept to a minimum. So we weren’t going to be able to sink temporary positioning supports for the structure once we got it down there,” says Beeby. “We also had to look after the penguins and make as little noise as possible. And progress photos of every step had to be sent up to DOC to document the process.”

Once built, the platforms were trucked south, accompanied by a 20-tonne crane and a 30KW generator. Getting the crane through the snow to Curio Bay was another challenge on its own, he says.

Once there, the first task was to remove the old structure, which had become fairly rickety.

 “Those first couple of days really brought home what a harsh part of the world this is,” he explains. “The wind was bitter and the waves were washing over the bottom step of the existing platform. And we had no cellphone coverage – if we had to check back with the office for anything, one of the guys had to head back to the motel to make the call.”

And then, to top it off, the team had to dangle the platforms over the edge of the cliff from the crane, and assess by eye how they were going to sit best, before marking out the locations of the holes for the supports in the undergrowth. From there, galvanised steel piles were used to stabilise the foundations. The timber platforms themselves were bolted with stainless steel bolts, and stainless steel handrails completed the picture.

“The only nails in the whole structure are the 40mm ones used to hold the decking down, says Beeby. “And the bolts were worth about twice what the timber was.”

He says that, overall, the Curio Bay penguin platform was an interesting endeavour for a company that tends to play more in concrete. Not easy, certainly, but interesting. 

Contractor Vol.32  No.5  June 2008
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