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Blowing Things Up: by Bill McLeod

17/09/2023 8:53 AM | Bob McMillan (Administrator)

My first recollection of the power of explosives was when I was doing National Service in Waiouru . The instructors placed a helmet over a thunder flash, an explosive device designed to simulate a hand grenade or a shell burst. The thunder flash exploded, the helmet was launched into the air. It went up and up to an unbelievable height. I was stunned at the power of the explosive. 

My next experience was when I was working in Westport. My boss, Don Bell, came down from Nelson to say he was organizing an explosives course for rangers involved in track construction in remote areas. He felt that this was a skill that was underused for this purpose. I was seriously impressed. About six of us from around his district went to Akaroa where Labour Department specialists instructed us in the classroom and in the field on how to blow stuff up. We did a couple of exercises then Pete Lowen and I were given the task of removing an elm tree along a fenceline. We loaded a generous amount of power gel , a dynamite equivalent, in cavities we excavated under the tree. The primers were Metabel which were used for initiating ANFO,  an explosive often used in quarries. We used det cord to a primer ignited by fuse. At the explosion, the elm came out of the ground like a Polaris missile, launched straight up in the air. It flew up a very impressive distance then came back to earth with a thump. Great fun. Then we were tasked with setting charges against a brick constructed bunker. At the blast a disappointingly small hole was made in the wall. Clearly experience was needed to judge how much charge was needed for each job. 

Back to Westport with my new found knowledge. Was invited to a demonstration explosion done by a local cockie. He wanted to dig a pond and decided to try explosives. It was definitely an experiment , no one really knew what the result would be. It was most unimpressive. A big shower of mud was blown up in the air but it all came down from where it started from so all that was achieved was it made it a bit easier for an excavator to do the job at a later date. Then Don supplied me with a Pionjar rock drill. Now we could really shift some rock. We were making a track to Cape Foulwind seal colony and to get a good grade we had to cut through solid rock in places. I used the rock drill to make holes in the rock which I would load with explosive. I would make a few holes at strategic points just to break the rock up. I would station some of our workers along the track to make sure that sightseers would not be caught in the blasts. The system worked well. The rock would be broken enough for the workers to create a good grade. I used fuse for all this work. The Assistant Commissioner came down to see what we were up to with the track. I think he was a bit aghast at our procedure especially when I told him I had actually had some seal colony visitors help with the rock drilling, explosive setting and I actually had one keen soul light the fuse with me. On reflection, I changed some of my protocols. Another use for blasting was to put direction signs on tracks that had been cut in the old days. Often they were called pick and shovel tracks but some of them must have involved blasting. Some direction posts had to be placed into solid rock. I would drill the holes , load the explosive, then plug the holes. My troops thought it was a great opportunity to launch boulders into the air. They would roll the biggest boulder they could find onto the loaded hole. When the blast went off the boulder would fly up into the air to the vast enjoyment of the troops. 

From time to time I had to remove specially dangerous trees. Sometimes they were half rotten with heavy hanging limbs which are dangerous to work on with a chainsaw. I used a fence post gudgeon auger bit to bore a hole into the tree. This left a hole the perfect size for loading Metabel primers, just shaped plastic explosive, into the hole. Because the explosive was so fast you didn’t have to be so fussy with the stemming, plugging the hole. The technique was fast and safer than a saw. I had to do a big birch hanging over the Denniston Bridle Track one day. A large slip had come down leaving a big tree precariously lodged above the track. Got the troops into position to stop anyone approaching the site. Even getting to the tree was a mission and I was apprehensive as I bored the holes. Loaded the Metabel, set the fuse and turned it loose. The result was spectacular . Shattered the tree at the right place and the whole lot came thundering down the slip face.

My last exploit on the coast was when the Sergeant at Westport police station phoned me to say that a hippie had pushed his derelict station wagon off a cliff up the Buller river. The car was lodged on the river bank. Every time someone went past they would report the wreck as a crash and the police would have to check it out. They were getting sick of that and could I do something about it as it was in the Buller scenic reserve. I said No worries, I’ll blow it up. The next day a reporter from the Westport News came to my office and said I believe you are going to blow up a car in the Buller Gorge. I hastily said No , that was only a figure of speech, I was just going to get rid of it. When I judged it safe, publicity wise, I took some of my senior troops with me and we made our way around to the crash site. We had an axe, big wrecking bars and my explosive kit. We used the axe and bars to cut the roof in half crosswise. Then as much of the floor pan as we could reach. Finally we had the chassis rails exposed. I loaded C4 in an offset opposed pattern on the chassis rails. I wanted one of my foremen to become more familiar with using explosives so after I checked the placement of the charge, the det cord, the primer, and the fuse I went to a safe place and waited for Paul to light the fuse. I waited and waited. Finally I decided to have a peek at what the holdup was. Just as I stuck my head around my cover position the charge exploded. A piece of metal came whizzing past at warp speed. It missed me. Went over to the wreck site and found that the charges had severed the chassis as I had planned. This enabled us to roll and lever the major chunks of the car into the river. Possibly not the most environmentally friendly thing to do but the only practical solution in the circumstances. There was no public fuss, the wreck just disappeared. 

I really enjoyed blowing stuff up.

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