World’s end through the lens

Dad went to the Kirwee field days and came home with this,” laughs Jonathon Lowe of SM Lowe Contracting in Karamea. He is standing in front of the company’s latest acquisition, a 6×4 Mercedes-Benz Arocs 2646 with MirrorCam – and the Full Monty dual-tablet dash. This is a spec’y-techy and proves that when you launch product on the global market, it can literally end up where the road ends.

New Zealand has several places that are the end of the road. Karamea on the South Island’s northwest coast is one of those. It has a Golden Bay feel and vibe both in terms of climate and community. It’s like the bay’s little sibling – Utopia in the middle of paradise. In fact, the two regions are actually linked by the Heaphy Track.

Like Golden Bay, Karamea is also walled in by a fortress of mountains on three sides, with the Tasman Sea rolling in on its northwest flank. The area’s ‘Taka Hill’ is the infamous Karamea Bluffs, a slow, winding, narrow ribbon of bitumen consuming an hour of the 90-minute journey north from Westport, the closest main centre. Like so many of our nation’s marvels of access engineering, the Bluffs are the only land-based ransportation link between Karamea and the rest of the nation. With their westerly exposure, keeping them open as Mother Nature toys with our tenacity is a year-round job.

1) Not being able to see the camera arm from the driver’s seat is an issue for Jonathon Lowe.

Selwyn Lowe founded SM Lowe Contracting in 2003, and is run today by his two sons Jonathon and Matthew, aka ‘Sharky’. With seasonal and contractual demand, they call on a group of part-time staff to make up the numbers needed. The company engages in almost anything that requires a truck and a digger… and a roller, and a loader. The current truck fleet comprises six trucks, five Mercedes-Benz and a Volvo FM in a mix of tractor and truck configurations.

“Yep, there’s a lot of rural and farm work, as well as civil and council work as needed,” says Jonathon. “We’re also called on by WestReef, the state highway contractor for the coast to assist, especially on the Bluffs when there’s a problem.” On the day we came over, there’d recently been a storm through, and the blue SM Lowe trucks and diggers were out in force, clearing debris.

We were there to see the mirror-cam Arocs mentioned above, a truck that everyone agreed was the first new truck in Karamea in three decades. “Yes, it probably is,” laughs Jonathon. “There was a brand-new R-model Mack, but it would be over 30 years ago, I reckon.”

The Arocs arrived last April and is used across the spectrum of work, from transporting to tipping and general cartage.

“It’s set up as a tractor at the moment. The turntable’s on a subframe, and we’re going to build a tipping deck for it. The semi we built ourselves, with a chassis from Christchurch and Hardox sides. We wanted something with a bit more power for transporting the 20-tonne diggers when we have to go a bit further afield.”

2) The Lowe machine has the ‘tablet dash’.

After a year of operation, Jonathon says succinctly: “Yeah… No, I probably wouldn’t spec another one with the cameras. You probably didn’t want to hear that,” he chuckles.

“Look, there are a few reasons. While there’s markings on the mirrors for distances to the back, there’s none for out wide. We do a lot of blind backing into narrow places and with the concave aspect, it’s just too hard to judge distance. Because you’re looking at an image, moving your head to increase the angle does nothing. What you see is what you’ve got.

“They also struggle to cope with rapidly changing light conditions. Absolute black, into bright, and filtered light flashing in the trees, they can take too long to adjust. A lot of our work is in the bush, and we face that all the time. And if the sun’s right in them, there’s just nothing, but then there’s not much with any mirror, I guess.

3) Not all of SM Lowe’s work is so well lit.

“A big one for me is not being able to see the cameras from the driver’s seat. We go into a lot of places where you’re in among the bush. With a mirror, you can tell if the branch is going to hit the bracket, but in this, you can’t. I was heading up to an area called The Arches the other day. You’re hard against the bank on one side, and the other is pushing through bush. I didn’t take this unit for that reason. They told us the cameras are spring-loaded and will bend back, but they don’t come around anywhere near enough.

“It has a semi-regular driver, but we also mix drivers. We were doing an ag-lime job into a shed the other day, and the guy on this jumped into another truck, and the first thing he said was it was a breath of fresh air [compared to MirrorCam].

“On motorway and highway running, I think it would be great. The distance measures to the rear, and the blind-spot visibility especially is brilliant. It tells you who is there in the places you can’t see.” Then he laughs. “I guess we just spend so much time in places you shouldn’t be in first place. It’s just not quite there for us yet.”