Not long after I transferred to the Wellington Transmission Centre from Gisborne, I was treated to a visit to the Somes Island quarantine station. No, I didn’t have some dreadful country ailment – I had skills that were scarce in the “big smoke.”
Not long before leaving Gisborne, I’d helped install a rural carrier telephone system at the remote settlement of Motu near Matawai. Outside the bigger centres in the 1970s, the telephone network was carried on these rural or open wire carrier systems, on wires strung from pole to pole on insulators just like power lines. Telephone circuits were multiplexed together (i.e. stacked) and sent on pairs of wires to the far end where they would be demultiplexed into individual trunk circuits for the local exchange.
Generally, each carrier system carried 12 circuits, but some were older technology. From memory (which is now decidedly flaky) the system I helped to install at Motu was a recycled STO-C 3 which carried only three telephone circuits.
On arrival in Wellington, I was looking forward to working on broadband systems of 960 circuits so was somewhat miffed to learn that one of my first trips into the field was to work on a dungery old rural carrier system. On the opposite side of the desk was obvious glee. At last! Someone on the station with recent hands-on experience who could maintain the last rural carrier system in the region.
At the time, Somes Island was still a fully functional quarantine station, used for agricultural and animal work. Its former roles as a prisoner of war camp during World War II and as a human quarantine station from the pioneering days were long past. The island had several permanent staff members, and its own step-by-step PABX system to allow calling between the houses and the mainland.
A new submarine power cable had been laid from the mainland, and the rural carrier system was connected to the old power cable to allow PABX trunks to be connected. An expedient solution, but the characteristics of a cable designed to operate at 230 volts and 50 Hz are far removed from those required for a system operating in the kilohertz range and at a much lower voltage.
For years, the staff at the Transmission Centre had developed bubonic plague, overnight cholera, 24-hour typhoid and many other mysterious illnesses as the maintenance rota brought the Somes Island rural carrier up for its annual maintenance check. Had I been the boss, I would have thought this made them eminently suitable for the job on a quarantine station, but it hadn’t worked that way.
On the appointed day we drove out to Petone wharf in one of the old brown Ford Falcon station wagons. It was raining steadily, cold, and a wind was up. Perfect day to be bobbing about in Wellington harbour in a tub. The gently sloping shore at Petone necessitates a long wharf at the end of which the official island launch was waiting for us. My worst nightmare had centred on a recycled government whale boat, so I was relieved to find a much bigger vessel than I had expected. The cabin was standing room only with all our test instruments, but at least we were out of the weather.
The skipper wasted no time and we set off in a straight line for the island, ploughing through the waves that were breaking over the bow. Fortunately, I’m a good sailor, but I would’ve enjoyed the trip more had I been able to see through the salt and spray on the cabin windows. Even the skipper found this to be an issue, and he frequently resorted to the storm window to see where we were going.
On arrival, I had been warned that we might have to go through quarantine procedures – whatever they were. Strip off and hose down on the beach? Much less, I’m glad to report. Walking through a shallow trough and an inspection of bags and instruments sufficed. They were more concerned about rats getting onto the island and killing off birds in the sanctuary.
The carrier system was in good condition and the maintenance was completed in a jiffy; we had plenty of time to enjoy the guided tour of part of the facilities before the launch came back for us.
But the cable. Oh, the cable. The frequency response of the old power cable was atrocious, and it was clear that it was coming toward the end of its life. Over time, the kinks and bends in the submarine part had allowed the conductors to be compressed and crimped. By the time an electron reached the far end it was so disorientated that it was in no fit state to do its work.
But we managed to bodge it. Rural carrier systems were quite robust and tolerant and, when we left, the terminal on the island was fair shrieking at its counterpart at Petone which in turn was shouting back. Call quality was better than before, and I could now start playing with newer toys like broadband systems.
I’d been quarantined for the day, and made a full recovery.