Ruby Farebrother is making an epic difference as a rock access technician in North Canterbury, where she has been moving mountains and re-opening roads following the Kaikoura earthquake.

She is working for Rock Control as part of the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery (NCTIR) project, which began after the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake rendered the state highway north of the town inaccessible.

“On a daily basis I’m rigging ropes, scaling them and drilling holes that support anchors for rock-fall fences,” Ruby said over the phone as she stood atop a slip overlooking the Kaikoura coastline, above SH1 – a site she is working on at the moment.

The trained paediatric physiotherapist moved to New Zealand from Bath, in England, with her boyfriend, Bob Tyler, a few weeks prior to the earthquake.

“We came to Kaikoura soon after the earthquake and we were working on rebuilding a dive shop when Bob met a guy from Rock Control and we found out about the company.”

Her passion for abseiling and the outdoors led her to apply for a contracting role at Rock Control.

She got the job and commenced Level 1 training at Heads Up Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) in Christchurch.

Having recently completed her IRATA Level 2 training, Ruby can rig ropes, make rescues, craft plans, create safer sites and supervise other contractors. She now has Level 3 in her sights, to become a general overseer and make final decisions.

Throughout our interview, Ruby was interrupted multiple times by “pesky goats” wandering across slips; a common and dangerous occurrence, she said, as they dislodge rocks that can fall onto the workers or road.

Part of her role is to advise other workers of safety risks, ranging from the rogue goats to weather changes. But her time is mainly spent working with her team to install rockfall safety fences and secure rock faces.

The state highway north of Kaikoura was reopened last Christmas after it was deemed safe – thanks to over 1,700 people from 350 organisations clearing around one million cubic metres of loose material, including 90 slips, and replacing numerous bridges.

“It was a major milestone for Kaikoura,” Ruby said.

“From a personal perspective I felt it was awesome when we could finally drive north from Kaikoura. It’s really connected the region again.

“The community are really positive and encouraging. Random people will come to us and thank us for what we’ve achieved – not just us working on rock control, but the whole team involved in the NCTIR project, working to re-open the road.

“Quite often people come up to our pre-starts and give us chocolates, hot cross buns and other things. Our job is a physical one, so we appreciate the carbs.

“We’ve driven up the coastline on State Highway 1 repeatedly and every time I can see the fences we’ve built. It makes you think ‘I’ve been there, and I’ve done that’. There’s a sense of achievement knowing that we’ve nailed it.

“One day I’d love to bring my kids back, even if they don’t care, and to drive the coast to show them,” she laughed.

Ruby and her boyfriend are aiming for residency and want to keep working on different sites around the country.

“Having done this work helps me feel more connected to New Zealand. I do feel a great sense of satisfaction. You’re not just doing it for your own personal gain – you are doing it for others.”

The project officially finishes at the end of 2020, but Ruby said they may need to continue maintenance work beyond that point – which she is happy to do after having such a great experience.

“I’ve been trained up to Level 2 by Heads Up IRATA and as I’ve progressed, I’ve taken on more responsibility and I’ve enjoyed that.

“The number one thing I love about the job is drilling.

“I enjoy the problem solving, using your brain to work out how to get a drill rig across a rock face full of trees stumps and boulders.

“I also enjoy helping others by using my rope skills and I really enjoy making sure we look at the safety side of things and the fine detail in our work.

“The view from where we work is sensational. You’ve got the whales, you’ve got the daily procession of dolphins, all to keep you occupied during downtime. Around 2,000 dolphins pass through almost every day in the summer.”

She said the job had produced many highlights, such as getting helicopter rides and the everchanging work environment.

“My favourite day at work is when we get sent to a new site. We sometimes get helicoptered in and you feel like SAS – a backpack full of rope, a new location, and you’ve got to find your way around.”

Ruby said she every member of her team treated her with respect and more women should join her in this rewarding industry.

“I’m the only woman in my team at the moment but I’ve worked alongside other female drillers… it’s not something women should avoid.

“As long as you’ve got brains, you don’t need the brawn. You can achieve just as much as the guys.”

Rock Control was highly commended at the 2019 Civil Contractors New Zealand Hirepool Construction Excellence Awards for its work as part of the NCTIR project, which also won the coveted international Institution of Civil Engineers’ 2019 People’s Choice Award for the world’s greatest civil engineering project.