Thursday, June 1, 2023

Notes on a road trip to the Far North

My wife and I recently returned from a 3000km road trip to the Far North via Taranaki. Here are some of the things we discovered (or in some cases, rediscovered):

■ New Plymouth has a great craft beer bar called Shining Peak (no prizes for guessing what inspired the name). On a vile Wednesday evening when sane people would have been at home, the place was humming. The beer was excellent, the staff were friendly and efficient and the convivial atmosphere reminded me of a good English pub. The food looked good too, though we didn’t eat there. Yet another reason to like one of New Zealand’s most appealing cities.

■ New Zealand has an extremely fragile roading system. Well, we all knew that, but it has never been more acutely apparent. The night before we were to drive through the Awakino Gorge to the Waikato on SH3, we learned that the road was closed after a section of it fell into the river. That forced us to backtrack from New Plymouth to Stratford and take the aptly named Forgotten World Highway through Whangamomona and Taumarunui.

■ New Zealand must hold some sort of world record for the time required to clear roads after serious accidents. Before we even got to Stratford, we found ourselves stuck in a tailback stretching several kilometres following a crash involving a logging truck and an ambulance. The accident happened at 5.20am. We joined the queue at 9.10am. Nothing was happening. It wasn’t until 10 o’clock that a mobile crane headed past us to the crash scene, presumably to move the logging truck. Why the delay? This is a major state highway; re-opening it after a crash should be treated as a matter of urgency. Meanwhile, the NZTA’s website was advising travellers to delay their journey or go the long way around Mt Taranaki on the Surf Highway – not very helpful when we were already en route and didn’t want to risk taking a two-hour detour around the mountain only to then learn the road had been cleared five minutes after we left, which Sod’s Law suggests was bound to happen. At 10.30, more than five hours after the accident, a traffic control truck moved slowly along the line of waiting vehicles with the news that we still faced an indeterminate delay. No explanation why. The guy in the truck was sympathetic but didn't appear to know any more than we did. At that point, everyone turned around and dispersed. Most headed back toward New Plymouth, but we found a way around the crash site using rural backroads and took less than 15 minutes to get back on track. We’d probably still be stuck there if it wasn’t for Google Maps. The incident not only confirmed my sceptical view of the NZTA’s traffic management expertise, but also raised questions in my mind about the role of the police serious crash unit. There was a time when the main priority after a crash – that is, once ambulances and firefighters had done their vital work – was to get traffic flowing again. Now accident scenes seem to be frozen until the serious crash unit arrives (however long that takes) and completes whatever it is that serious crash units do. In the meantime traffic backs up, people miss vital appointments and tempers get frayed. The Wairarapa Times-Age this morning reports a similar incident yesterday: SH2 over the Remutaka Hill was closed from 7am till 11.45 am – the peak morning period for commuters to Wellington – while police investigated a fatal crash scene. The NZTA lamely suggested motorists take the Saddle road via Woodville, a journey of an extra three hours. Is this another example of the cult of box-ticking, form-filling managerialism that the police seem to have succumbed to, and which prioritises protocols and process over people? I suspect it is. There must be a point at which any benefit derived from time-consuming crash investigations is outweighed by the disruption and inconvenience these investigations cause to thousands of people. Anyway, in the event, what should have been a three-hour journey from New Plymouth to Raglan ended up taking eight hours.  The scenery was nice, though – at least, when we could see through the rain.

The lovely settlers' church at Awhitu. Don't tell anyone from Auckland.

■ Awhitu Peninsula, on the southern side of the entrance to Manukau Harbour, is a lovely and largely unknown corner of New Zealand. The views are spectacular and it’s unexpectedly wild in places. After a lifetime of travelling on remote roads throughout the country, it was the first time I’ve had a deer run across the road immediately in front of me (this in a deep, bush-clad gully). I had to dodge a few pheasants too. Please don’t tell anyone about this charming place. If Aucklanders discover it, it’ll be stuffed.

■ Speaking of views, it’s hard to suppress a gasp when Hokianga Harbour reveals itself as you crest the hill approaching it from the south on SH12.  It’s one of the most spectacular vistas in the country. There’s now a roadside picnic area so you can pull off and enjoy the scenery at your leisure, which I don’t remember being there last time we passed through.


The view over Hokianga Harbour. The mysterious blonde eating her lunch in the foreground inexplicably turned up everywhere I stopped.

■ Don’t assume that just because the website of the popular Opononi pub says it’s open every day from 11am till late, it actually will be. When I tried to book a table for dinner, thinking the restaurant might be busy on a Sunday night, I was told they closed at six. The staff were all young mums, the lady behind the bar explained, and they liked to be home in the evening with their kids. Fair enough; I heartily approve of families coming first, and fortunately there was a fish and chip shop a few doors away, so we weren’t going to starve. But …

■ Don’t assume either that when the bloke who runs the Opononi fish and chip shop says they close at seven, they actually do. We were fortunate to get our order in early, because he made a spur of the moment decision to shut at six. Tough luck for anyone who arrived later. Lesson: they do things differently in Opononi. Nice fish and chips though.

■ Speaking of fish, don’t assume it’s cooked fresh from the sea at the Whangaroa Harbour Sports Fishing Club’s cafĂ©. Some of the best fishing grounds in the world lie just offshore but the only fish on the menu was frozen dory (not john dory, but the inferior oreo type) which I suspect was caught by an industrial trawler hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres away. Zane Grey would not have approved. The staff were friendly though, and we had a great motel room at Whangaroa, with a glorious view over the harbour. (We stayed in motels all along the way and there wasn’t a dud among them.)


The view from our motel at Whangaroa.

■ Everywhere we went we were confronted by the ravages of Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle and miscellaneous other recent adverse weather events; even the walking track to the Cape Reinga lighthouse was closed. The bad weather wasn’t over, either. We repeatedly struck freakishly violent squalls with rain so intense that I almost had to pull over and stop (nothing to do with the Hunga-Tonga eruption, you understand; the experts insist it’s all down to long-term climate change). Of course damaged roads can’t be helped, and we just had to be patient at the many places where traffic was held up by repair work. Less understandable, and infinitely less tolerable, was the number of times we were slowed or brought to a complete halt where nothing was happening. Twice we joined a line of vehicles following a traffic control truck at a snail’s pace over a section of road where no work was in progress and there seemed no reason for the ritual procession, other than that the men in the truck were bored and needed something to do. In other places 30kmh speed limits were imposed where there wasn’t a road worker in sight or a piece of machinery operating. Even where work was in progress, the number of vehicles actually fixing the road was invariably greatly exceeded by traffic control trucks doing nothing except ostentatiously parading back and forth with their flashing lights. I’m reluctant to use pejorative terms such as loafers and parasites, but that’s how I’ve come to view the traffic control enforcers in their hi-vis vests and ubiquitous shiny white trucks. I suspect they’ve become the most hated occupational group in the country. (The other day I saw a traffic control vehicle displaying the brand name Men at Work. Whoever named the company has a fine sense of irony.)

■ In an ideal world, every New Zealander would visit the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi. I defy anyone with an open mind to spend time in the two impressive museums there and not come away with a better understanding of Maori grievances and of our highly nuanced, 50-shades-of-grey history. And no, I’ve not suddenly gone woke. Every time I drive anywhere in New Zealand through magnificent landscapes once occupied by Maori but now controlled by Pakeha - land that was once theirs but now is not - I get a glimmer of insight into why many people of Maori descent feel aggrieved. We are all captives of our complicated history and the country’s future largely depends on whether (and how) we can resolve tensions and contradictions arising from past events that can’t be retrospectively wished away, no matter how much we might like to.

■ I’ve never quite been sure about the late artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who’s best known in New Zealand for the famous public dunny he designed in Kawakawa. Part of me always suspected he was, as much as anything, an accomplished self-publicist with fawning, impressionable admirers in all the right circles. But the Hundertwasser Art Centre in Whangarei is magnificently eccentric – a wonky delight, and a good reason to visit a city that otherwise doesn’t seem to have much to commend it. It’s hard to wander around the building without (a) smiling and (b) marvelling at the work that went into it. A documentary about Hundertwasser reveals a man of prodigious energy, imagination and creativity – which is not to say he didn’t also have a talent for bullshit. 


The delightfully wonky Hundertwasser Art Centre.

■ There’s a great wine shop in the main street of Cambridge with a range of imported wines as good as any you’ll see in the big cities. Not cheap, but obviously there are people in affluent Cambridge who can afford them.

■ There are places where history feels very close. One such place is Ruapekapeka, on a hilltop south of Kawakawa – site of an historic battle in 1846 between 1600 British troops and 400 Ngapuhi and Ngati Hine warriors led by the chief Kawiti. The Maori defenders surprised the overwhelmingly larger British force by successfully withstanding a prolonged bombardment and siege through the ingenious design of their fortifications. One British officer called the stockade a model of engineering. At Ruapekapeka you can wander among the defensive earthworks and look down into the dugouts where the defenders sheltered from enemy fire (and from which Ruapekapeka, meaning bat’s nest, gets its name). The battle ended with the Maori withdrawing, but contrary to British propaganda, it was a hollow victory for the imperial power. Other countries would proudly celebrate such sites, but New Zealand seems strangely reluctant to honour its rich and unique history. It’s obvious that money has been spent enhancing the entrance to Ruapekapeka, yet you could still drive past it and not realise it’s there; it was only a road sign saying Monument Rd that made me stop and look around before realising I’d found the place. Most of the signs identifying the site seem to have been ingeniously concealed behind trees. Much the same is true of the important battle site at Rangiriri, just off SH1 north of Huntly. It’s at the end of a dead-end street without a parking area. There’s an information board, but the sign indicating that this is where a decisive battle was fought in 1863 is obscured behind a scruffy shrub, and the overgrown path leading up a small hill to the Maori redoubt is barely visible. We could and should do a lot better.


Ruapekapeka, where history feels very close.

■ The Auckland Effect is my term for the steadily widening perimeter around Auckland where you can see the conspicuous imprint of Auckland wealth. Over the decades the AE has inexorably spread up the east coast of Northland, though it’s less obvious on the west side. You can see it also extending its tentacles down into the Waikato and over into the Bay of Plenty. It’s evident mainly in the extraordinary proliferation of ultra-expensive houses, many of which had drawn curtains, indicating they’re used as holiday homes. I found myself idly wondering who owns all these fabulously opulent residences with million-dollar views. How and when did New Zealand produce so many extremely rich people? The Auckland Effect is the ultimate proof that the egalitarian country I grew up in has irrevocably passed into history.

Overall impressions: New Zealand may be going to the pack in multiple ways. Its infrastructure is collapsing, the economy is sick, the education system has been ruinously contaminated by extremist ideology (even maths is now apparently treated as an expression of white privilege) and the deranged culture wars are raging to the point where democracy itself is at risk. But physically it’s still a beautiful country - no one can change that - and the people are friendly and good-hearted. They deserve far better from those who purport to represent them.


 As far as you can go without getting very wet: me at Cape Maria van Diemen.





Mark Wahlberg said...

The Len lye museum in New Plymouth and the "The delightfully wonky Hundertwasser Art Centre" in Whangarei are reason enough to endue traveling 3000k's on NZ roads which have the ability to unlock car doors and change radio stations in a blink of an eye.

In this part of the Southern Hawkes Bay traffic lights controlling one way systems on the Main Highway have been the norm for several months now. Hundreds if not thousands of red cones direct traffic, while the absence of human activity suggests the road gangs are enjoying extended smoko's.

I used to enjoy road trips, but that was before the highway system was upgraded and traffic police and road gangs weren't waiting to ambush the unsuspecting motorist.

Gary Peters said...

It wasn't called "Godzown" for nothing.

I love New Zealand and especially the Hokianga harbour but in many parts and many times now it can be a very scary place.

As young thugs brazenly emulate what they see on TikTok safe in the knowledge that any firm response will be labeled as racist and the bus ticket produced, elderly citizens who's taxes paid for the infrastructure we use today see their legacy being eroded daily by a group of useless thugs called "government mps".

God defend New Zealand because it seems we are incapable of doing it.

Michael S said...

Karl, a fantastic article and an interesting read. Indeed Hokianga Harbour and New Plymouth are special places. Totally agree with your summary about the ruinous curriculum and woke ideologues on one hand, versus the stunningly glorious scenery. Every bend in the road produces another gorgeous vista. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Hundertwasser designed a stunning recycling centre for the refuse of Vienna. It is on the outskirts and provides free heating for the residents of Vienna Austria his homeland. Fawning self publicist indeed .. not. Should have utilized his brilliance here , in NZ a country which he loved and where he spent 6 mths of each year.

Doug Longmire said...

New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful country, with absolutely glorious scenery.
You account is excellent Karl. You portray the good, the bad and (a bit of) the ugly.