A police roadblock in the wilds of the Waioeka Gorge is not something that motorists would anticipate. But that is what holidaymakers found during Labour Weekend.
Labour Weekend provides a welcome national holiday Monday for New Zealand workers jaded after the cold winter months. Intended to celebrate labour reforms and improved working conditions, the origin of the holiday weekend is usually forgotten in the rush to get away for a short break. Labour weekend is also a popular time for vege gardeners, providing an extra day to dig the vegetable plot, tweak the herb patch and trim the hedge ready for the growing season.
Our plans took us through the Waioeka Gorge en route to Gisborne on Monday October 25th, facing a steady stream of traffic heading back to North Island destinations from Gisborne where many had been attending the wine and food festival, participating in cycle races, or catching up with family and friends.
The steep mountainous country inland from Gisborne has been a formidable barrier to the development of the town, making access to the northern parts of the North Island a difficult and lengthy trip. Initially, settlers forged a “road” through to the Bay of Plenty via Motu, and a railway line was built as far as Motu before being abandoned in the 20th century.
By the early 1900s settlements inland at Rakauroa were linked by rough roads and the Waioeka Gorge became the favoured route for an inland highway. Rapid growth of road transport following WWII saw the mud and gravel road improved, and a number of lives were lost amongst the road crews who battled to keep the route open.
Driving from Gisborne, the State Highway 2 roadway passes over the steep Traffords Hill and then winds through the gorge toward Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty. The road is cut into rocky hillsides and crosses many watercourses prone to abrupt flooding in the heavy rain events which characterise the area.
As late as the 1970s the state highway through the gorge was subjected to regular closure by rockfalls and landslides and it wasn’t unusual to find waterfalls cascading down steep faces beside the road and running across the tarmac. One family member recalls a stormy night spent in a bus stuck in the gorge by landslides ahead and behind. Amidst the teeming rain and lightning flashes, the ominous sound of rocks falling from cliff faces kept them sleepless for most of the trying night.
Nowadays, successive road widening and slope stabilisation has made State Highway 2 an easy drive through the Waioeka Gorge, but it still gets closed by heavy rain events like the one that caused crop damage on the Poverty Bay flats a fortnight ago.
We were looking forward to a stop at one of the rest areas in the gorge, a route we have travelled for many years. Having planned ahead, we were armed with cold drinks and lip-smacking club sandwiches from the Hot Bread Shop Cafe in Opotiki.
On reaching the Manganuku Bridge (47 km from Opotiki, 97 km from Gisborne) we encountered the road block where traffic police were stopping vehicles and inviting the occupants to take a break at the adjacent camping spot. For just $7 a night, campers can stay overnight at this DoC administered camping ground and experience a night in the New Zealand bush.
We were directed down the narrow access road by flag-waving traffic monitors to find a large flat area covered by vehicles and tents, and were greeted by a festive air. The club sandwiches were immediately forgotten as the aroma of fried onions drifted across to us from the barbecue tent.
On arrival, each driver was given an information kit and a questionnaire to complete. We were invited to partake of free tea or coffee, a salad roll or the traditional favourite; a sausage wrapped in bread, snuggled up against fried onions and train smash. Donations would not be accepted, no matter how hard we tried.
Most of the travellers were heading back into the North Island having attended the wine and food festival in Gisborne, or participated in the cycle rally. While we sipped coffee and gnawed on our sossies in bread, we chatted to strangers and met old friends in the crowd.
Children were skipping stones in the creek or taking a paddle in the “refreshing” waters. Some sheltered from the sun under umbrellas while others took a look at the old bridge which is a feature of the camping area.
The wooden bridge, now closed, carried the state highway many years ago before it was realigned and a new bridge was built.
They had big spanners in them thar days.
The camping spot has toilets, barbecues and rubbish disposal facilities and the organisers were kept busy manually flushing the toilets when the water supply proved unable to keep up with the sudden influx of travellers.
We left Manganuku Bridge in good spirits, having experienced the positive side of traffic policing and renewed old friendships. A good effort by the New Zealand Police and the Eastern Bay Road Safety Committee.
The Opotiki and Districts 10,000 Club has a web page which describes the features of the Opotiki to Gisborne route through the Waioeka Gorge.
What happened to the club sandwiches? They were pounced upon as we surveyed the briney at Gisborne’s Waikanae Beach. But that is another story…