The precarious state of Te Tara-O-te-ika-a-Māui (Coromandel Peninsula)’s road network has farmers in the region preparing to be isolated for weeks, should the network fail entirely in another weather event.
The highest profile blow to the region’s access came after Cyclone Hale knocked out State Highway 25A between the west coast at Pārawāi -Thames, through to the east coast near Pauanui.
That event has left the vital highway shut for at least a year, with an estimated $50 million repair bill as engineers grapple with repair options in difficult, slip-prone bush country.
Waka Kotahi regional manager Jo Wilton described the slip as longer than a rugby field, and engineers are exploring repair options, with a drilling rig taking bore samples to determine ground stability prior to repair work.
“The options are very simple. It’s either retain, which we can do; bridge – we have done lots of bridges in this country; or a build a bypass around. It’s just figuring out which one is the safest method to fix this large hole.”
But Federated Farmers Hauraki-Coromandel president Robert Craw, who farms at Manaia 12km south of Coromandel township, said there are multiple issues around Te Tara-o-te-ika-a-Māui’s network that farmers, growers and businesses are now bearing the cost of.
“The 309 road (south of Whitianga to south of Coromandel) is now the main arterial route and it would not take a lot for it to go out,” Craw said.
“North of Coromandel township it is an absolute mess and there is no quick fix there. It will take a long time to stabilise the road.”
Craw said locals are very concerned about the state of the Pārawāi-Thames road near what is known as the Coromandel Hill, which was looking increasingly unstable.
“If that goes and takes the road it means the 309-route option is gone, so the only way out is via Matarangi-Whitianga-Whangamata and Waihi.”
The Tapu-Coroglen road, a last-resort east-west link, is also out due to a major slip midway.
Meantime, the road up the eastern flank of Te Tara-o-te-ika-a-Māui hangs on by a thread of tar seal, with the route between Whangamata north to Whitianga down to one lane as contractors desperately try to stabilise a slip.
Traffic snarls at the start and end of weekends around the western Thames highway are now common as bach owners have to take the long way around to get to popular spots like Hahei and Pauanui on the east coast.
But for farmers the challenges are now lengthy hauls to get stock out, with some routes taking four hours rather than two.
Craw said transport rates have been difficult to pin down, but are generally double normal costs.
The annual weaner fair was shifted to Paeroa this year rather than its usual Colville yard location on the east coast, with many stock bought out in smaller trucks on account of roading difficulties.
Whenuakite kiwifruit grower Andrew Hill said difficulty accessing his orchard means trucks now have to divert up the western coast ofTe Tara-o-te-ika-a-Māui, across the top and back down, in a trip that has doubled the cost of moving this year’s crop.
“We had looked at using lighter trucks, but the economics of that is not good either.
“We are hopeful that in a month the Whangamata-Whitianga road will be back to taking normal trucks. It is a problem, but it is surmountable and we have not had it as hard as some.”
He said the upside is that this year’s crop, which included 10ha of RubyRed and 22ha of SunGold, has been an exceptionally good one.
Robert Craw and local farmers have been working on logistics and plans should the Pārāwai-Thames road fail and the district be entirely cut off. This includes airstrip identification and strategic dumpsites for supplies and has come from lessons learnt last time, he said.
His biggest concern is communications, with cell phone towers limited to about seven hours of battery life.
“We can pretty much get by up here without most things, except comms.”
Thames Coromandel District Council group manager Bruce Hinson said the 309 highway is holding up surprisingly well despite the increased traffic volume, while work proceeds on the damaged Tapu-Coroglen route.
He said the council is investigating how the district’s roads could be made more resilient in the face of continuing weather events and the council is partnering with Waka Kotahi on a study project.
“The climate is changing and that is taking the need for this work to the next level,” Hinson said.