One year ago, 26 massive landslides destroyed State Highway 1 in the Far North’s Mangamuka Gorge.
Overnight the settlement of Mangamuka, about 30 kilometres south of Kaitāia, was transformed from a busy travellers’ stop to a quiet backwater on a dead-end road.
A $100 million highway repair project is underway in the gorge, but in the meantime, Mangamuka residents who need to get to Kaitāia – traditionally their main service town – face a long detour through Broadwood and around the west coast.
Local mum Patience said the closure had been tough on her young family.
“It’s been very hard on us to drive to town, even easy things like shopping because of the travel distance. It’s also been hard on our vehicles. I’ve had to pay over $1000 worth of repairs just to get my vehicle back on the road.”
The trip used to take about 25 minutes, but now took more than an hour each way on poor roads prone to slips and flooding, she said.
Tradespeople were reluctant to come out to her house because of the extra distance, and when they did, she had to pay their travel costs.
“It gets super expensive.”
Access to medical help for her children was, however, her biggest worry.
“To drive them to hospital is quite far. I’m just scared that one day they might really need to go and we might not make it.”
Life in Mangamuka centres around the dairy, the settlement’s social and commercial hub. But with no through traffic, owner Eliza Chapman-Kete said business was down by more than a third and it was a struggle to stay afloat.
“The closure of the gorge has affected our business terribly. Business has been so slow. There’s not a lot of people coming through.”
Despite the loss of income, she had not considered letting staff go.
“They’re our local staff and they need employment. I just keep them on and have faith that things are going to be okay.”
Selling lunches for workers in the gorge was helping to keep the store going, and she was looking forward to the arrival in spring of walkers on Te Araroa, the long-distance trail from Cape Rēinga to Bluff.
The trail passed through Mangamuka, with the dairy serving as an important supply point for hungry hikers.
In the meantime, Chapman-Kete was taking things one day at a time, and inviting anyone who did pass by to call in for groceries or one of her famous burgers.
Just down the road, Cyril Chapman ran Tautoko FM, New Zealand’s second-oldest iwi radio station.
Chapman said the biggest challenge for locals was the long detour to Kaitāia, their main service town and where many of their whānau lived. However, they have had plenty of time to get used to it.
When the gorge shut in August 2022 the road had been open for just 13 months after a previous year-long closure, also due to storm damage.
“This is the second time it’s happened to us so I think we’ve become used to it already. It’s almost a fact of life,” he said.
“We’ve had to deal with the issues of isolation, the issues of not having the regularity of cars going past, but it’s a space we’ve grown into really, and apart from the fact that we don’t have the same business in the community, there’s been some real positives.”
Those positives included the large number of locals who had found work rebuilding the highway, the chance to engage in the reconstruction plans, and the quiet that had descended on the town.
A year ago, all you could hear was trucks barrelling down the main street, he said.
One of the biggest challenges had been maintaining links with whānau in Kaitāia.
“But we’re a resilient community, we’re a hearty community, and we’re looking forward to the gorge reopening again,” Chapman said.
School caretaker Joseph Kire does not have to travel to Kaitāia for work, but the closure still affects him.
“It’s just been quiet. Really quiet. I’m missing the family up in Kaitāia, and it takes longer to go there. Our doctors are up there but you’ve got to go around the long way.”
But he reckoned the biggest downside was that it was harder to reach the best fishing spots, all of which were north of the gorge.
“They’ve got better fishing up there and more to choose from. You can fish down here but it’s not as good,” Kire said, with a chuckle.
Waka Kotahi’s highway reconstruction project was originally due for completion in May next year, but more rain and fresh slips mean the reopening is likely to be delayed until mid-2024.
In the meantime, Mangamuka residents are vowing to make the best of a bad situation – and to enjoy the quiet while it lasts.