John Campbell tours Tairāwhiti's weather damaged SH35

Sun, Jan 22

East Coasters are cleaning up after last week's wild weather - along State highway 35 they're exhausted.

While roading contractors work tirelessly to keep it open, the famous road is in serious disrepair.

State Highway 35 runs for 330 kilometres, from Ōpōtiki in the northwest to Gisborne's southernmost point; none of the communities it passes through can be reached by any other road.

John Campbell hit the road in Tairāwhiti to see the dire situation first-hand.

"Some of what you see on the coast at present almost doesn't make sense," Campbell said.

Debris from a logged forest called "slash" have been washed down a river by the rain, hit a bridge and stopped until the next big storm while life in the region's communities tries to go on around it.

Slash builds up near a bridge.

Tina Ngata lives in Te Araroa, the cape's most eastern town - if the road's closed, that’s it.

"We've got people who can't even live in their own homes anymore because it's not safe; they literally can't get to them because the roads are dropping out," Ngata said.

The town is pretty, but like so much of State Highway 35, jammed between hills and sea - you can only get out if you fly.

Ngata works for Manaaki Matakaoa - they provide healthcare when storms are bad.

When the big storms hit, they lose roads, power, internet access and cell phone coverage.

Ngata and her team are dealing with a Covid outbreak among locals - some of them elderly.

Tina Ngata.

"And if they get really sick, and you need to get them to the hospital, and the road is closed, what do you do?" Campbell asked.

"If the road's closed, there's nothing we can do, particularly in weather like this," Ngata said.

State Highway 35 is a coastal hub of communities like Te Araroa - none of them can be reached by any other road.

Tokomaru Bay is quiet, so quiet you could sleep on the main street.

It should be buzzing in January with famous paua pies being munched and travellers stocking up at the Four Square - but there's no one here, and it's beginning to hurt.

Campbell asked Peter Cunningham, owner of Cafe 35, how his summer was going.

"It was going great until about two weeks ago when Cyclone Hale came in and took out our road again for the fourth time in two years," Cunningham said.

"Fourth time in two years?" Campbell said.

"Yes. 18 months, actually," Cunningham replied.

"So, we’re down 80% in trading, which is not a great thing," he said.

It was a similar story at the local Four Square.

"This is normally packed full of cars; there's normally campers parked up here as a thoroughfare to the north; it's pretty dire at the moment," Four Square Tokomaru Bay's Calum Sutherland said.

Calum Sutherland.

"It's hitting pretty hard on everyone in the community."

As Sutherland is being interviewed, the only customer the store has had since he started speaking drives out.

"Yeah. You almost wanna go and give him a hug and say 'thanks', don’t ya?" Sutherland said.

Campbell said that after driving the road for two days, "it's striking how much this state highway feels more like a rutted country track."

Weather happens, but many are asking if enough is being done to weatherproof it.

"It's a long stretch of road that's in a really bad state, and it's been that way for a long, long time. So, no, there isn't enough being done," Ngata said.

"It's the lifeline of the coast, and at the moment, it seems to be on life support," Cunningham said.


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