Weekend Wanderings #1: Exploring the backroads…

Most guide books tell you not to stray off the beaten track, well, I say do it, because you never know what you might find...


Feeling the urge to get outdoors and explore this Sunday afternoon I hopped in the 4x4 not knowing where I would end up or where we were going but with an open eyes and a clear mind, I was ready for anything.

I decided to head up State Highway 16 which meanders through quintessential ‘Kiwi’ town Kaukapakapa (try saying that fast 5 times with 2 weetbix in your mouth). A quaint little place with a school and a dairy, oh and the hairdressers and a pub, but seriously what more could you ask for? 

As soon as you make you way out of Kaukapakapa SH16 comes into its own not before a grueling uphill climb, the likes of which have killed many a gearbox and tired a cyclists legs alike, one of 3 big hill climbs on the route. Following along with the rugged hilly landscape of broken scrub & bush to the right and open farmland down to muddy waters of the Kaipara to the left SH16 takes in some spectacular scenery. Today it was overcast, verging on scattered showers and is the ideal weather for experiencing the rugged beauty that is the West Coast Highway. Dips and valleys, bridges crossing tidal streams, rolling farmland, random dwellings and a DIY Marae project, Alan Gibbs famous farm park, this road has it all and more. You come to a high pass as I have always liked to call it.

Highest point on the road you can see out on a good day right to the Kaipara Harbour heads. Today, murky and stirring you can make out showers dumping rain water over areas far off in the distance while behind you blue sky in the east reigns supreme. 

Rolled into Wellsford, a typical SH1 town. Shops line each side of the road selling all sorts of goods. The Caltex/McDonalds/Bakery building is synonymous with travelers and truckies alike as a pit stop on the run north or south. Wellsford has a charm to it, not a really inviting one showing off with fantastic views but one that thrives on the passing traffic. God only knows what would happen to this place if it was ever diverted of its much needed wheel traffic. It has a Subway so I guess all things are not to dismal in this rural town.

Driving back down the East Coast now towards home and you cant help but notice the increase in traffic. A sure sign we are on the well beaten path to Auckland. Enter Dome Valley, a notorious stretch of road where many lives have come to an end due to human error behind the wheel. Always get an eerie feeling driving through this low valley pass with towering dense bush surrounding you, white crosses and flowers littering the road side, some abandoned years ago. 

The drop into Warkworth is quite literal off the ‘Top o the Dome’ passing pink sheep at the local ‘Sheepworld’ tourist attraction. Warkworth. Lovely little riverside town, reminds me of something you would find in the UK but with a Kiwi twist. The motorway and the price of living in Auckland has forced many out to towns like Warkworth and Matakana in the last decade which has seen dramatic developments in the town and with subdivisions around the area take place. Not so the quiet little town I used to come up to feed the ducks at with my folks in childhood. 

The Honey Centre is one stop on many travelers lists to make as they head north but Im turning the other way into the road opposite to go visit what I now know as the ‘Warkworth Communication Satellite Earth Station’. Before I just called it the spy base.

This telecommunications facility just south of Warkworth was and has been a major part in all of New Zealands outside communications with the world. Built in 1971, chosen for its solid ground and weathered isolation and proximity to Auckland, the Satellite station was the first to beam live links to and from the outside world. Live TV from overseas was here!

The station still handles most international calls made in and out of NZ and is operated by Telecom. There used to be a museum of sorts here that you could come visit (Back before the days of the internet when live international calls and TV were AMAZING and we didn’t have to use smoke signals anymore) which I really loved as a kid but now its closed. The road to the station worn and tatty. The 70’s style buildings which (I suppose) house all the telecommunications equipment look like they have come off the set of ‘Lost’. It looks like a Dharma Station! One of the big original satellite dishes was taken down a few years ago. You can see more here: http://tvnz.co.nz/content/1904893/425827.xhtml

Was quite an eerie feeling. To be alone, with these hulks of engineering and technology. Humming away, silent beasts processing immeasurable amounts of information. Alone. In the middle of no where. I walked along the road for some ways, Silence apart from the hum of the generators and buildings. It almost felt you were the last person left alive. Pink Floyd’s epic ‘Welcome to the Machine’ from the Animals album (which incidentally is from 1977) was playing constantly, loud and clear in my head the whole time I was there! For those not familiar with the track, have a listen http://youtu.be/StNNATb5IvU (This is Roger Waters solo live version, since he is the primary genius behind this amazing band)

Moving on from this strange experience (one that I HIGHLY recommend you try out along with going to The Honey Centre across the road) my travels then took me to another ‘off the beaten track’ track…literally. Cowan Bay Road is a little known road that cuts through into the back head of the Mahurangi Harbour. Along this long and winding dusty road you can find all sorts of sunning views across the green high rolling sheep covered pastures to blue waters of the Pacific with small flotillas of yachts berthed in any of the nooks and crannies of inlets that make up the mighty Mahurangi.

A stunning long drive through some immense canopies of native kauri bush this was a well worth detour if you want to explore and see where some other intrepid people live. Some nice houses and some really quirky and eccentric cottages line this sparsely populated road. Long live the humble dusty metal roads!

Back on the tar seal and slow drive back to civilization has begun. Traffic becomes more dense, passing lanes make a frequent appearance and before you know it you are driving through 2 tunnels on a dual lane motorway with a sign telling you Auckland is 40 odd kms away. Its too soon. Take me back….

…more to come another day. 

In the words of Louis Armstrong…What a Wonderful World. Indeed. 

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