Mangawhai rogues reminisce on ‘the big dig’ anniversary

From left, Jim Wintle, Ian Cameron and Noel Foster were part of the big dig.

The big dig lasted four days.
The big dig lasted four days.

There were 40 machines at the dig.
There were 40 machines at the dig.

This aerial shows the northern entranced closed, stagnation in the estuary and the southern entrance funneling the flow.
This aerial shows the northern entranced closed, stagnation in the estuary and the southern entrance funneling the flow.

Thirty years ago, Mangawhai locals gathered at dawn in opposition to the regional council, Department of Conservation (DOC) and central government for a major excavation project to save their town. While widely criticised by authorities as foolish and futile at the time, their efforts are now recognised as having changed the history of Mangawhai for the better. Jim Wintle, Ian Cameron and Noel Foster remember …

Damage by successive storms came to a head in 1988 when cyclone Bola blew open a second entrance at the southern end of the Mangawhai estuary.

It weakened the flow through the northern entrance, causing it to close and stagnant waters to fester around the town.

“In 1990, I can remember the sight of a milk bottle floating in sewage around Picnic Bay,” Ian Cameron says.

Jim Wintle says Mangawhai was going to die because of it.

“People were fleeing, and you had to ask yourself if it was time to sell up,” he says.

A group of 30 farmers tried to repair the spit with shovels but were told to stop by DOC and the Rodney District Council.

It was the Council’s belief that nature should be allowed to take its course and attempting to shift sand was futile.

In 1991, a local icon “Torchy Jeffries” got his mates together to discuss what might be done.

“On Anniversary weekend, we went down to the beach to take a look. We were supposed to be inconspicuous, but we were a bunch of cockies in black boots and singlets,” Jim says.

“They came to me and asked if I would be spokesman for the project. They thought someone had to cop the flak, and it might as well be me.”

The group resolved to meet on the beach at the break of daylight on February 12 to excavate the spit.

As it turned out, they met on February 11 after the later date was leaked.

It was a big operation. A total of 40 tractors, scoops and bulldozers arrived on transporters from as far away as Dargaville, Wellsford and Waipu.

“At 6am there was a roar you could hear for miles as we drove in a convoy across the beach,” Jim recalls.

Unbeknown to the group, it was the start of four days work. On the first day, the northern opening was excavated to restore a 25-metre wide channel.

DOC sent an officer from Whangarei to put a stop to it.

But, no matter where the officer went, she was informed that the man in charge, Jim Wintle, was somewhere “over there” and eventually she gave up.

On day two, rocks were shifted near Sentinel Rock to increase water flow. On day three, sandbag walls were built around the southern entrance.

Kaipara Mayor Peter Brown put the call out to everyone in the county to bring urea bags to Mangawhai to fill up with sand.

“We got thousands,” Jim says.

Alas, despite their efforts the banks continued to burst and the northern entrance continued to close. It was soon realised a more permanent solution was needed.

“We held a meeting in a tin shed at the golf club. They changed my title from spokesman to chairman and we became the Mangawhai Harbour Restoration Society,” Jim says.

The group got a quote from an earthworks company in Auckland for $7 million to fix the spit and promptly decided to continue undertaking the work themselves.

“We begged, borrowed, scraped and stole parts to build a dredge. We brought half a barge from Ngunguru and a dredge pump from Whangarei.”

Ian and Noel Foster became two of six “dredge masters”, who worked two days each on a seven-day roster.

“There were no hydraulics – only hand-powered winches, so we ended up with muscles like elephants.”

Ultimately, a breakthrough was reached in the project when the restoration society realised that using pipi shell to build a wall was the way forward. Closing of the southern entrance was achieved in 1996.

“We did it despite the reports from engineers that said it couldn’t be done. The word ‘can’t’ didn’t exist in Mangawhai,” Jim says.

“Now I’m not sure we should have done it. Too many people have figured out how nice it is here.”

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