Bypass leaves Ngaruawahia at crossroads

 Carless days: Ngaruawahia is quieter since the bypass went through but it seems to suit the place.
Carless days: Ngaruawahia is quieter since the bypass went through but it seems to suit the place.

The new section of the expressway is a clever piece of road. She's about the best there is. She will no doubt save lives. She rewards her passengers with about eight minutes each time they travel along her between Hamilton and Taupiri. She carves through the land like there was no before and you drive along thinking, Ngaruawahia is an old song you can't put a tune to anymore. 

Before she opened on December 14, there were around 17,000 vehicles passing through Ngaruawahia because that's where the track was beaten. The odd one of you stopped, but most didn't. The shops seemed to be hooded under permanent shade and the roller doors roared out, like stepping inside them might swallow you whole. Better to wait till Pokeno for an icecream stop, where it's just a nip off the highway then back on the road. 

Now, Ngaruawahia stays the same and you're not sure you'll go. It's a long way off, it's a choice, it's a trip. 

The sun has not forgotten it. 

Kids travel bare foot on its hot streets. They kick along on scooters and drop them in the doorway of Hiway 1 Dairy where they've come to buy a pocketful of lollies and an icecream that has melted before it's been paid for. 

Two girls push prams inside and no one can move. Hold this! Friends manage the $2.90 scoops and stand stranded outside, drowning in goody gum drops as the babies are maneuvered back out. Ice creams become the subject of intense drama, Quick, it's dripping! while the babies sleep, sedated by volcanic heat. 

They are 16 and 19 year-old mums, flanked by friends of all ages. Born and bred Ngaruawahia - yip! - proud to be - yip! - and everyone who lives on these streets is called family to them. People who pass are introduced as sisters, or the girlfriends of their brothers, or the sisters of the girlfriends of their brothers. They share their icecreams and rock each other's babies and finish each other's sentences and soon it's hard to tell who is who, they all seem so pretty and young and old and happy and sad.   

Pearl Moana, 16 year old mum, was kinda scared when she found out she was pregnant. My dad's not really ... he'd rather us go through school and achieve and then, grow up before we have kids, sorta thing. Instead, she gave birth a week after her sweet 16th. It's made me a better person. They used to all be kids who would play in the river together, Not no more, says Pearl. Being a mum has changed all that. And she smiles like a girl who has something the others can't take away from her and it's kinda sad, but it's not. 

Down at the place where the Waipa and Waikato rivers meet, people spend sunny days. Families beach there. Kids swim till they're cold, then warm their bellies on the jetty, tracing dirt with their fingers, looking up when bros call out from the water - Come back in ow! Come on! - then a running jump into the river again, then back to the jetty to warm their bellies. Across the way, you see them jump off the barge. And off to the side, teenage girls get wet to their ankles as they paddle and play with their cell phones, heads buried deep. It's boring here, they say, there's nothing to do except go to town, eat, get lollies, go sit somewhere. And towns quiet now, too, I don't even know where everybody is these days.  

Town is quiet. Over at the BP, Shaun the manager says, well, everyone's on holiday and school's not back, so it's too early to give numbers, but, yes, there has been a downturn.  Nobody can deny it's quieter, but it seems to suit the place. People rejoice they can cross the street and turn right at intersections. 

Dave Moore is busy making salad at Poppa's Rainbow Cafe on the old main road. He's not expecting you, but it's as though you've just ducked out back to grab the spuds and he's back having the conversation he's had all day. He's a charming, strange salesman, a Mormon who loves all, a bird keeper, a workaholic, a husband, a father and a poppa to all. Poppa! kids call out when they see him down the street, What are you doing here? And back to the kitchen he goes. 

Customers arrive, but Dave's too busy talking to bother with their order. Ahem, they say.

They have come here from Auckland, en route to Otorohanga. What bypass, they ask. Then it's, how big are the burgers/Do you get anythink with them/Ok, a Poppa's burger will be fine/But no beetroot and a hard egg for me/Oh, how much is a Poppa's burger/How much is an egg burger/Can you get a burger on its own, because I don't know if I'll eat the chips/I don't think I have enough space in my stomach for chips, it's just, you know...

And the bell rings for an order round the back and suddenly you wish an expressway would head every which way and swallow them all up.

Dave Moore bangs his hand on the kitchen counter to imitate life among the banging of traffic. In his home out back, he and the family rose and fell to the soundtrack of trucks. It was bangbangbangbangbangbang all the time, every time a truck went past. Now they get to sleep through the night. Now the air is clean. He claims his asthma has abated. Now it's greatgreatgreat. He knew the bypass was coming well before it came, everyone knew. Because of it, he negotiated a long term lease on the main road at a fraction of what it was. And, he says, in the next six weeks he will be opening a car yard and a finance company - so his lungs and his prayers will not have long to rest.   

Times change, towns change, he says, and people are heading north. Who has got the money for a home and land package in Rototuna? Where they gonna live?  Where they gonna live? My biggest fear is that in five to ten years, the road will be just as busy.

Mayor Allan Sanson can't wait to get hold of the old State Highway 1 in the next few months when control shifts from NZTA to the council. Ngaruawahia, he says, has got a helluva lot to offer. People go to Rotorua for a cultural experience that could easily happen in Ngaruawahia. Why not? Waka on the river, perhaps, Kapa Haka, perhaps, a cultural museum, perhaps. No plans as yet, except to sit down with the iwi.

It seems everyone knew the road was coming, but no one knows what to do now that it's come. Kingitanga spokesman Kirk MacGibbon says its relationship with council is excellent, but no one has come to him with a plan. The economic impact of that highway is going to be profound. I don't think people understand the significance. The marae could open up for tours, perhaps, some more information boards, perhaps, some more sculptures, perhaps. 

There was a time, says Glen Gray, down at the RSA with the history club, when we had all the little businesses - the butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, tailors, bloody all sorts, and now they've gone.

And Ngaruawahia settles under the the Hakarimata Range to wait and see. Ngaruawahia, where the trains keep making noise, dalingdalingdaling, where no gardens grow down the struggle streets, where garages open to air out makeshift bedrooms, where people call out hello sweetheart, where oldies know your mother and your grandmother, where people care enough to gossip, where the church op shop sells clothes on a sale rack for 20 cents, where Turangawaewae stands majestically, where lovely Marito serves you at New World, where everyone's cuzzy worked at the swimming pool and would let you swim for 50 cents, where you get a mean feed at the markets on the weekend, where teenagers talk about moving to Ozzie to own mansions, where there's something about the town that always drags them back.