Driving the once-familiar State Highway 1 north of Kaikoura

People in Clarence, north of the slips near Kaikōura, are hearing rumours State Highway 1 will close again after ...
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People in Clarence, north of the slips near Kaikōura, are hearing rumours State Highway 1 will close again after Christmas. (File photo)

OPINION: The entire top of the south was warm, sunny and still, a perfect day for an expedition to check progress on State Highway 1, visit some familiar haunts and enjoy a picnic lunch on an east coast beach.

Husband Steve and I have both frequently travelled the highway between Blenheim and Christchurch, especially in our younger years. We know it well.

Steve travelled to boarding school from Nelson to Christchurch by bus and then train. His family drove that route to visit relations in Dunedin and Waiau for Christmas and Easter holidays almost every year.

Train journeys back to school were a chance to meet up with college friends and lark about. Throwing coarse, white railway china lifted from the Kaikoura station tearooms off the Claverley bridge was a favourite jape of travelling schoolboys. Avoiding the attention of the guard just added to the thrill. The evidence of this particular brand of fun can probably still be found amongst the riverbed's stones.

My adored maternal grandparents lived in Tai Tapu, south of Christchurch, and each May our family travelled south. My first trips down the east coast highway were in Newman's tall teal-blue buses. We boarded these roaring, wheezing leviathans in Rai Valley after a dark and chilly early morning start followed by the winding two-hour drive in the Land Rover from our Waikawa Bay home.

It was a long day but filled with small excitements: the first sight of the foamy aqua and navy-blue sea at the Ure, spotting seals lolling on the pinkish barnacled rocks further down the coast, the whale bone arches in the township's gardens, and the thrill of driving through the road tunnels just north of Oaro.

The bus stopped at Kaikoura for lunch at a bright blue tearooms tucked under the town's escarpment. We ate ham sandwiches (no mustard please) and sausage rolls with bright red tomato sauce and were allowed a strawberry or banana milk shake noisily whizzed up in a tall metal beaker.

If a train rattled alongside the highway, we always waved to the driver and were often rewarded with a wave and a toot of the whistle. Oh the excitement!

All that was a long time ago, but those happy journeys mean we both have a great affection for the east coast highway, despite abandoning it for the shorter Lewis Pass route to Christchurch for most of our adult years.

The highway south of Blenheim was nearly empty of traffic. There were a few construction company double-cab utility vehicles and trucks carrying concrete pipes, concrete bridge beams and other construction cargo. Bored stop-go attendants halted us at road works more than a dozen times. We drove slowly through detours, one-way routes or around subsidence when eventually released from our queue of one. But for most of the journey north of the coast, there was just us, the shaved green hills gridded with grape vines and the eerily empty road.

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We stopped at Ward for a cup of tea. The waitress, made casual by the severe customer drought, forgot to bring the cups. Cabinet food was sparse on the smeared glass shelves. A few pies and sausage rolls dried and flaked in the heated unit.

As we descended to the Ure, the familiar triangle of blue sea appeared between the hills. Detouring around major bridge works, we drove south past the closed and shuttered Kekerengu café and the St Oswald's Anglican Church near Wharanui where a large sign board appealed to non-existent passers-by for restoration funds. The Kaikoura mountains, still tipped with snow, appeared like dramatic divas behind the backdrop of spring-green hills and dark bush.

The road has lost its even surface and at every bridge, no matter how small, your vehicle's entry and exit is marked by a gentle but definite bump. The land has dropped away or all the bridges have popped up – either option speaks to the power of the November quake. Road signs tilt towards the sea and telephone poles incline away from the vertical as they climb the hillsides.

The drivable road ends just south of the Clarence River. The bridge is one-way with a 10kph speed restriction, suggesting it needs major repair and strengthening work. Upstream and down, the vast riverbed has been turned into a shingle quarry. On the south side of the bridge are a pair of 1.8m Cyclone gates and a sort of guard-house where anyone entering the work zone must sign in. We turned the car for the journey home, feeling conspicuous in our sedan amongst the construction vehicles, underdressed without the east coast uniform of hi-vis and hard hats.

On the way home we ate our sandwiches and drank our thermos coffee on the empty stretch of beach near Valhalla Road, south of Kekerengu. The sun shone. There was not a breath of wind. The North Island was a clear grey hump in the distance with one feathery cloud sitting above Cape Palliser and waves thudded onto the sand and gravel shore.

Despite all the damage, the east coast route retains its edgy charm. On a calm and sunny day, few New Zealand roads compare. We're looking forward to driving its whole length some day soon.

 - Stuff

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