This photograph of the Mangawhai sand spit, taken from the southern end after an initial breach in 1978, was followed by Cyclone Bola in 1987. No one in New Zealand with knowledge of marine environments thought the damage the harbour mouth sustained could be remedied. It was a disaster for boat owners as there was very limited access to the coast, and only small craft could negotiate their way to the open sea by way of shallow channels.
When it looked like nothing was going to be done, a small group of locals got together, and contacted and organised farmers and owners of large machines capable of moving sand. They came from as far away as Warkworth and Ruawai. Attempts to get councils involved in some form of restoration had proved fruitless, so they told no one of their plans for fear the authorities would get involved and stop them. Hence, the decision to do it the “Country Kiwi” way.
On February 11, 1991, up to 40 machines arrived before 6am to start a ‘big dig’ to open up the now totally closed northern entrance. The organising team were skilled in calculating how much sand had to be moved in order to dig a 100 metre long channel, 30 metres wide by seven metres deep, in a 12 hour timeframe, working in with the tides.
It was front page news in local and distant newspapers, and even stole interest away from the war in Iraq for a few days.
It was a resounding success and the community were jubilant, bar a very few objectors who thought nature should have been left to sort itself out. Had that option been taken, it would have resulted in pollution at the Picnic Bay area of the estuary and an absolute ruination of the harbour.
Unfortunately, the first cut through re-silted and the harbour once again became blocked. The volunteers had no money, so it was time to rethink their strategies. This time, the bureaucracy was prepared to support them to obtain permits to move sand and with funding. It was tough for the volunteers to continually watch their hard work being undone by nature.
Over the next five years, the northern entrance closed four times, after the volunteers worked day in and day out to re-open it. The community had almost given up hope for the restoration of the harbour. But a few men persevered, battling on with a small dredge that they built themselves, through storm after storm and multiple equipment break-downs.
After five years of moving sand with the little dredge, they had built a magnificent bund wall and joined the devastated sand spit with the help of an additional dredge, diggers and bulldozers. The story can be seen at the Mangawhai Museum through film, a display and a book. It is a case of “so many, owing so much, to so few”. They are without a doubt ‘Mangawhai heroes’.