01 May 2010
May 1, 2010

A day at the beach

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“IT’S THE MIDDLE OF THE AFTERNOON ON A HOT NORTHLAND summer Wednesday and some of the boys from Mangonui Haulage have already headed for the beach.

Yeah, trucks and all – we find them parked up at Shipwreck Bay, Ahipara, just a few rocky headlands away from Tauroa Point, reputedly one of the best left-hand reef breaks in Kiwi surfing.

The boys – Kurt Grace, Colin Mills, Brendon Chuck and Travis Lines – are just waiting for the right moment with the outgoing tide before they’re into it.

Nah….not the surfing: Despite the setting, this is strictly business. One of the bosses is even here with them.

What’s brought us all here is a job that holds legendary status in Northland trucking folklore – one of the ultimate challenges in livestock pickups: Once a year Mangonui Haulage trucks take to the beach to pick up weaner cattle from a farm out on the Point.

Say it quickly and it doesn’t sound like much. But the drivers have to negotiate about five kilometres of rocky points and sandy beaches to get out to the farm.

They have to pick their way over jagged reefs – at the trickiest spot, inching past a rock overhang on one side…and the edge of a rock ledge on the other.

They’ve got to judge when the tide’s gone out far enough that they should be able to safely drive along the sandy beaches….. but not so far out that they’ll be caught by the incoming tide on the last of two or three shuttle runs back to Ahipara.

Oh yeah…and they have to know when shiny, wet sand effectively means “Danger! Don’t even think about driving here”…..and when it means “This way….this way: I’m nice and damp – and firm.” Tricky.

It’s an annual job that’s been on Mangonui Haulage’s books since founder Dennis Sparksman bought out Kaitaia Transport’s livestock business about 20 years ago (“give or take a couple of years,” as he puts it, in his easygoing way).

The change of hands of the trucking business responsible for the shift and the sale of the farm itself out at Tauroa Point, mean that the history of this job prior to 1990 is lost in the mists of time. Or something like that.

Good waves (which, by the end of the day will have attracted dozens of surfers) are still crashing on the reefs as the trucks head out to the Point on their first run – over two hours after high tide

Dennis can’t remember if the obligation to take to the beach each year to pick up the weaners was even mentioned when he bought the Kaitaia livestock business – but he shrugs it off as nothing to worry about anyway: “Nah, it was part and parcel of the deal really. I never even thought about it until they rung up and said we’ve gotta go around there. ‘Oh okay!’”

Back then the job fell to International T-Lines – nowhere near as good as the current fleet of Isuzus. But still, as Dennis reasons, everything’s relative – “and I ‘spose that was about as good as you could get at the time. The old T-Lines were pretty reliable pieces of gear. Not renowned for their traction though!” he adds, on reflection.

Anyway, despite the well-known dangers to vehicles of 90-Mile Beach, which sweeps north towards Cape Reinga from Shipwreck Bay, where this job begins, Mangonui has never lost a truck to the tide.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few close-shaves! Not surprisingly really, since the company’s trucks actually do this run up to nine or 10 times a year – usually shifting small loads of service bulls, culled cows and the like…needing just one truck at a time.
It’s only at this time of the year, as the Far North gets into its weaner sales, that the likes of today’s 280-head need moving: Tomorrow it’s the Peria sale, just up the road from the company’s Mangonui base.

As always, it puts a deadline on the job that means the pressure is on: The Tauroa Point stock needs to be brought out today and delivered to the saleyards, because there’d never be enough time to do this tricky shuttle run in the morning.

“We’ve got something like 1200-1300 weaners to move into Peria tomorrow morning and, like, this is gonna take three units all afternoon to do,” explains Mangonui’s livestock manager (and Dennis’ son) Sean Sparksman.

“So you just can’t physically do it on the day of the sale, you know.”

Despite the number of times that Mangonui trucks and drivers have done the beach run over the years, it’s a challenge that’s never taken for granted, says Dennis’ son-in-law Darren Brott – the third partner in the business, with Dennis and Sean.

They’ve each had their turn at doing the Tauroa Point run – as have most of the company’s drivers – but knowing it doesn’t necessarily reduce its challenge: “It’s not a matter of getting used to it – you never really get used to it,” says Darren.

“It’s not a very nice place to be in darkness. She’s alright in daylight. And a few of the boys have been around there in the dark, with the waves lapping up around the wheels….and racing the tide to get out and things like that, you know.”

On the other hand, says Dennis, “on a nice day it’s an excursion. It’s bloody beautiful.”

And there can be other positives to the trip, Sean adds: “If you’ve got half an hour up your sleeve when you’re coming out on your last load, you can just park up on the rocks and walk over 50m and pick a feed of mussels and what have you.

“She’s all good, you know. There’s been many a fulla come back from around there with their fair share of food, that’s for sure.”
That sounds paradise-like….but the bit that holds no appeal is the bit about the days when all doesn’t go to plan. Says Dennis: “But of course it’s scary when you get stuck on the beach. I mean the tide’s coming in and….yeah.”

A few years back, for instance, the trucks encountered deep, soft sand that was just impossible to get through without getting stuck: Luckily, as Dennis recalls, there was a loader working out there at the time, taking sand off the beach and it pushed the trucks to safety.

So how often would they have had dramas? Dennis: “Oh numerous times we’ve got stuck in the sand. But it’s not been too bad in the last couple of years.”

Sean confirms that “we did have to send out a Mayday a couple of years ago – for a farmer with a big 4WD tractor to go around there. It was a case of you just couldn’t do anything to get moving, you know.”

The biggest potential problem is soft sand: But for this trip they’re all optimistic that, “with a bit of luck the high tides they’ve had lately will have pushed the sand up against the rocks and filled in a few of the holes.”

Even in the Far North, where there are still many, many rough gravel roads – “still a lot you can’t take trailers up,” says Dennis – and where the roads in general are arguably a lot rougher than elsewhere, this is about as challenging a job as you can get.

Time was when the loggers had to get into “some pretty hairy places” – back in the days when small wood lots were popular.

But now this job is alone as a kind of flashback to how trucking used to be, he reckons: “This is still one out of the box….probably our one unusual job we’ve still got left.”

Darren agrees: “It’s a different kettle of fish alright – one out of left field.”

And yes, he and Dennis concede that the beach run is a challenge for first-timers: “Oh I guess it is a bit daunting,” says Dennis a little grudgingly.

“But, having said that, once you’ve done it once, you know what you’re in for. See, these guys going around there today are pretty lucky – one young guy who’s 19, he’s going with a couple of older fullas, so it’s a like a bit of a training thing.” According to Sean, provided the sand’s not “too soft,” the challenge all comes down to “one ledge, where you’ve got maybe 10 inches between the top of the crate and the rock wall…. Apart from that it’s quite a neat trip.”

Besides, he points out, everything is working in favour of this being a dream run: With a 12.30pm high tide and it staying light for maybe eight hours thereafter, the boys will have better than a six-hour window to work in: “Today it works out well.”
And he’s put three 8×4 trucks “and our little four-wheeler puddle jumper” on the job: “That takes the pressure off a bit – it’ll probably mean they’ll only have to go around twice each.

“Sometimes we’ve only got two eight-wheelers and they’ll have to go around three or four times each. When you’ve got a six-hour window and an hour and a half turnaround per trip, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, you know.”

Particularly since the drivers can only lightly load the top deck so that each 8×4 can probably only bring out 40 head at a time. The rocks pitch the trucks about a lot and “because there are quite a few bad spots you can’t go loading them right up.”

Finally, working in the convoy’s favour today is the fact there was drought-breaking heavy rain last night – and that, combined with recent high tides, should mean that the sand’s quite firm, Sean reckons.

“You get low tides and the sand loses the water out of it, gets soft and that’s when you have a bit of fun, you know.”

Still, for the most part, he reckons, the sand’s pretty easy to read: “There’s only one real bad place – where you go around the second lot of rocks, at what they call the Iron Gate. The sand does get quite soft there.”

There is what he terms “a bit of a track” that avoids one particularly troublesome beach – part of a network of sand and clay tracks that run out as far as the Tauroa Point farm….but are unusable by trucks for the most part.

At that Darren just shakes his head: “A bit of a road! It’s absolutely had it,” he says dismissively.

Left out of the possible starters for this trip are the newest trucks in Mangonui’s seven-strong livestock fleet (out of a
total lineup of around 40 trucks, most of them loggers): The 530-horsepower Isuzus, with airbag rear suspension and unloved automated manual transmissions, aren’t particularly good traction-wise, according to their drivers.

It’s not a good enough reason not to buy them, reckons Dennis: “I mean realistically eh, we’re on the highway 99% of the time, so you can’t go buying something that’s good off the road.”

But mostly it’s their lower ground clearance that keeps them off the Tauroa Point job, says Sean: “We can’t go sending them around there because I don’t think they’ve got the clearance underneath.

“You’ve just gotta have that bit of extra clearance on the rocks. Even on the bloody sand, you know – you start to get down into it and they could get bellied.

“So, while it’d be nice to have all our new trucks on airbag suspension and that, we’re always going to need to have six-rods to service a job like this.”

Today Dennis is going to join the trip – but only to drive his ute and give photographer Gerald Shacklock the chance to capture the action from the best vantage points. Sean’s staying in the office – getting things organised for the Peria sale tomorrow… and watching how “the boys” are going via the Navman Wireless GPS systems in their trucks: “There’s bugger-all phone coverage around there – although the radios do work in some places.” Seeing them moving along the coastline on the system’s map display “does give you peace of mind.” Unless, that is, they end up stopped!

En route to the beach I quiz Dennis about which of his drivers will go first: “It’ll probably be the most experienced….or the most inexperienced!” he reckons, laughing. But seriously, he says, “they’re all pretty responsible – just leave them to their own devices.”
Interestingly, while the Mangonui boys wait for the tide to go out far enough, other drivers are already heading out around the first point – in 4WDs, utes….even cars.

Sean already tipped us off that, relatively rare that trucks are on the beach, “it’s like bloody Queen Street around there on a Saturday and a Sunday. Lots of surfers, fishermen.”

Dennis, taking up the story, reckons that it’s just as well the locals have long treated the coast as a road: Years ago, someone filled a few critical holes in the reefs with concrete. In these days of resource consents and the like, it’d never be allowed now….and without the holes filled in, the trucks would never be able to get around there.

As we wait at Shipwreck Bay, “the boys” talk about their experiences on this job.

Former farmhand Kurt Grace is typical: Now 31, he’d only just started as a truck driver, when he was sent around here in the company’s little Ford Trader.

“Thrown in the deep end,” confirms Dennis. Luckily, not literally. And not entirely true either: “I had one of the older guys with me in the truck and he showed me where to go.”

He’s now a veteran of this run, having been around here “at least once a year for 10 years, pretty much.”

Yeah, for sure, he says, there have been a few dramas over the years: “Oh, last year we got bogged in one spot on the way in. Had to get one of the other guys to pull me out backwards with a chain – then wait for the water to go out a bit more. It wasn’t
too bad.

“A couple of years ago me and Colin went around by ourselves – he was on the little truck – and coming out with the last load of the night, about 7.30, 8 o’clock (it was getting a bit dark), I got bogged.

“Yeah, no chains or anything! So the farmer ran around and found some Number 8 wire, bound it around the wheel about six times – and that was good enough to get us out.”

Kurt, who drives all around the North Island, says this job is “good fun actually. It’s different every year – the sand changes all the time.”

Colin Mills is only 19 but he’s already done 14 or 15 trips around to the Point – this made possible by the fact that he started driving the company’s four-wheeler a full two years ago.

Born to be a truckie – his Dad Noel has driven all his life and now steers a 530 Isuzu for Mangonui, while Mum Anne drives a little company truck, delivering hospital supplies – Colin left school as soon as he could and worked in Mangonui’s workshop till he could get his licence.

Now he’s loving driving his truck and trailer unit: “It’s heaps of fun eh. You see heaps of places you never go in a car – and for free, you know.”

And this particular job, he reckons, is the best of it: “This is probably the most exciting eh. It’s not very often you see a stock truck driving along the beach and going through real tight places.

“The toughest bit is driving through the rocks, where you just miss the crates by that much,” he says, indicating a tiny gap: “Apart from that you just tuck in behind the others.”

He admits that first time around here he was “pretty worried – ‘cos I’d only been driving for about two or three weeks. Yeah, you do really have to pick your way.”

As it happened, he did get stuck on that first trip.

Brendon Chuck is another old hand at this job – and another truckie who was born to it: “Grandad Bill Chuck mainly carted metal and he built his own crusher – crushing shell for lime, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

His father Sam Chuck is the logtruck dispatcher for Toll Kaitaia and has been in the industry for years.

Brendon’s spent a few years driving trucks in North America, hauling grain – but is enjoying his North Island-wide livestock work “for the scenery and that. And getting to places like this: Not bad for a view out the window eh.”

Travis Lines, 24, driver of the four-wheeler, has been driving for Mangonui Haulage for six months and has already been out to the Point four or five times in the Nissan Diesel. He’s also been out here surfing and riding motorbikes.

So has he been stuck here yet? “Nahhh…not quite. But ah… nearly.”

At 3.15pm the joint decision is made that the tide’s dropped enough to get started – and Kurt leads the way in his six-year-old Isuzu.
“Sand feels good so far,” he reckons: “Some of it’s a bit hard to read – till you drive across and sink down a little bit. I always try to drive right down by the water.”

Then we’re onto the rocks – the trucks crawling along, their suspensions worked to the max on the big rocks: “Yeah, the old trucks, they take a fair bit of punishment. The tyres too.”

In terms of rough going, there’s “nothing like this” in the rest of the work Mangonui does.

We bounce along in second gear: “There’s no point going faster – you just wreck it faster.”

Within the first 1km we’re at what they all refer to as The Gut – where a rockface overhangs the only track across a small inlet…. with a channel worn into the rock, creating a hole right where you don’t want it.

Commentates Kurt, as he negotiates it – the Isuzu’s diff locks and power dividers engaged: “Not much room to spare – you’ve gotta watch the rocks on this side, so you don’t damage your rims and tyres. Oh yeah – and don’t step off the edge!

“The first time I came around here in the Ford Trader the tide was washing up against it.”

Successfully past this challenge, Kurt admits: “Some years, you think ‘ah I don’t really wanna go around there again,’ but when you get in here it’s a whole different feeling, you know.

“I ‘spose you do get a bit nervous before you start – you don’t know what it’s going to be like, if anything’s gonna go wrong. But nothing has ever really gone drastically wrong.”

Fifteen minutes and 2kms into the trip we round a rocky point and Kurt reckons that just ahead, where it’s now all sand, has always been rocks in the past.

On the next beach, spectacular sand dunes tower over the coastline. It’s here that there’s a track up above the beach and it’s Kurt’s instinct to head for that – only because he doesn’t know how firm the newly-piled-up deep sand ahead is. But, in a chat on the R/T Chuck cautions that the track’s “pretty bad – so it’s probably better along the beach.”

So, as Kurt says, “yeah it is a bit nerve-wracking – ‘specially seeing as I haven’t been down on this part (of the beach) for probably three or four years.”

Sure enough, it does get a bit more loose….but doesn’t come close to threatening a halt. The bit with least traction, in fact, is a stretch of sand that’s piled high with washed-up kelp.

Finally, after 5kms on the rocks and sand, Kurt again locks the diffs and picks up some speed – getting a run at the steep gravel track heading up and off the beach. Turns out it’s a lot better than it has been in the past, when big rocks ruined the traction.

Another half a k on – after a half-hour drive – we pull up to newly-built stockyards where the weaners (and a new and different challenge, to sand and rocks) await: “Now,” says Kurt, “the fun begins. You see some of these are wild fullahs eh. They get a bit of salt air in their lungs and their brains.

“If they’re not running onto the truck they’ll run at you. You gotta watch out for the legs – they lash out.”
Two guys from the farm are on hand to help and the drivers all pitch in to get the weaners loaded – putting 12 or 13 up top in each of the crates, and 26 or 27 on the bottom deck.

It only takes 10-15 minutes to load each truck and so, by 4.10pm, the convoy’s ready to head back to Ahipara – our way cleared by the helpful guy overseeing the shift taking down a section of fence so the trucks can drive directly away from the stockyards without a lot of painstaking maneuvering.

Having a load on board is much nicer, Kurt confirms: The 460-horse Isuzu does distinctly labour now as we take to the softer sand – but with the 18-speed in 5th and 6th we cruise along the first beach at 30km/h or so, never in danger of getting stuck.

Back around the point they call the Iron Gate, where you can see the rusty remains of old fence posts, tourists forget the rugged scenery for a moment and grab some photos of these crazy truckies coming by.

A glance back at the other trucks as they negotiate a reef brings it home just how spectacular they do look – how much they’re getting pitched about on the rocks.

While the waters-edge might seem a very bad place to take a partly-loaded truck, that’s exactly where Kurt heads at one point, to take advantage of the newly-exposed alternative to the rocks. His confidence that the sand is firm is totally vindicated.

One onlooker, here for a surf, abandons that plan for a bit…. jumping up onto the steps of Kurt’s truck and asking if he can get a lift: “I want to see you go through the narrow bit,” he says with a big smile.

“So this is better than droving them around?” he quizzes Kurt – who responds with a dismissive: “Oh, these animals here if you drove ‘em – sheesh….they’d be gone!”

At the fabled tight spot on the route, Kurt runs the Isuzu’s right-hand wheels up onto the base of the rock wall – “you have to, so you can get the arse end around. The back wheels come right up on the rock and you can feel it really leaning over.”

Then he edges into what’s almost a cave, only turning hard left as the right side bumper brushes the bottom of the wall. The theory is that if your driver’s side mirror just misses the overhanging rock face, the crate above will also just miss….
And the left side wheels should stay up on the rocks and not drop into the narrow gut, where the tide rushes in at high tide.

Kurt: “You just guess it off the rock and the mirror and you’re right. Put it in first gear and let her go. The trick is not to stop. I think if you stopped here you’d be in shit creek.

“You just don’t know what it’d do on those rocks. It might just sit there….but it might slide down.”

Back at Shipwreck Bay, even getting off the beach is a challenge: To stop hoons charging onto the beach, the locals have built a boulder-lined ramp that’s at right-angles to the narrow bridge at the top of it. It takes a few back-and-forths to get an eight-wheeler around there.

Inside an hour and a half from starting out, the four trucks are disgorging their loads into the three parked-up trailers.
It takes less than 15 minutes and they’re on their way again – back out to the farm in convoy, past an ever-growing crowd of surfers and fishermen.

Driving back through The Gut, Colin Mills says that this is the only bit of the trip that “makes you a bit nervous. I know you’re gonna be alright – ah well, I don’t know, but I’m pretty certain.”

He has the diff locks in a bit further on, where the sand has been cut up a bit and is proving heavier going. Over the R/T he asks Chuck’s opinion on whether we should head towards the water’s edge.

“Yep – but don’t go through the water,” he warns about a pool we’re approaching: “Oh yeah,” says Colin as we go past it, “it’s a lot deeper than I thought it was.”

And so it goes – travelling on the knife-edge of uncertainty….. but not actually striking any problem. And we’re back at the farm by 5.15pm – everyone pretty happy with the progress so far.

As the cows hang around the yards, bellowing at their babies, the rest of the weaners are loaded over the next half-hour….and at 5.45pm the convoy starts out again for Ahipara.

Brendon Chuck has a different approach to the others – even though the truck traffic has now churned up the sand quite a
bit in places, he doesn’t go for the diff locks: “Nah, they’re not really any good in the sand – makes you bounce too much. These things are not a lockup and go anywhere kind of a truck anyway.”

So instead he keeps to High 2nd – just chugging along: “Nah, it’s alright,” he confirms.

By now the “crowds” have built up along the coast: At one beach alone there are 18 vehicles parked up – most of their occupants out in the surf.

The truck feels good with the load on, Brendon says: “Nah it doesn’t feel top-heavy – not with these on. They’re not overly big.”
At The Gut, Brendon lines up the right mirror with the rock wall: “You have to watch out for the rock down the bottom as well. Yeah….and hope you don’t fall off the side!”

He doesn’t and, at 6.15pm we clear the last of the rocks and Chuck gets on the R/T: “Anyone wanna do another lap!” Three hours after we started out, we’re safely back at the ominously named Shipwreck Bay – where the outgoing tide has now left the remnants of a shipwreck sticking out of the sand.

Remarkably, the rusting steel has been there for 140 years – since the night when the 121-foot steel paddle-steamer Favourite, awaiting a load of kauri gum from the huge Ahipara gumfields, was driven ashore in a storm.

Part of the boiler and one of the shafts that drove Favourite’s 445-horsepower steam engine are what’s now visible.

It’s a relic of the past – a reminder of the times when Ahipara’s gumfields supported 2000 people and three pubs. When bullock teams hauled the gum down here to the beach, to be shuttled out to ships.

A flashback to another time…..just like our truckies’ day at the beach.”

Published in NZ Truck & Driver, May 2010
Source: Allied Publications Limited | Story: Wayne Munro | Photos: Gerald Shacklock
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