Gorge crews defy weather to close in on fifth bench


Despite a week of challenging weather conditions at the Manawatu Gorge, the fourth bench at the massive slip site is nearly finished, and crews are expected the begin work on the milestone fifth bench next week.

Palmerston North State Highways Manager David McGonigal says crews have made strong progress during the week in the face of some difficult weather conditions.

“Another week of hard slog on the slip face has brought us nearly to the end of the fourth bench, and all going well, we should get cracking on the fifth bench next week. The plan is to complete five benches, then assess whether or not to continue benching down to road level, so we’re all really looking forward to reaching this milestone.”

“The work these guys are doing up on the slope is about as far removed as imaginable from just another day at the office - the effort they're putting into stabilising the slope under such gruelling conditions is quite astounding.”

Crews continue to work long shifts up on the slip—usually 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“While we are still making great progress, conditions up there remain incredibly challenging. For a start, we’re still contending with Mother Nature’s changeable ways. Weather-wise, it can be nice and fine, but next minute, it’s blowing a gale and hosing down. The Higgins team are up there working on heavy machinery, 100 metres above the road, completely open to the full force of the wind, on a surface of jagged rocks and dirt that turns to mush when it rains. They're taking extensive safety precautions such as the use of spotters, but it's still brave work.”

“The site itself is also still pretty hard work to access. It’s a 15 minute climb up the steep slope next to the slip site, using a rope to help pull themselves up. We have to chopper most of our supplies and equipment in and out—and even the portaloo needs a helicopter when it’s time to be changed.”

Mr McGonigal says access for trucks at road level is also extremely narrow, making it difficult to turn and load when material is being trucked out. This limits the number of trucks that can operate at any given time, and only one loader can work at each end. Larger units cannot be used due to weight constraints on the numerous bridges through the gorge.

“We’re carting slip material away from the Ashhurst end and expect to start carting from the Woodville end in about 1 – 1 ½ week’s time. Carting from both ends will really speed up the removal of the slip material, however safety remains paramount and we will be installing a new spotter at the Woodville end to ensure any movement on the slip is detected straight away.”

Following the incident involving a truck on the Saddle Road earlier this week, Mr McGonigal reinforced the importance of taking care on the Saddle Road.

“We appreciate it's not an ideal situation, but it's really important people exercise patience and drive to the conditions at all times.”

Mr McGonigal says road crews have been hard at work on the Saddle Road, widening two of the curves on the Ashhurst side, and carrying out earthworks and other preparation for the new Oxford Realignment.

“Over the next few weeks, we’ll be stabilising and installing kerbing at the corner at the bottom of the Saddle Road. People will also see some new pavement at the Oxford/Saddle Realignment—which will make good use of some of our slip rock.”

Mr McGonigal says the NZTA is continuing its heightened maintenance programme continues on both routes, with teams working hard to keep these roads in the best possible condition until the gorge road can be safely re-opened.

Mr McGonigal also noted that Saturday night is the Gorge-ous Ball at the Woodville Racecourse.  Proceeds from the event will go to Kumeroa Hopelands School, as well as to the Woodville Fire Brigade. Tickets are $35 and available by emailing gorgeousball@gmail.com

All Manawatu Gorge updates and media releases, plus more photographs and diagrams, are on the NZTA's dedicated Manawatu Gorge web page(external link).