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The Big Dig: Remembering the impossible


alister1What do you call a team of dedicated, community-inspired individuals, armed with excavating machinery and a ‘can-do’ attitude touched with a brazen defiance of authority?

Mangawhai’s 1990s Big Dig!

An 80 strong crowd of original collaborators of the Dig and other interested parties gathered on June 25 at Mangawhai Museum to reminisce over the event and witness the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to the people involved.

Chair of Mangawhai Harbour Restoration Society, Trevor Downey, opened the proceedings saying that ‘it was an honour and privilege to stand here in front of a community who are so passionate about their harbour.’

Twenty-five years ago a head-strong team of local men and women congregated on Mangawhai’s sandy shores with an assembly of digging equipment from excavators to the humble spade, determined to breathe life back into their dying lagoon.

Major storm’s had diminished the harbour’s natural ebb and flow, creating rogue, shallow breaches along the Mangawhai Spit. Sediment build-up was also accruing along the northern inlet, causing the waters to stagnate. Frustrated by the apathy of authorities, a band of dedicated volunteers committed countless hours over five years, to monitor and dredge the ongoing closure of the northern entrance. Lasting success came after a man-made bund wall was erected at the southern breach of the harbour, allowing for the current to flow once more through only the northern channel.

Guest speaker, Kaipara District deputy mayor during the 1990s Peter Bull, shared his memories of the event and admiration of Mangawhai’s community spirit.

“It was a community effort of such magnitude, it was just mind-blowing,” he said. “The scale of this project had never been done before in the country… it was brilliantly executed.”

Bull noted the ‘seemingly insurmountable difficulties’ the volunteers faced in restoring the harbour to its former glory but, due to the groups’ dedication, vision and passion, refused to be beaten ‘not by nature, bureaucracy or the usual band of experts and critics.’

“Congratulations on such a project. Thank you for what you did then, for the people of today.”

Other speakers included author Beth Ross who wrote They Dared The Impossible, an account telling of the ongoing frustrations, setbacks and victories of the Big Dig.

Ross shared highlights from her book, including interviews with those involved which emphasised the dedication felt by the volunteers, who were prepared to be carted off and put behind bars for the cause.

Original contributor Noel Cullen says it was lovely to see people who were involved in the initial exercise at the gathering, people he came to know well.

“I lived the Big Dig day and night for more than a year; poor family must have suffered. M y wife learnt to milk the cows very quickly,” he says, adding that what amazed him at the time was the show of ongoing support.

“I’d never met a group of people who responded so quickly and participated in the activity, despite the possible risks,” he says. “We continued backing each other, especially when we’d get downhearted at the proceedings, we just hung in there.”

Trevor Downey took the opportunity to put out an invitation for more members, saying that the organisation ‘only has a handful of people taking on a large number of projects’.

“Just want to put it out there that if you’re interested, you’re welcome to get involved and join in,” he says. “If you’ve seen how clear Mangawhai’s harbour water is, let’s all help keep it that way.”

By Julia Wade

The Mangawhai Focus is the only 'Mangawhai' community Newspaper and is the paper of choice within the local area.

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