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Time to cut the ties

The Remutaka blockage on the night of the Ed Sheeran concert exposed just how vulnerable our path out of Wairarapa is.

Well, it was enough to get some of my colleagues running around panicking.

When a truck broke down and blocked the Remutaka Hill Rd for three hours on a Thursday afternoon, the one-hour Wellington commute became a three-and-a-half-hour detour via Manawatu. Being the same night as an international superstar appearing at Sky Stadium, Facebook comments were rife with complaints.

As someone who has lived all over the country – it’s time for us to back up and gain perspective.

When I lived in the South Island, I observed State Highway 1 become chopped in half for two days after a massive downpour breached banks, destroyed roads and closed the Ashburton river bridge.

The two-hour drive northbound to Christchurch became 13 hours via the West Coast. For two days, the supermarkets had no produce, and staff had no clue when shelves would be restocked.

The Timaru Herald had to be printed at the Otago Daily Times because it couldn’t be transported from its usual press in Christchurch. The Clandeboye dairy factory had to be evacuated because the bridge to the factory was about to turn into a misshapen river raft.

My workmate misjudged the rainfall when she drove back from Christchurch and became stuck in Ashburton with her husband and three teenagers.

South Canterbury was stuck for two days. Despite this, people were calmer than when Wairarapa drivers had to take a three-hour detour for a pop gig.

Since moving to Wairarapa, I’ve noticed how dependent locals are on the drive from Wellington or Palmerston North. That’s the problem – we’re too reliant on the commute. It’s not the road, it’s us.

Wairarapa lacks the infrastructure that could make it self-sufficient. It no longer has a functional commercial airport. It has a small hospital which punches above its weight, but an endless list of services require a trip to Wellington.

With our tiny population, the hospital will never justify resources for complex procedures – but a broken leg or hip needs a painful trip over the hill because we don’t have trauma-orthopaedic services.

It will be distressing to read this, but Wairarapa needs Wellington. This region wouldn’t be what it is without the difficult road to the Capital, and the slightly less windy climate. The tourism we get from city slickers is reciprocated by the commuters to the Big Smoke, and the weekend shopping at Westfield Queensgate.

Why would Kmart or Glassons bother to set up in Masterton if their clientele already travels to and spends at the Wellington stores?

Despite its faults, Wairarapa’s best infrastructure is the railway line. The night of Ed Sheeran and the broken down truck, Metlink was the first to be criticised for closing the service for rail upgrades. Isn’t it telling? The region almost revolves around it.

Should I be sympathetic to the Ed Sheeran fans who assumed the road would be open? I was more sympathetic to people travelling to medical appointments. Or commuters caught on the wrong side of the hill on their way home.

I find it baffling that commuters spend four hours a day on a train, five days a week. Where’s the regional pride? Where are the Wairarapa-till-I-dies?

We always ask ourselves what would happen in a natural disaster when the roads close. Is it time to stop relying on Wellington? Let’s build Wairarapa to survive without it.

Helen Holt
Helen Holt
Helen Holt is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age and enjoys reporting on a variety of topics, regularly covering Wairarapa events, tourism, local businesses, and the occasional health story.

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