If you squint hard enough, you can almost see it. A shining city fringed by the mud and mangroves of the Kaipara Harbour. A second Auckland. A better Auckland, even.

Albertland, a "model town" planned for New Zealand in 1862, was meant to be a migrant's dream. It was the chosen destination of 3000 non-conformist English Christians, their chance at a new life in a new land, the chance to leave a legacy.

When we arrive on a Tuesday morning mid-winter more than 150 years later, there is almost nothing left. Today, the site is known as Port Albert. It's 15 minutes west of Wellsford, a turn off the Kaipara Coast highway, through farmland, past a handful of houses, to where the Oruawharo River meets the sea.

At the end of the road is a playground, a boat ramp, and a jetty stretching out into the inlet. A sign warns against slipping and drowning. Three moored boats hang gently in the tide. In pride of place, a plaque has been erected to the Albertlanders and their toil. It is just us, and a lone seagull, huddled against the bitter wind.

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"I think," says the photographer, after taking it all in, "even the term 'port' is a bit misleading."

To find what happened there, and to find those who still remain, we visit Wellsford's Albertland and Districts Museum.

Volunteer Lyn Johnston, herself a descendant of one of the first Albertland families, tells us the story. It was New Zealand's third and final planned religious migration, arranged after the Civil War cut access to the United States. Those who signed up would set sail, and receive 40 acres (16ha) of land. The site was chosen by a surveyor and two men appointed by the migrants to "go and have a look".

Lyn Johnston at the Albertland and Districts Museum and Heritage Centre in Wellsford. Photo/ Jason Oxenham.
Lyn Johnston at the Albertland and Districts Museum and Heritage Centre in Wellsford. Photo/ Jason Oxenham.

The settlement was doomed from the start. One of the ships lost its masts on the way over. Albertland, upon arrival, was much more backward than the migrants imagined. There was no road to their new home, and barely a way to get there by boat. After days hacking through the scrub - the women in long skirts - the first of the pioneers to make it to the designated site found it muddy, isolated, and almost nothing like the dream they'd been sold.

Many of the migrants either packed up, or decided to stay in Auckland. Those who were left did their best - they built a post office, and a jail. Stained-glass windows for the church were shipped in. Land was cleared. By 1881 only two families remained in the "town" itself, and a handful in the wider district. They farmed, and for a while Albertland became an apple-growing area.

"But that came to a shuddering halt when the railway went to Wellsford," says Johnston. "In the end, it was just too difficult I think."

Johnston returned to her family's land after her grandmother died. She is now an avid keeper of the Albertland archives, and is passionate about keeping the area alive.

Port Albert, the proposed site of a
Port Albert, the proposed site of a "model town" in 1862. Photo/Jason Oxenham.

In recent years, there's been an influx of Aucklanders escaping the city, as well as a growing avocado industry further west in Tapora. Some of the descendants of the original settlers also remain.

Ironically, says Johnston, the challenges faced by the district are not dissimilar to those which plagued pioneers in the early days.

"Rural communications is a big issue. You get 10 minutes out of town and there's no telecommunications," Johnston says. "I had an accident on the road there and couldn't get service."

And then there's the roads. Another museum regular, Rob Lennon, who also owns the Wellsford Lotto shop, says part of the problem is the trucks.

"Those roads weren't built for 50 tonne machines," he says. "And don't get me started on the traffic. At weekends, you can see it coming for miles. To Lennon, the answer is more rail. The same railway line which essentially ended Albertland, by going to Wellsford instead, is now barely used.

Minniesdale Chapel overlooking the Kaipara Harbour. Photo/Jason Oxenham.
Minniesdale Chapel overlooking the Kaipara Harbour. Photo/Jason Oxenham.

In the same way the settlers were cut off, Lennon says the entire north is missing out.

"Rail is what it needs. They should take the port from Auckland, and put it at either Tauranga or Marsden Point, near Whangarei."

Lennon has lived in the area all his life. At the General Store just up the hill from the "port", we find fresh fish and chips, and some more recent arrivals to town.

Their introduction has been somewhat less traumatic than those who first made land all those years ago, says Louise Penny.

"It's a really, really great community," Penny says. She moved from Waiheke, with the dream of owning a bit of land somewhere near Auckland with her husband and kids.

Louise Penny at Port Albert, formerly known as Albertland. Photo/Jason Oxenham.
Louise Penny at Port Albert, formerly known as Albertland. Photo/Jason Oxenham.

"There's a lot of established families who have been here for a long time, and they're so down-to-earth, and welcoming."

Penny's goal - like those before her - was to live off their land. While some were doubtful, they were determined to make it happen, starting a goat meat business, which took off, and then faltered when the local abattoir shut down.

She's hopeful, however, a new co-op will breathe life back into their plans next year.

On the way home, we take the back road to the Minniesdale Chapel. As we step out to admire its windows, all the way from England, the sky clears.

Far below, the Kaipara shines bright and blue. The sun lights up rolling farmland, and green bush. A fantail flutters past us. For a moment, it looks like something out of a dream.