Auckland: Engineering a day out

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright discovers man-made glories - old and new - around Auckland.

The Lower Nihotupu Dam is among Auckland's built marvels. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The Lower Nihotupu Dam is among Auckland's built marvels. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In a changing world, engineering as a career seems a relatively safe bet with the Department of Labour predicting continued growth in the industry. We think it is easy to start the kids early on an appreciation for all things engineering by exploring some of the treasures around the city.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge

Auckland's Harbour bridge. Photo / Herald On Sunday

The best known of the town's engineering wonders, the bridge took four years to build, opening to much fanfare in 1959. Plans for the bridge, built across the narrowest part of the Auckland Harbour, date back as far as 1860. The most memorable part of the build was the day the middle section got swept away and had to be rescued by the tugboat William C Daldy.

Point out the moveable lane barrier to the kids as you drive over in peak traffic - a man may wave back from the truck's booth as he pushes barriers from one side to create an extra lane in the other. More than 20 years old, this is the longest-serving, permanent use moveable lane barrier in the world. It also ended the terrible run of head-on collisions on the bridge.

Venture underneath the bridge at Northcote Point and you can show your children the immense scale of the bridge and introduce them to a different perspective. Words by Janet Frame are inked on the giant pylons - geometric shapes made of steel underneath the bridge - and a placard is dedicated to the men who died making the bridge. There are also nice walks around the area and on a windy day, it's very windy! Just how we like it.

Before you go exploring check out Philippa Werry's junior fiction book Harbour Bridge, recently published as part of Scholastic's My New Zealand Story series.

It's written from a child's point of view of what life was like when the bridge opened, as well as explaining how it was built.

Alice the tunnel machine

For the scale of benefits it will bring, our generation's Auckland Harbour Bridge-scale project is the Waterview Connection - 4.8km of motorway that will link SH16 and SH20.

Half of the project is underground, hence the nickname of the tunnel boring machine used to make this section - named after the fictional Alice in Wonderland who also goes underground.

The viewing deck at 108 Methuen Rd allows you to watch as Alice begins her northern journey. It's impressive and gives kids an idea about how much work goes into the tunnels they take for granted. After experiencing Wellington's "tooting tunnel", my kids always make me beep as we go through tunnels back in Auckland, but it's a rare thing when anyone beeps back.

The urban design team chose a school for a focus group to design the new playground at the Waterview Reserve beside the tunnel. Some of the ideas included a mine park where you go to dig up gold, monsters that give out ice creams when you push them and a girls-only park with a nail bar because "girls need their time".

"Like" Alice on Facebook or discover more about the project and show your children the videos and plans at nzta.govt.nz.

Ports of Auckland

Containers at the Port of Auckland. Photo / File photo

Which came first, the city or the port? According to signs at the port, they both came at the same time because the harbour's suitability as a port was the reason the city was established here.

From kumara and kauri to cars and computers, the container wharf has witnessed much change. The area known as Mechanics Bay was where the carpenters, then known as mechanics, lived while they built Auckland's first wooden homes.

Park at Mikano restaurant and walk beside the port along the public walkway, which edges the busy container wharf. You'll hear the hum of helicopters fighting with the growl of great big freight trucks. There are also views across to Devonport, broken by jet boats zipping past and the Westpac rescue helicopter landing nearby, creating ripples and wind.

The stone walkway is fringed with the waxy green of teenage pohutukawa on one side and scoria rock to climb on the other. But be warned, it is not a scooter-friendly path: one dad looked pretty smug with the kids on scooters and bikes until he reached that first stumbling block.

My five-year-old daughter brought a pen and paper and sat for ages sketching a giant jellyfish stranded between a couple of rocks. She wouldn't leave until it had freed itself.

Yours might find other things to draw inspiration from, so pack a pencil and paper.

The Ports of Auckland also offers free boat tours on the harbour, showing the public the operations from the sea. It takes an hour, bookings essential.

Bird's eye views of the motorways

Combine a family walk with an engineering lesson. We're told the best views of the motorway are Mt St John, Mt Hobson, Mt Wellington and Mt Richmond. We take the trek up Mt Hobson from Remuera Rd.

It's a quick walk to the summit as we head past tree swings and daffodils commemorating soldiers. We're accompanied by the sound of tui in trees and the smell of wood burners making the mock-tudor homes on the hill cosy.

At the top you can sit at any number of park seats and watch the busy streets, spot swimming pools in homes next to the motorway, try to find the historic kumara pits, or go in search of the black cows with white faces, grazing on the grass.

From here, you can see the southern motorway snake it's way to Grafton Gully.

Pretty dam impressive

A walk in the Waitakeres is always inspiring. Add in a spectacular dam and you've got an engineering lesson as well.

There are 12 dams in the Hunua and Waitakere Ranges and each is named after the stream that feeds into its reservoir. We chose the Upper Nihotupu Dam, which was the end of the line on Watercare's dinky Rainforest Express, sadly now out of operations.

Gushing water and a near-vertical staircase show the power and size of this impressive structure. The dam's history is intriguing, construction taking much longer than expected to build thanks to heavy rain, flooding and World War I getting in the way, as well as the main contractor William Langlands being killed by a flying rock during blasting for the tramline.

Also check out the beautiful Lower Huia dam. A walk along the edge leads to a walkway where you can look into a large hole and watch the water rushing down. For more information on the other dams, visit watercare.co.nz.

Crumbling creations

Victoria Park Market. Photo / File photo

Take the kids to see impressive old structures, still standing.

Whatipu beach is home to the remnants of the famous Piha tramway, used to transport timber from Anawhata in the north to a wharf at Whatipu, before milling ended in 1921.

My kids love to build dams with stones around the iron spike remains.

The Auckland City Destructor (more commonly known as the iconic Victoria Park markets site with its original brick buildings and chimney) used to be the central rubbish collection, as well as the city works depot. It ran for around 16 hours a day at full blast.

Occasionally, a dead horse was thrown in the fire as well. The "clinker" or inflammable substance leftover was used to make the bottom of new roads.

Point it out to the kids next time you're shopping for a bargain.

Beautiful Bridges

From Waitakere swing bridges you can bounce along, to modern glass, concrete and curved steel creations, Aucklanders are spoiled for choice with beautiful bridges. Try the relatively new bridge at Point Resolution, connecting Tamaki Drive to Parnell and crossing the colourful Parnell Baths with its mosaic mural depicting abstract swimmers.

From the moment you get out of your car on Tamaki Drive until you reach the first step of the bridge, watch out for fast bikes and rollerbladers.

The glass side opens the bridge up for safe viewing opportunities for the kids to wave at the new electric trains passing by underneath. Walk a bit further and you get a bird's-eye-view of the empty Parnell Baths. After seeing the gunk in the adults' hot pool, I won't be dipping my toes in that come summer.

Keep going up and you'll walk among the tops of pine trees. It's nice to be able to reach the branches and show the kids the baby pine cones growing so far up. Take a picnic - there are a couple of big trees to climb at the top of the stairs into Parnell, but make sure the children don't go over the other side of the fence near them - there's a big drop.

Other cool bridges include the Wynyard Crossing bridge that lifts to allow boats into the Viaduct harbour, or investigate pedestrian bridges, such as the one at Sturges Rd, featuring bright red arches and children's art and the new glass and steel beauty connecting St Marys Bay to Westhaven.

It's a Hard Hat Life

Brent Meekan of the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) says the key thing is for kids not to drop science too early in high school so they have engineering career options available to them later on.

For budding engineers in the younger set, get your children's school to investigate the Neighbourhood Engineers Award, where an engineer pairs with a class to create a special engineering project. Future Intech is good for older children and shows how to decide if engineering's a job for you.

For your clipboard: Auckland Engineering Heritage Walks trail maps are available to download - choose from either the northern or southern Routes.

- NZ Herald

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