Gravel roads. Love them or hate them - they are part of many Northlanders daily reality. They are the forgotten part of New Zealand's essential infrastructure.
No mention was made of them in last week's multibillion-dollar spend-up and yet they are the backbone of our economy. Most of our farm produce, important tourism and forestry harvest start their journey to the international markets on gravel roads.
• Dust pollution killing one Northlander every two years
• No change to sealing plan says council
• Six Far North roads to be sealed to combat dust hazard
• Dust-free roads a Christmas gift for some in Far North
International rally drivers love our roads. The FIA Asia Pacific Rally of Whangārei happens in May this year and the WRC Rally of New Zealand is out of Auckland in September. The drivers reckon we have the best roads in the world with great camber and plenty of metal which makes them superfast.
Yet most of these roads were constructed over 100 years ago with only the annual grading and metal replenishment to keep them going.
I grew up next to a gravel road, I rode a bike to school and learned to drive on a gravel road and we thought nothing of the perpetual dust cloud that was part of growing up.
You were pretty careful driving on a newly graded road because getting "into the loose" was a trap for young players. When inexperienced at controlling a skid, even at low speeds, you risked over correcting and ending up off the road, or you'd be driving on marbles and be off at the corner.
Over time the "loose" worked its way to the edge of the road which meant, if you kept to the centre, you had a decent surface to drive on, so long as you treated it with respect. Slowly around blind corners and allow plenty of time because the corrugations, potholes and dust are always there.
The gravel road is a dynamic mixture of different metal grades, fines and clay and the way it is held together is dependent on weather and use. Too much use and heavy traffic breaks up the smooth surface, the fines are lost as dust and the road becomes potholed and corrugated.
Driving around these is an art. Too fast over corrugations and you lose control and there have been many tyres lost to potholes.
The annual maintenance of gravel roads has to be done at the right time. The grader pulls the loose from the edge, smooths and compacts it and this is best done when the road is damp and the fines are combined with the clay/metal mix to create a dense surface.
Spring and autumn are ideal times. Grading in the summer cuts the surface to dust and in the winter you get slush. So, frustrating as the dust, potholes and corrugations are right now, you won't see a grader until we've had some decent rain.
Back in the day, the county grader driver was known to all. He not only brought the loose back to the road but he ensured that drains and culverts continued to work well by being handy with a shovel. He made sure that entrances and driveways were in good shape and took pride in the condition of "his" roads.
This is the nature of rural roads. Over time you expected that the council would seal your road. You paid your rates and didn't ask for much. But as your road traffic increased or it became more strategic, you felt entitled to believe that sooner or later it would be your turn, and you reminded your councillor about that.
But, not any more. Most Northland gravel roads will remain unsealed to the delight of the international car rallys and despite the demonstrated health risks of road dust.
There is little NZTA priority to seal unsealed roads and they are not part of the Government infrastructure spend-up, despite the contribution these roads make to the national economy. Let's just think about that.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member