For a long time, almost since it was announced that Taipā was going to get its two-lane bridge, it was going to include a diving platform.
That was part of the design, and was repeatedly promised by the NZTA. It warned, again and again, that it would not be safe to leap into the river for most of this year, while the new bridge was under construction, but once the job was done and the old bridge had been dismantled, leapers would be welcome.
Not any more. Last week, just days before yesterday morning's official opening of the new bridge with all the proper pomp and ceremony, NZTA announced that it had changed its mind.
Now, apparently, it will be too dangerous to jump. Submerged rocks, floating debris and even passing boats, it seems, represent potential threats to life and limb. So the bridge now has warning signs. Anyone who jumps will do so against official advice. That'll stop 'em. Not.
NZTA might have a point when it says jumping from the bridge could be risky at low tide, but most jumpers can probably work that out for themselves. There will always be the odd idiot who doesn't properly calculate the danger involved in hurtling into very shallow water at terminal velocity, but the old bridge, if memory serves, did not have a record of killing or maiming jumpers. This newspaper is certainly unaware of any serious mishaps. Perhaps the submerged rocks, floating debris and passing boats are more dangerous now than they used to be.
The change of heart hasn't gone down especially well among those who not only believed NZTA when it promised to build a jumping platform but regard leaping into the water from a man-made structure as some sort of rite of passage in the Far North. Taipā Area School principal Doreen Bailey, not known for deliberately placing her students in harm's way, has only gone as far as saying that she will be re-thinking the "controlled jumps" that the school has staged in the past, while others suggest that the warning will be more honoured in the breach than in the observance, assuming that the police don't start arresting people en masse for whatever criminal offence that they might manage to adapt for the circumstances.
Ms Bailey spoke for many no doubt when she said, "Build a bridge in the North and people will jump off it".
Most will see this as just another example of health and safety regulations exceeding rationality. Getting to where we are today has been a slow but inexorable process, and it probably hasn't run its course yet.
Some years ago, when Paper Plus (Now Marston Moor) in Kaitaia opened its partly-refurbished shop so its customers could buy their Lotto tickets, a Northland Age photo of the queue, surrounded by scaffolding, ladders and drop cloths, was described by an OSH person, a former police officer who was endowed with a very healthy common sense quotient, said he could spot nine grounds for prosecution.
He didn't do anything about it, which was good. He wasn't (and isn't) that sort of bloke. But the rules had clearly been broken. As far as the writer is aware, not one of the people who bought a Lotto ticket there that day died or was grievously injured. Whew!
NZTA says its change of heart was prompted by a recent health and safety review by the project team. Perhaps. Either the project team was seriously lacking in judgement when it allowed the jumping platform to be included in the plans for the new bridge, and again when it repeatedly promised that platform would be built, and when it said it accepted the significance of the bridge to the local community as a place from which to leap into the water, and has only just realised that it really should have known better, or someone else has stuck their oar in.
The Northland Age votes for the latter.
It really doesn't matter who made the decision though. We now have another rule, or at least warning, to abide by, another rule (or warning) that, one suspects, many people will show scant regard for. People including National Party leader Simon Bridges, who is threatening to take his boardshorts with him next time he goes to Taipā so he can fling himself into the river, as long as he can be assured that he won't be arrested.
Mr Bridges might well have drawn the reasonable conclusion that if people don't adhere to the warning, it will become a proper rule, broken at the jumper's peril.
There was a time when the old bridge was much more dangerous than the new one will ever be, at least on the day of what used to be an annual raft race. Memory of who organised the race has been lost (to the writer) in the mists of time, but it brought out the worst in some spectators. It was finally abandoned after one young psychopath armed himself with a slug gun and took pot shots at rafters as they emerged from under the bridge, bound for the finish line in the vicinity of the yacht club.
The crew of the Kaitaia Round Table raft didn't take much notice when one of their number toppled backwards into the water — people were falling off rafts left, right and centre — but were a little perturbed to discover that he had been shot in the back of his neck.
No great harm was done. The slug was removed without the need for a rescue helicopter (which hadn't been invented), but it would be fair to say that enthusiasm began to wane.
Perhaps the government should have declared slug guns illegal and organised a buy-back.
Prior to that some spectators on the bridge amused themselves by pelting the rafters with beer cans filled with water or sand (and occasionally with beer!) Such cans made a potentially deadly missile, although if memory serves very few bodies were hit, and none were seriously damaged.
More rational spectators intervened on one occasion after seeing a youngster staggering towards the bridge with a substantial lump of concrete in his arms, which, when questioned, he said he was going to drop on one of the rafts.
We lived dangerously in those days. Perhaps that's why OSH was invented.
Mind you, some rafters risked life and limb long before they got to the bridge. One particularly gifted designer (Warren Matthews) once produced a raft, with a sail, that he reckoned cruised at 70 knots or something like that, creating a bow wave that would threaten to swamp spectators on the river bank. A slight exaggeration, no doubt, but it was certainly quick, sprinting away from the starting line, a kilometre or two upstream from the bridge, while other crews struggled to get their 44-gallon drums moving.
The speed machine did have one design flaw though. The sole occupant had no means of steering it, so it shot across the river at a 45-degree angle and ploughed into the mangroves on the other side, never to be seen again. The track it cut through the mangroves has no doubt grown over again, but the remains of the raft might still be there.
Warren, incidentally, made it out relatively unscathed.
These days rafts would no doubt be examined by scrutineers before they hit the water, and his might well have been rejected as too dangerous to launch in the unquestionably safer but increasingly bland world in which we live. But who has a dollar that says we haven't seen the last jump off the Taipā bridge? Don't bother keeping an eye out for passing rafts.