Holidaymakers heading north of Auckland this summer won't be the only people chasing the sun.

Hundreds of workers on the new $709 million Puhoi to Warkworth four-lane motorway are hoping for a long, sunny summer to shift 4 million cubic metres of rock and soil at a crucial point on one of the country's biggest roading projects.

When the weather is sunny and dry, says Glenn Nelson, area construction manager for the central section of the 18.5km motorway, "we don't all go off to the beach, we come to the job".

It is a very large truck. It's all fully automatic, it's beautiful to drive. It's like a car, just such an easy thing to drive

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That's because the summer months offer a window of 120 days to carry out earthworks on the Road of National Significance, officially named Ara Tuhono, which extends the four-lane Northern Motorway, north of the Johnstone's Hill tunnels to tie in with the existing State Highway 1 north of Warkworth.

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Robert Jones, who came out of retirement to manage the project between the New Zealand Transport Agency and the Northern Express Group joint venture between Fletcher and Spanish construction firm Acciona, said the winter months had been all about planning for the earthworks season and making a start on seven new bridges.

"The real key is this season. We have got to be able to move that 4 million cubic metres. That is critical to finishing the job on time," said Jones, a former chief executive of Fulton Hogan.

During the first earthworks season last year, 1 million cu m of material was moved by the group, or NX2, which is delivering the project under a public private partnership (PPP) contract and will look after it for 25 years once it is built.

Construction works on the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway project. Photo / Michael Craig
Construction works on the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway project. Photo / Michael Craig

Slap bang in the middle of the project is Moir Hill, where Nelson and his team of workers, subcontractors and dozens of pieces of "big kit" are working on the largest earthworks job to remove 2.3 million cu m of material.

Access roads for service vehicles and haul roads for the big machinery crisscross hillsides cleared of pine trees to tackle the mammoth job of cutting the slopes of two big hills and filling a valley floor. Rock is being crushed on site for fill and unsuitable material like clay is going to tip sites.

At the smaller of the two hillsides, with an impressive cut high into a siltstone rock face, three brand new Komatsu 60-tonne tip trucks costing $1.8m each are working in convey to remove 40 tonne loads from a giant excavator. Rolls of wire mesh sit at the top of the slope, ready to be rolled out to prevent rockfalls.

One of the large dump trucks working on the big dig this summer. Photo / Michael Craig
One of the large dump trucks working on the big dig this summer. Photo / Michael Craig

Local driver Anna Voice steps down from one of the huge trucks, with its 2m diameter tyres, to talk about her job.

"It's awesome," said Voice, adding she can do what she likes in the cab, like sing along to the radio, work on her own but still be part of a team.

"It is a very large truck. It's all fully automatic, it's beautiful to drive. It's like a car, just such an easy thing to drive."

Voice blamed her husband for becoming a truck driver, adding she had always being a "bit of a tomboy". After working on the Gulf Harbour golf course and the Albany to Silverdale section of SH1, the couple moved to Western Australia where she progressed from driving truck and trailers to driving trucks in gold mines with a 250 tonne payload.

Voice is one of nearly 100 women working on the project, which will have more than 500 workers at the peak.

Robert Jones came out of retirement to lead the project. Photo / Michael Craig
Robert Jones came out of retirement to lead the project. Photo / Michael Craig

Jones, who wrote an article in the Herald in 2016 about infrastructure struggling to keep up with the demands of rapid population growth, said getting skilled workers was crucial to the project.

"A lot of people can drive diggers in subdivisions but they can't drive diggers and dump trucks on projects like this. The industry is busy and getting competent and experienced operators we have to invest in training," Jones said.

He said the biggest challenges for the project were the weather, getting equipment and a skilled workforce, and enough rock.

"We need rock as a base for many of our fills and if it is not on site we have to import it and that is expensive," Jones said.

When completed in late 2021, the new stretch of motorway will run west of the existing SH1. By 2026, it is projected the new road and old SH1 route will cater for 35,000 vehicles a day.

The new road, derided by critics as a "holiday highway" for Aucklanders driving to beach homes at Omaha, is seen by others as improving better and safer access through to Warkworth and further north.

Separate to the motorway project, Auckland Transport is due to start work late next year on a $62m Matakana link road to improve the infamous Hill St intersection. It will initially be a two-lane road, but widened to four lanes as traffic demand grows.

Over the coming decades, Warkworth and surrounds will follow Albany, going from a quiet rural town to suburban sprawl with thousands of new homes and businesses.

Area manager central section, Glenn Nelson, always wanted to build bridges. Photo / Michael Craig
Area manager central section, Glenn Nelson, always wanted to build bridges. Photo / Michael Craig

South African-born Glenn Nelson said there was a real vibe about meeting the challenges of the Puhoi to Warkworth project, particularly feeding off other people's energy.

There's also the legacy aspect and memories from perhaps having a sneak drive before everyone else does, "possibly in the wee hours of the morning".

"It is something I have always wanted to do from an early age," said the engineer.

"I remember telling my mother, 'I want to build a bridge mum when I get bigger'. I have probably built a lot of bridges and been part of a lot of infrastructure."