The day I went north, there was rain in the bay, a great, grey cloth bag of a cloud hanging there, and then the rain swept over you, then it was gone and then it happened again. Welcome to the winterless north, or possibly just welcome to the end of spring.
A string of freighters on the horizon, and the astonishing toothy peaks of Whangārei Heads, monstrous like a land of fable. At Ruakaka, the town built in the sandhills just south of Northport and Marsden Pt, broadband is on its way, say the signs. The main road is called Peter Snell Rd. They're going for gold.
Or are they? Shane Jones, Minister of Regional Economic Development, stood up in front of a Ruakaka business development seminar and told them: "Wake up, Northland! Auckland is the cashflow capital of New Zealand. If you want some of that, stand up and be counted."
He was talking about the proposal to move the Auckland port to Northport, redevelop the links south – especially the railway – and reopen the railway north of Whangārei, to a new inland freight hub at Moerewa, near Kerikeri. They were attentive but they didn't seem all that excited.
Peter Batten, president of the Ruakaka Business Association, told a story about his neighbour buying land when the oil refinery expanded 30 years ago but somehow missing out on the gold rush that should have followed. Missing out the way most people in Northland missed out, he said. "Are we going to spend the next 30 years wondering what happened?"
Jones was in full ebullient mode. "I came back into politics to change the narrative for New Zealand," he declared. "After the election, if they crown me again with the laurels of regional champion, I will not rest ... " Etc.
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He said, "You have heard these speeches before but you have not before had a politician who will go out and find the money."
The problem, from Jones' perspective, was this: Since it was revealed Northport was favoured by the working group set up to propose an Upper North Island supply chain – ports, freight and transport links – very few leaders in the North have spoken up in support.
There are four councils: The Northland Regional Council and district councils in Whangārei, Kaipara and the Far North. No one from any of them has yet made a clear public statement on the issue. It's hard even to get them to answer calls.
In Auckland, the group Waterfront 2029 is busy lobbying for the change, on Facebook and with an open letter to the Prime Minister signed by hundreds of prominent Aucklanders. In Northland, not a squeak.
Wayne Brown, chair of the working group, says it's a bit like a cargo cult. "They're just waiting for things to drop out of the sky for them."
The Stepford wives also spring to mind. You think they're autonomous politicians, but they've been replaced by subservient robots doing their makers' bidding.
I asked Matt King, MP for Northland, if he supported the proposal. "It's worth asking the question," he said, which is a quote from his leader, Simon Bridges. "But it's a complex and major decision. We can understand phasing down Auckland Port over time, but it would have to stack up against other major infrastructure projects."
That's possibly a clue: Does National think the plan threatens its hopes for a four-lane highway from Whangārei to Auckland. Why would it?
King also said, "There are still a lot of unanswered questions like who pays? What do you do about transporting the goods? Who owns it? We just don't have those answers yet."
This is a mix of untrue and unimportant. The Government will have to pay for infrastructure, unless it enters funding arrangements with other parties. That doesn't all need to be decided yet.
As for "what do you do about transport", the report makes it very clear that 70 per cent of freight should be carried by rail.
Finally, King said, "This Government can't even build houses for KiwiBuild or deliver light rail, so it's unlikely we'll need to worry about moving a port any time soon." That's also a cut-and-paste from a Bridges statement, and it sounds like King doesn't care if Northland gets the port or not.
I asked him if he was excited about the prospect of an economic boom in his electorate. I said there might be complex issues for Auckland to resolve, but is there any downside at all for Northland?
He has not replied.
Sheryl Mai, mayor of Whangārei, told me she couldn't speak for her council as they have not received a formal report yet. They were "keeping a watching brief" and "waiting for Cabinet".
She may not have realised Cabinet will be waiting for them: If Northland doesn't make it clear they want this, it won't happen.
I asked if there were problems in the plan. She said there might be questions about an "appetite to invest in infrastructure, both rail and road".
But was she keen? "Personally, as mayor of Whangārei," she said, "the idea of Northport becoming a significant port for New Zealand is incredibly exciting."
Perhaps the northern silence is starting to break. Jason Smith, mayor of Kaipara and chair of the Northland Mayoral Forum, told me he has started promoting the proposal in the local media and on social media.
"It's absolutely extraordinary for the district," he said. "We're already the fastest-growing part of the North Island and our growth story now gets turbocharged."
He said the challenge for Northland was to get itself ready. The port was "Auckland's to throw and we have to catch it very well".
Northport handles logs. It's not set up for much else. But Northland exports a lot more than that, and it's growing, especially north of Whangārei. Gold kiwifruit is a booming industry in Kerikeri and avocados further north at Kaitaia. Dairy is getting much more established. Currently, those industries mostly truck their export goods south, either to the Auckland port or to Southdown, where they are carried on by rail to Tauranga and exported from there.
The rail line from Whangārei handles milk powder and log chips. There is no rail line to Northport: Brown wonders if it's the only port in the world not serviced by railway. Fixing that is a key part of the proposal. So is reopening the rail line north to Moerewa. That will cost $130 million.
There are plans to bring north some or all of the Navy's facility at Devonport: The dry dock is top of the list.
Brett O'Riley, chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, says that would be another win/win for Auckland and Whangārei. Auckland would get much-needed urban brownfields for development. The North would get facilities that spread the load and bring in people to increase demand.
"This move would lower the overall incremental cost of port development at Northport, given the amount of shared infrastructure, and improve utilisation of the proposed new dry dock that is likely to go there."
O'Riley is also enthusiastic about airport expansion proposals, to cater for the Air Force and air freighting some exports.
"Thousands of jobs for Northland," he says. Including recruits "who cannot currently afford to live in Auckland, which is impacting on NZ Defence Forces staff retention".
The social impacts will also be enormous. A housing boom. New health services. At that Ruakaka seminar, Jonathan Slavich, NorthTec's chief financial officer, talked about the need to connect the new fast-growth industries with education. Upskilling people to meet the workforce needs. Because right now, said someone else, half the adult population of Northland did not finish high school.
It's tempting to argue provinces like Northland need help like this because they won't survive on their own. But the reality is more complex. Northland is striving to succeed, but held back by lack of infrastructure.
Some of the new plan will be easy. Northport is a deepwater port that already handles giant oil tankers: Ships with much deeper draughts than can visit Auckland. It needs to be extended, which will be easy to do, and Brown says they've done the modelling: It will be big enough.
And it can be purpose-built as a port dedicated to rail freight. That's completely different from the Auckland port, which puts less than 10 per cent of its freight on to rail and will find it hard to increase that.
Some of the plan will be hard, but not as hard as you might think. Greg Miller, chief executive of KiwiRail, is spending $100m of Provincial Growth Fund money on the railway south. There are 13 tunnels and they're all too small for full-size containers, and five bridges.
Miller told the Ruakaka meeting KiwiRail has worked out how to fix the tunnels - not by reboring them, but by dropping the ground level and relining the roof and walls. A recess will go into the roof to allow for electrification.
They're not double-tracking yet, because they don't need to. Passing bays like they have on the Tauranga line will do the job.
One of the great advantages of all this is that unlike, say, Bay of Islands tourism, this will bring economic opportunity to the whole region. Even, and perhaps especially, the closed-up towns like Kaikohe.
Miller asked if anyone could remember the Bay of Plenty in the 1970s, before the kiwifruit boom, when Te Puke was a depressed, difficult town. Now it's one of New Zealand's great success stories.
"That's the Bay of Plenty," he said, "Up here, we're going to have the North of Plenty. Kaikohe is the Te Puke of the 70s."
The politics of the port
There's a story Mark Hewitt tells about National Party front-bench MP Judith Collins. Hewitt runs one of the biggest companies in Northland, the Mt Pokaka sawmilling plant near Kerikeri, and Collins wanted to talk to him about the proposal to move the Auckland port north. She took Northland MP Matt King with her.
Hewitt told them they should be supporting the idea. As he said later, "A bold plan like this, it obviously makes sense." He didn't mean just for Northland, either. "It's going to be very good for Auckland."
Collins, he says, said to him she was concerned about constituents in her Papakura electorate, in southeast Auckland. She wasn't prepared to see them lose a single job because of this plan.
Matt King is the electorate MP for the part of New Zealand that needs jobs possibly more desperately than anywhere else in the country. Certainly more than Papakura, which is booming. He sat there and said nothing.
Collins is not just the MP for Papakura. She's a front-bench member of the National Party team, an experienced former cabinet minister, and she's supposed to have a bigger picture in mind than simply hypothetical constituency jobs. She's also supposed to know that with automation around the corner at the Auckland port, lots of jobs will go anyway.
But Collins has been one of the plan's most outspoken critics and the focus of her criticism is its supposedly parochial nature.
"It beggars belief," she said last year, "that Labour is playing along with NZ First's scheme to divert shipping, freight and logistics to Northland, against the wishes of profitable port companies and their owners, with no economic rationale and at vast cost."
She has also said, "This concept of [the Ports of Auckland] being shifted up to Northland … is Winston Peters' and Shane Jones' idea to win a seat."
Her leader, Simon Bridges, says the same. "This is being driven by politics and by New Zealand First, rather than good, sensible thinking and working through what could and should happen."
Chris Carr, of the car-carrying firm Carr & Haslam, says the report proposing the move "sludges below the bottom of the political barrel. Not since Rob Muldoon's days have we seen such naked self-interest, and obvious re-election strategies aimed at people who believe the moon is made of cheese."
Auckland mayor Phil Goff says he wants "evidence-based not politically based" analysis.
It's easy to attack NZ First for parochialism. But in this debate local and political bias is evident everywhere you look. Goff is partisan-aligned to the Labour Party. Many of the sceptical and downright condemnatory industry voices raised against the proposal are aligned to the National Party, and they rarely admit it.
Parochialism drove the major Port Future Study that reported in 2016. It didn't look seriously at shifting the Auckland port to Northport because it was an Auckland exercise designed to focus everyone's thinking around keeping the port in Auckland.
Other vested interests have also been narrowly served. They commission reports and then pass them off as independent. The most egregious example is the report by economic consultancy NZIER, commissioned and released this week by Ports of Auckland (POA).
NZIER director Laurence Kubiak freely confesses their premise was that the Auckland port would close tomorrow and no other infrastructure changes will occur.
But nobody has suggested that scenario. The proposal is to spend $10 billion on new ports, railways and freight facilities, "progressively" closing the Auckland port as the new services allow.
That hasn't stopped POA and NZIER from arguing they now know closing the Auckland port will make everything inefficient and cost us all over $300 per year.
Wayne Brown, who chaired the working group that has recommended the move, says it's wrong to think of his group as having a Northland bias. Four of its members were Aucklanders and one is from Christchurch. He was the only Northlander on it.
Was there NZ First influence? He denies it, but of course he would. The larger point is that political goals are everywhere in this debate. We should just assume it and move on to the issue itself.
As for Judith Collins and the National Party, Mark Hewitt thinks they're worried about the four-lane highway they want from Auckland to Whangārei. If the port and redeveloped railway go ahead, will that put an end to hopes for the road?
"I don't understand why they think that. Don't they see that if the port happens, the road will get built? It's inevitable." He's probably right.
He's also not a NZ First stooge. "My leanings probably lie with National, but I will be pretty disappointed if they don't support this."
Moving the port to Northland, he says, quoting former National Prime Minister Sir John Key, is "an aspirational thing for New Zealand".
PORT IN A STORM: THE SERIES
Moving the port is the biggest infrastructure project Auckland has faced. This week we're examining the proposal in detail, and looking ahead to ask: what does the future hold for the city?
Monday: The Big Idea.
Tuesday: Why move the Auckland port?
Thursday: The North of Plenty: The prospects for Northland
Friday: Crunching the numbers: Is this good economics?
Saturday: Auckland 2050: Our city in 30 years.