The northernmost communities of the Far North could be reconnected to the rest of New Zealand tomorrow as work continues to repair a massive breach in State Highway 1.
A deluge on Friday afternoon coupled with a suspected blocked culvert triggered a flash flood which swept away a 20m-long, 5m-deep chunk of highway.
The washout was about 50km north of Kaitaia and just south of Pukenui, the main township on Aupouri Peninsula.
With the only alternative routes along 90 Mile Beach and a forestry track turned into a quagmire by the rain, locals were cut off and tourists visiting Cape Reinga were stranded.
About 7.30am yesterday police escorted a convoy of 22 southbound vehicles on the 40-minute route through the forest while three vehicles left the other side at 8.15am.
Another convoy was due to be escorted each way in the afternoon and again this morning.
The only access through the forest at other times is for emergency vehicles.
NZ Transport Agency Northland manager Jacqui Hori-Hoult said the convoy was for essential travel only. Police would assess vehicles and drivers for suitability before they were allowed to join the convoy and motorists would travel at their own risk.
''If you don't have to travel, please delay your journey until the state highway is open,'' she said.
The land the track passes through is owned by Summit Forestry.
By yesterday afternoon a new culvert with 10 2.1m-diameter pipes had been laid and seven trucks were delivering about 5000cu m of material needed to backfill the hole to road level.
It was hoped the road would reopen midweek, Ms Hori-Hoult said.
Early yesterday 50 crates of bread and milk were manhandled across the gap between trucks on the south side and store owners waiting on the north side.
Houhora Four Square owner Peter Morrison said the lack of communications in the first 24 hours after the washout — all internet and telephone services were down — had made it difficult initially, but since then things had gone relatively smoothly.
''We're doing okay. We had a bit of help from Far North Roading and Civil Defence to get supplies through on a daily basis so we could ensure people had the essentials. We're hoping they'll have the road ready to go before the delivery trucks are due early on Wednesday,'' he said.
Earlier, Far North District councillor Felicity Foy said she had been contacted by residents saying they had called NZTA warning that the culvert was blocked before the washout happened.
However, Hori-Hoult said a crew had inspected the culvert an hour before the washout. There was no sign of a blockage at that time, she said. The cause was being investigated.
Health provider Whakawhiti Ora Pai, which has clinics at Pukenui, Te Kao and Te Hapua, has four staff who can't get to work because they live on the other side of the washout.
Manager Errol Murray said he had enough staff left to keep services running but if the road wasn't open by this morning he would go through on the convoy and pick up their Ahipara-based GP, who was needed for today's clinics. The rescue helicopter could be called on for any medical emergencies, he said.
Pukenui Rural Fire Party is also affected because about half its volunteers can't get to the fire station if there's a callout.
Fire chief Warren Bunn said until the highway was fixed the Kaitaia Fire Brigade was responding to any emergencies south of the washout.
Children who can't get to school have been told to stay at home. With no high school in the area students either travel to Kaitaia or board in Whangarei or Auckland.
Kaitaia College has contacted families telling them there will be no buses operating north of Whalers Rd until the highway reopens.
Fonterra has two milk suppliers north of the road breach. A spokeswoman said the company managed to collect their milk during the weekend using forestry roads and was looking at options for today's pick-up.
Not fast enough, local says
A Houhora resident says the highway could have been open by now if crews were working around the clock.
Mason Elliott said repairs were only being carried out from 7am-5.30pm which wasn't good enough.
''It's a crucial piece of state highway for us local residents, but also the tourists that come up here. They should have lights there so they can work at night. We need this repaired as soon as possible.''
NZ Transport Agency Northland manager Jacqui Hori-Hoult said working overnight during the weekend was considered but ruled out for safety reasons, with crews working in an unstable stream bed below road level.
Once the hole had been backfilled to road level it would be safer to work at night. They were working as fast as safely possible to reopen the highway, she said.