Best-known for its towering smoke stacks and a dilapidated sign for a department store, Huntly is a place where locals say things are actually looking up - it's a town on the move. The riverside settlement has a not-so-proud history of being a lazy punchline, but Waikato News reporter Tom Rowland and editor Peter Tiffany find a town determined to have the last laugh.
The small Waikato town of Huntly (population 10,300) sits astride the Waikato River as it heads north to the Tasman Sea with State Highway 1 and the main trunk rail line running side by side just off the main street.
Few travellers stop on the way through, apart from maybe a quick toilet break or perhaps to snap a photo of well-known Huntly landmark, the Deka sign - the last trace of a long-since-closed department store.
For much of the rest of New Zealand, Huntly remains the butt of so-called jokes. The darkly humorous book Shit Towns of New Zealand says: "The Waikato River passes through Huntly as fast as it can, and so should you."
Back in the day, as New Zealand opened to European settlement, the river was king, with passenger ferries and trade boats taking people and goods between the main centres north and south.
Long before that, the Mighty Waikato enabled Māori waka to travel in war and peace from Kirikiriroa and all points south to Putataka (Port Waikato) and via portage to Waiuku and the Manukau Harbour and on to Tāmaki Makaurau.
Watch below: Huntly speedway president Red Wootton wants to see more investment in Huntly, and believes the future of the town is bright.
Then trains arrived. Coal was king and Huntly flourished as its mines dug in to feed the demand.
When the internal combustion engine replaced the steam engine, the motor car became king. The Great South Rd became State Highway 1 – right through Huntly. From the river, to rail and then to road, fortune continued to smile on the town.
The physical and dirty job of mining forged the settlement's reputation as a rugged town, according to current Huntly ward councillor Shelley Lynch.
"People outside of Huntly, the ones who drive straight through the town, only see what is bad in the press," Lynch said.
"Huntly got a bit of a reputation back in the mining days because miners are like a close society, and they are very hard guys which they have to be when they rely on each other underground.
"I think because it is just a dirty business that people got the impression Huntly is a dirty town."
The first coal to be mined was half a ton at Taupiri in 1849. With the opening of the Pukemiro railway in 1915, mines opened at Pukemiro, Glen Afton, Rotowaro, Waikōkōwai and Renown. Open cast mining began west of Huntly during World War II.
The Huntly East coal mine opened in 1978. It employed more than 200 people at its peak, but shut down in 2017.
The mine, for a period, provided coal to Huntly's famous power plant, whose smoke stacks were visible several kilometres before you reach town. A viewing station on the opposite side of the river allows motorists time to take in a good look of the station before continuing on their trip down, or up, SH1.
The power station opened in 1983 and is operated by Genesis. It has four operational generating units. However, since 2017, only two remain operational. The station plays a role in providing power to areas including Northland, Auckland and Waikato.
Genesis Energy announced in 2017 its last two coal-burning electricity generators at Huntly would be permanently withdrawn from the market by December 2018.
The company backtracked on that decision and will keep the station operating until 2022 - a move which upset Greenpeace, which said by closing the power station, the country's biggest coal-burning station, New Zealand would show it took caring for the environment seriously.
By 1995, Huntly was getting a bad rap. A comedy single released in 1995 by New Zealander broadcaster Hugh Sundae and the New Zealanders was titled What's Wrong With Huntly? Its chorus was: "Two sets of traffic lights, population 7000, approximately just by a big river, it's gotta big power station. Angus MacDonald the mayor of the town, he's into coal mining".
The Waikato Police Facebook page runs a "Wanted Wednesday" feature posting pictures of accused with warrants for their arrest. Often social media commenters will joke the police should start their search in Huntly.
But is Huntly's future set to change for the good as the completion of the Waikato Expressway fast approaches?
According to Shelly Lynch, the future is bright - even though the new highway will bypass the town.
Lynch said a full central Huntly interchange should have been part of the Waikato Expressway, which when completed will run directly over Mt Taupiri. She believes the expressway will still play its part in boosting the town.
"I see the future for Huntly as very bright. How can it not be? Geographically positioned in the centre of the Waikato, we are perfectly situated to support all sorts of propositions," Lynch said.
"We have the river going through the middle of the town, ideal for all sorts of tourism ventures."
"The motorway is so close that it will enhance the opportunities for smaller business and industry to connect to the central corridor who at the moment are being pushed out of the cities by bigger companies and where services are so expensive they are struggling to make ends meet.
"It has broken my heart a bit that there is no central interchange, but we have some big businesses that are wanting to come to Huntly. Ohinewai is also about to go big, with Sleepyhead considering moving there."
"When they come, they will bring other businesses with them."
Lynch believes people will still use Huntly's old section of the motorway to bypass the main traffic.
She said Huntly's population had grown to 10,300 according Statistics NZ, up from about 7000 a few years ago, and the town was getting more residents moving from Auckland looking for more affordable real estate, smaller schools and a community atmosphere.
"Waikato District Council is in the process of reviewing the District Plan, enabling changes to zoning and making our district more attractive for developers, whether residential or business. Also 15 minutes drive from Huntly is Ohinewai, which has potential for expansion with business being interested in the area."
Lynch said she could see Aucklanders and Hamiltonians ditching the big cities for more affordable homes in Huntly, something already seen in towns such as Pokeno and Te Kauwhata, north of Huntly.
The Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) says the median house price in Hamilton was $540,500 in March 2019, an increase from the $522,000 recorded in February 2018.
Yet in a report released by REINZ, the average asking price for a house in the Waikato region had fallen to $584,785 (4.1 per cent) while the number of new listings increased by 1002 (3.9 per cent).
Huntly sits at the lower end of the housing prices; its median home value is currently at $349,700 according to QV.
On One Roof, of the 86 properties listed in Huntly, the most expensive one listed is $1,100,000, yet after that there is a sharp drop to another single property at $790,00, before tailing off again into the $500,000s.
Lifestyle blocks and properties are selling for as low as $200,000.
Huntly needs new hit
As Huntly prepares to make the most of the new challenges ahead, the town needs a new tune that reflects its progress better than the comedy single What's Wrong with Huntly?
Perhaps a new take on some classics? Maybe "We Built this City on Rock and Coal", or "Smoke Stacks on the Water"?
Middle of everywhere
Huntly on the Move - Part 2: In the second part of the feature this week we look at Huntly's prime position in the new Golden Transport Triangle. We talk with Huntly Mayor Allan Sanson and resident of 46 years Red Wootton about the future of Huntly.
"We used to be in the middle of nowhere; now we are in the middle of everywhere," Red says.