Good roading came later in the ‘roadless north’ than in many other regions. In 1950 there was just 170 kilometres of sealed road. By 1961 there was still only 536 kilometres; in the 2010s only a third of the road network was sealed, one of the lowest proportions in New Zealand.
The region grew slowly, so improving the roads had low priority in national main-route planning. Unlike in other regions, one main route could not connect all areas. There were other difficulties: unstable land foundations and local authorities’ limited funds. In the 2010s a road network of around 6,600 kilometres made the north an accessible, compact region.
Not quite paradise
In the early 20th century, Northland was referred to as ‘God’s own country, with the Devil’s own roads’. 1
Road transport remains the main means of moving freight and people. The condition of major and secondary routes, and the number of one-lane bridges, became an important political issue in the 2010s. The National Land Transport Programme aimed to invest $460 million from 2015 in improving the state of Northland’s roads.
Northland had one of the first stretches of railway in the North Island (between Kawakawa and Taumārere). However, only short lengths were built to meet special needs, such as to service coal mining near Whāngārei and Kawakawa. Rail extensions were built north from Whāngārei before the main line was extended south to Auckland in 1925. The line from Auckland stopped at Ōkaihau, leaving the far north without rail access.
A branch line runs from Waiotira to Dargaville. By 2000 most of the rail freight out of the region was containerised meat and dairy produce, ceramic clay, and triboard, a building material. Within the region some logs were carried, but rail has had to compete with road transport. Its future is uncertain; in 2016 rail services to and within Northland were reduced. The end of the line is now at Whāngārei (previously it was at Ōtiria, near Moerewa), and weekly freight services between Whāngārei and Auckland were halved.
For years the north relied on coastal shipping, and there were numerous ports around its coastline. In the 20th century trade patterns changed as pastoral farming and forestry developed. Coastal shipping declined, as did activity at the many minor ports.
Awanui, Mangōnui and Whangaroa still functioned as coastal ports in the 1960s, but better roading soon made them redundant. For many years, barges on the east coast carried sand and fertiliser between the north and Auckland. But the seagoing trade became concentrated at one or two major ports.
Ōpua in the Bay of Islands opened to ocean-going vessels in 1924, but closed for security reasons during the Second World War. In 1957 it reopened as an international port. In the early 1960s Whāngārei Port was developed as the chief port and servicing centre for the region’s southern section. Both ports primarily served export needs and had a low value of imports. Ōpua is now seldom used, except as a ferry wharf and recreational marina.
There are now several other port facilities on Whāngārei Harbour, in addition to Whāngārei Port. At Marsden Point a deep-water three-berth port opened in 2002, primarily for exporting forest products. A variety of cargo can be handled at both Whāngārei and Marsden Point ports. The Marsden Point oil refinery has two oil jetties. There is also a specialised loading port at Portland cement works on the harbour.
An aerodrome for Whāngārei was completed in 1939, and airfields at Kaitāia and Kaikohe were built for military purposes during the Second World War. Domestic air travel became possible from 1947, when the National Airways Corporation was formed. The first NAC service was from Auckland to Whāngārei, Kaikohe and Kaitāia.
There are now three commercial airports: the main one is at Whāngārei, with smaller airports at Kaitāia and Kerikeri. The north had no direct commercial flights to parts of the country other than Auckland until 2003. Over the years aero clubs and numerous private airfields have been established.