The big Meccano set
Variously known as the “coathanger”, the “steel ribbon” and the “big Meccano set”, held together by 205,000 high tensile steel bolts and requiring over 15,000 litres of fresh paint every year, the Auckland Harbour Bridge serves more than 120,000 vehicles a day, and has become the city’s most distinctive icon.
I took another sip of wine and checked my watch again. A generally reliable friend had agreed to meet me at 2.15pm, but it was nearly 3.30 and there was no sign of him. It was a mild enough Sunday afternoon for the middle of winter, so I couldn’t think what had delayed him. A few more minutes went by,then at last he appeared, smouldering with hatred for the Auckland Harbour Bridge. “It’s ridiculous,” he fumed, “for only two lanes to be open at the weekend.”
His complaints were echoed by other guests who had travelled to the Epsom garden party from the North Shore. It had taken an age, they said, to make the simple trip across the harbour. Repairs to the bridge had been holding up traffic for years. Would they never end? By this stage there was surely nothing left to fix. Whatever the latest brouhaha was about, couldn’t the work be carried out in the early hours of the morning, instead of ruining ratepayers’ hard-earned Sundays?
The litany of grumbles, whines and bleats made me feel distinctly uneasy. Usually I like to show solidarity with my fellow motorists, but I had spent the last few weeks thinking hard about the bridge. I’d met some of the workers whom the irate partygoers wanted to consign to the freezing darkness. I’d chatted to the technical officers, painters, riggers, fitters, labourers, steel structures inspectors and traffic officers whose job it is to maintain the bridge on a day-to-day basis. Most people, they told me, have no idea just how much is required to keep the bridge functioning. This I’d found to be quite true. Irritating as traffic delays are, there is another side to the story.
My friend’s delay had been caused by the closure of the bridge’s four central lanes for resurfacing—a necessary preliminary to installing a movable lane barrier which is intended to be in operation before the end of 1990. At an estimated cost of $6 million, the 60cm-wide barrier will close the last gap in Auckland’s motorway median barrier system between Sunset Road, Glenfield, in the north and Takanini in the south. It will be shifted four times a day by two enormous purpose-built vehicles. The movable barrier system is a very advanced piece of technology, so far used only on the viaduct of Gennevilliers in Paris and the Coronado Bridge in San Diego, although something similar is being considered for the Golden Gate in San Francisco.
But there’s no gain without pain. The standard width for a modern motorway lane is 3.7 metres. The lanes on the Auckland Harbour Bridge’s east and west extensions conform to this specification, but the central lanes are only 3.2m wide. To make way for the mobile barrier a further 15cm will need to be sheared off each of them. Inevitably, there will be major disruptions to the traffic flow while the renovations proceed.
With equal inevitability, many motorists will become angry because of the hold-ups. Yet it’s partly because of a public outcry that the mobile barrier is being introduced. One begins to see why the staff of Transit New Zealand, the Works and Development Services Corporation and the Ministry of Transport (the three bodies who jointly administer the bridge) sometimes complain that they just can’t win.
The latter half of 1989 was a particularly bad period for road accidents on the bridge. There were nine fatalities between July 1989 and February 1990. A Japanese tourist was killed when her motorcycle hit a small ridge between lanes and she was catapulted into the path of an oncoming truck. A trailer broke free from a utility and smashed into the following car, killing the woman driver. Worse still, on the evening of November 24, 1989, a wildly out-of control northbound car spun across three lanes at high speed and collided with a southbound car that had not the slightest chance of avoiding it. Just three days later, a Dunedin doctor was killed when his car skidded across six lanes and hit a vehicle on the very outside lane.
With three deaths from head-on smashes in less than a week, newspaper editorials began to insist on the urgency of erecting a median barrier as soon as possible. The epithet “killer bridge” was bandied about. The Auckland Star surveyed 300 Aucklanders about their attitudes to the transharbour connection and published the results in March of this year. Sixty-eight per cent of those polled said they felt nervous when they drove over it. According to the Phobic Trust of New Zealand, the bridge actually induces panic attacks in some people, with symptoms ranging from tight chests, lightheadedness and hyperventilation to nausea, shaking, numbness, even heart attacks.
I asked Auckland motorways superintendent Dick Waters how dangerous the bridge really is, and was surprised to learn that if you relate the number of accidents to the volume of traffic, then the bridge is actually one of the safest roads in New Zealand. It is certainly one of the best lit and most vigilantly policed. Waters took me into the control room of the Ministry of Transport headquarters in Stafford Road, which overlooks the motorway at the northern end of the bridge. A pair of traffic officers were studying the row of closed circuit TV screens that continuously present a variety of views of the bridge’s deck. “The cameras on the superstructure are pretty versatile,” said Waters. “We can zoom in on individual cars and check their registration plates. It’s even possible to swing into the harbour and monitor boat races, or to see who’s having lunch in the restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. The endless tape facility means that we can freeze-frame on accidents and replay them to discover the causes.
“We get a lot of drunken drivers. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are the worst nights, but we’ve also picked them up at 8am on a Monday morning. We can spot them on the screens by the way they weave across the lanes. We’re connected to the Wanganui computer here, so once we have a registration number we can check whether the car is stolen and whether the driver has other offences and is known to be violent. That could be very important information to relay to the officer who’s giving pursuit.
“We also have emergency lines to the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance system. We can talk to them as if it was over an intercom. All our own personnel are trained in first aid. The public might criticise us, but they tend to change their tune once they’re the victims of accidents and they see how quickly we can get help to them. We keep two files, one of complimentary letters and the other of complaints. About 86 per cent of what we receive is favourable.”
Until march 31, 1984, when tolls were discontinued and the responsibility for looking alter the steel structure, roading and traffic flow was divided among three different government bodies, the Stafford Road building was the administration block of the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority, empowered by act of parliament in December 1950 “to construct, maintain, manage and control a bridge across the Waitemata Harbour from Point Erin [on the south side] to Stokes Point Ion the north]”. The control room used to look out on the toll plaza. The 10 booths (increased to 15 when the extensions were added) were angled so that the supervisors could see at a glance what was happening in all of them. Aucklanders generally referred to the people who manned the booths as toll collectors, but officially they were known as “bridge control officers”. They took turns collecting the cash, patrolling the bridge and driving the breakdown vehicles.
Now retired, Les Greenlees was bridge superintendent during the last years of the toll booths. Every traffic-related fact or incident was scrupulously logged, and Greenlees still has those statistics at his fingertips. “During the Authority’s last financial year,” he informed me, “there was one fatal accident, 14 accidents involving injuries, 204 accidents with no injuries and 10 fires in vehicles. We booked 468 people for speeding (128 prosecuted), 23 for careless driving (18 prosecuted), 72 for being unable to stop (44 prosecuted),nine for making illegal U-turns (three prosecuted), 15 for carrying an oversized load without a permit (two prosecuted) and 1072 for other offences (457 prosecuted). There were 4246 breakdowns (an average of one for every 6726 vehicles that passed through the toll plaza), and 5545 people arrived at the booths with insufficient money. They had to sign a form promising to pay within seven days. Only about 2 per cent failed to do this, and they were fined.”
The toll plaza served other useful purposes besides gathering revenue and recording traffic flows. “It was a tremendous asset for the police to have a readymade road block,” says Greenlees. “We helped them to pick up a few escaped prisoners and a fair number of stolen cars. I remember a very flash Jaguar arriving one night at the plaza. The scruffy-looking lad who was driving it had no money. He seemed very uncertain about everything. He didn’t know his registration plate number, and he gave a silly name, Donald Duck or something, when he had to fill in the form. It turned out he was an inmate from one of the mental hospitals and he had stolen a car belonging to a senior psychiatrist.”
During the 25 years that tolls were collected the control officers saw almost everything — motorists in all manner of fancy dress (vampires, Vikings, vegetables, vestal virgins),naked drivers of both sexes, pigs and sheep that escaped from livestock trucks, racehorses that broke free from their floats, ponies that ran away from North Shore riding clubs, unwanted cats and dogs flung out of car windows. A blue penguin once came waddling out of the sea to inspect the booths. A stolen tuatara was recovered from a broken-down car.
“Once in the early hours of the morning,” Greenlees recalls, “one of the wheels came off a station wagon, and a coffin slid out of the back. It was being taken to Northland for a Maori funeral. A couple of our officers helped to lift it into the administration building, apparently breaking a tapu by doing so. We looked after the whole funeral party in our yard, giving them cups of tea until their hearse could be repaired.
“Most motorists were honest. Very few tried to drive through the booths without paying. People would sometimes phone us and say, ‘I don’t think I paid my toll. I’ve just got to Takapuna to pick up my kids, and I still have the money in my hand.’ We were usually able to take down their registration numbers when they went through anyway. Of course, we got the occasional larrikin who heated a coin with a cigarette lighter and used thick gloves or even tongs to hand it to the toll operator. There were bylaws to cover that sort of thing.”
The unintentional damage done to the booths by careless drivers with wide loads was a more persistent problem than either the pranksters or the fee-evaders. Tony Railton began working for the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority as a technical assistant in 1960, and by the time he retired in 1984 he was in charge of a maintenance crew of 50. “Doors were wiped off the toll booths every night.” he says. “There would be two or three waiting for us every morning in the workshop. We were forever taking them to the panelbeaters. We had a supply of spare ones. Sometimes there would be big rips right through the aluminium of the booths themselves.”
Restoring missing parts to the toll plaza was a relatively minor part of Railton’s job, however. Mostly he was concerned with maintaining the steelwork. This leads back to the question that was being asked, with varying degrees of hostility, at the garden party. Will repairs to the bridge ever end?
The simple answer is no—not as long as the bridge is still standing. Subject any structure to 43.8 million crossings a year, and there’s bound to be wear and tear. Technology which seems dazzlingly avant garde today will probably look antiquated in 30 years’ time. Patterns of usage change: a four-lane bridge was adequate in May 1959, but by September 1966 it was necessary to start building a two-lane extension on each side. Today, even eight lanes are not really enough.
But suppose Auckland’s population had stayed the same since 1959 (with only 50,000 residents on the North Shore instead of the present 150,000-plus), technology had also remained at a standstill, and everyone had driven with exemplary care. It would still have been necessary to protect the bridge from the natural corrosion which afflicts all metal structures. Even the most meticulous paint job doesn’t last forever. To prevent the Auckland Harbour Bridge from crumbling eventually into the sea, a team of 20 or more works all year round, continually repainting the steelwork. The total bridge workforce numbers 45.
In 1967 the English dramatist Tom Stoppard wrote a radio play about the problems involved in painting a bridge. Albert’s Bridge shows the calamitous effects of the fictional Clufton Bay Bridge Sub-committee’s decision to replace the traditional brown paint, which lasts two years, with a new silver paint, which lasts eight years. They reckon this will enable them to save money by reducing the number of painters from four to just a single man, Albert, who is expected to daub and stroke at a steady rate from one end to the other,taking exactly eight years to complete the crossing. The sub-committee has overlooked a crucial point, however. At the end of two years, all the brown paint has peeled away, but Albert, in spite of almost fanatical diligence, is still only a quarter of the way across.
The new silver paint looks fine, but the other 75 per cent of the bridge is a rusting eyesore. To avoid a major scandal, the sub-committee hires 1800 labourers to complete the repainting in a single day. They advance on the bridge as a well-drilled contingent, whistling “Colonel Bogey”. Unfortunately, the vibration they set up causes all the rivets to pop. Girder by girder, the bridge tumbles into Clufton Bay.
If the Auckland painters followed the simple-minded Clufton procedure of beginning at one end and working their way relentlessly towards the other, it would take them about three years to complete a single coating. This method of attack isn’t practical, however, because different sections of the bridge corrode at different rates. The salt-laden winds that whistle across the Waitemata dump a corroding encrustation on the underside of the bridge, where rain cannot wash the surfaces clean. Steel structures inspectors identify the trouble spots, which are then sandblasted, washed with fresh water and coated with at least five layers of paint.
All the steelwork on the original four-lane bridge was sprayed with a protective zinc coating and painted prior to erection. Freeman, Fox and Partners, the English engineers who designed the bridge, thought that one undercoat and two topcoats would be sufficient, but they were going on their experience in Britain. They had not reckoned fully on Auckland’s humid, salty atmosphere. A thorough inspection just three months after the bridge’s opening revealed that much of the original paint had deteriorated badly. A five-coat system was introduced.
Each layer is a different colour, so that the painters can tell at a glance how much has been done already. The grey-green, yellow and orange primers are followed by a charcoal topcoat and, finally, the silver grey familiar to all Aucklanders.
Why was a dull grey hue chosen rather than, say, lime green, deep purple or strawberry pink? Well, grey’s usually a safe choice. If no one feels really enthusiastic about it. no one really objects to it either. It blends well with the sea and sky. Pale colours reflect light, dark ones absorb it. A black or navy blue bridge would become very hot in the sunlight, making the paint blister more readily.
At some time or other, every girder, beam lateral, steel chord and horizontal member needs to be painted. Some of the main girders are hollow and require attention from the inside, with the painters winched slowly through them (not the most popular job). The bridge’s east and west extensions are hollow too, but there’s plenty of room inside. It’s like being in a huge steel box or an empty submarine. Six movable gantries, propelled by petrol engines, allow the maintenance crew good access to the outside of the extensions.
Two-man stages (or lifts), operated by air-powered motors, provide reasonable coverage of the underside of the original bridge. Suspended from the rails with wire ropes, they can descend until they are almost touching the sea. Nevertheless, there are some awkward spots they can’t reach. To allow the painters to get at these, the team of four riggers must erect temporary scaffolding. A timber walkway also extends along the full length of the underside. It’s between the two 60cm-diameter water mains that carry more than a million cubic litres of water a month to the North Shore from catchment lakes in the Waitakere and Hunua ranges. The mains get painted too.
The present painting team is made up about equally of Cook Islanders, Samoans and Europeans. They work from 8.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday, and usually stay up on the bridge all day. There are three smoko huts spaced along the underside so that the men don’t have to walk the length of the bridge to get a cup of tea.
With the constant clatter and vibration from the overhead traffic, it feels a bit like eating in a railcar.
When the wind is blowing above 25 knots, the humidity is over 85 per cent or the air temperature drops below 10°C, the workers can’t paint. They might do some routine washing and water-blasting instead. If the weather is really bad, they work inside the extensions, where it’s always warmer (and unbearably hot in summer).
According to Errol Hansen, it is possible to lose about a third of the available working time during winter. He also points out the difficulties involved in painting the areas above the roadway. “We’re forced to close down some of the lanes, which always annoys the public. Because the traffic is so heavy in the morning and late afternoon, we’re only allowed to close lanes between 10am and 2pm. After you add smoko, lunch and time lost through environmental conditions onto that, it’s a very short day. By and large, we’re limited to brushwork too, because we can’t risk spraying the cars. We also have to share the hours available with other projects like resealing and upgrading the overhead lighting. Motorists moan about how long we take, but the only way we could be faster is by disrupting them more severely. It’s a vicious circle.”
To a novice, much of the work carried out by the maintenance crew looks highly dangerous. Even the timber walkway shakes a little as you step on it. You have to keep ducking to avoid hitting your head on the cross-girders, or else develop a hunched-up Groucho Marx walk. There are chinks where you can see the ocean 40 metres below you.
“You get used to it,” Joe Tiaiti, one of the leading hands, told me. “The first time I climbed into a stage I made a grab for the overhead rails as soon as it started to creak. But they’re pretty safe, really.”
In fact, the bridge has an excellent safety record. Two carpenters and a steel erector fell to their deaths during the construction, but there have been no serious accidents among the workers since the bridge opened. Tony Railton remembers one occasion when an elderly rigger collapsed from a heart attack, but otherwise nothing more alarming than a sporadic jammed hand or sprained ankle. There are phones and alarms at regular intervals along the walkway in case of an emergency. “It’s probably more dangerous to paint the roof of your house,” one of the gang told me.
The cold is the main thing the workers complain about. Even on a sunny day the shaded underside of the bridge is chilly. Balaclavas, Swanndris and thick woollen shirts are standard gear among the painters. “When you get a good southerly blowing,” says Hansen, “the wind can go right through you. You don’t move around that much when you’re painting either.”
Frostbite notwithstanding, the painters say they like their work, and they certainly have one of the best views in Auckland. Not that the sights are always pleasant. “I’ve seen a few people jump from the bridge,” says Tiaiti. “There was one lady who hit the water and didn’t die. She was calling out to us painters for help, but there wasn’t much we could do.”
In fact, one of the maintenance crew did manage to rescue a young woman in similar circumstances in January 1986. She had jumped late on a Monday morning. Painter Murray Stayte saw her fall and acted swiftly. He slid down 17 metres of rope with his gloves smoking, dived the remaining 10 metres into the sea, swam out to the woman, put her head through a buoy that had been tossed down to him by his workmates and stayed with her until she could be picked up by a police launch.
The bridge has been a popular site for suicides since it opened. They jump at all hours of the day and night and from both the east and west sides. Some screech their cars to a halt and disappear over the railing before anyone has a chance to stop them. Others, who are probably looking for sympathy and attention rather than extinction, balance precariously on the edge and make a loud fuss. If you jump from the main navigation span when the sea is smooth, it’s like hitting concrete. You’re killed outright. When the sea is choppy there’s a higher likelihood of survival.
Dick Waters provided me with precise statistics: “Since opening day there have been 137 suicide attempts that we managed to prevent, of which 55 were violent and 82 were passive. Seventy people have actually jumped. Of these, 43 were killed and 27 survived. Some survived the initial impact but drowned afterwards. Five people have jumped twice, two of whom survived the second jump. Ministry of Transport staff are trained to deal with the psychological aspects of potential suicides, but when people are really determined, they’re usually gone before we can get to them.”
Wrestling with severely disturbed types on the outer ledges of the Auckland Harbour Bridge is not an appealing proposition, but it can be all part of a night’s work for traffic officers. At 4am on September 11, 1989 for instance, Sergeant Trevor Hall was running along one of the main box girders trying to catch a young man in his twenties who had threatened to hurl himself off. Hall grabbed him just before he jumped and managed to handcuff him after a scuffle.
Even a successful rescue attempt can be traumatic, but one that comes close then fails is soul-shattering. Early one morning in 1979 a 58-year-old man climbed over the rails, changed his mind, slipped and was left clinging to the edge by his fingers. A police dog-handler on his way home from work spied the man and summoned help from the toll booths. Bridge control officer Graham Peddie held the terrified, whimpering man by the wrist for about five minutes, but could not maintain his grip. The poor fellow plummeted, screaming, to his death.
In recent years the most notorious case connected with the bridge has been that of Philip Money. About 6pm on Saturday, May 5, 1984, he left his North Shore home with his fiveyear-old daughter and three-year-old son, saying that he was just going to the dairy to get something to eat. Instead he drove to the bridge, stopped at the top of the Ponsonby turn-off, threw the children over the rails and leapt after them. They were killed, but he survived. As he was taken away in an ambulance, he said that he loved his children and just wanted “to give them a break. A break from life.” Initially judged unfit to stand trial and confined to a mental asylum, in November 1988 he was found not guilty of murder on the grounds of insanity.
Fortunately, not all the stories about the bridge are so grim. Two people have even been born on it when their mothers went into labour before the rushing ambulances could reach the maternity ward. “The first was sometime in the ’60s,” recalls Les Greenlees, “and the baby was named Bridget.”
Though the bridge has only been with us for three decades, its ancestry goes back much further. In 1860, the same year that the New Zealand land wars were starting in Taranaki, a far-sighted built upon will be greatly enhanced.”
Bell produced two designs: one a system of interconnected floating barges; the other a series of moored boats—each vessel supporting a section of wooden roadway. Investors decided Bell was ahead of his time and gave his proposals the thumbs down.
Even before Fred Bell, there had been others who dreamed of a path across Auckland’s sparkling waters. Maori legend tells of a tribe of patupaiarehe, light-skinned fairies, who tried to build a causeway from Westmere to Kauri Point. Sunlight was deadly to these elf-like people, so they constructed their bridge by night, carrying huge boulders further and further out into the Waitemata. On the last night, with the end in sight. they laboured on through the darkness until, to their horror, they saw the first rays of dawn. In panic, they fled for the shore, but before they could reach its safety the whole until the time that the construction contracts were let, there were many who vehemently opposed the idea. Wrote one public accountant to a newspaper, “I have not yet heard one reputable and unbiased citizen do other than unhesitatingly condemn the bridge as completely unsound and uneconomic.” In fact, it is probable that without the dogged persistence of Sir John Allum, the Authority’s first chairperson and mayor of Auckland in the 1950s, there would have been no bridge at all.
Though the recommendations of the 1946 Royal Commission paved the way for the bridge as we know it, the commissioners’ predictions of traffic volume were hopelessly inaccurate. Their report reckoned that by 1965 a bridge across the Waitemata Harbour would be used by about 8250 vehicles a day. What they didn’t (and perhaps couldn’t) foresee was that a convenient road connection with the city would transform the North Shore from a sleepy backwater to a popular residential area. The bridge was used by more than 13,000 vehicles a day during its first year of operation, and by 1965 that figure had nearly doubled. In 1984, the year the toll plaza was removed, more than 80,000 vehicles were crossing the bridge every day, and now the average is 120,000.
The bridge is a lattice girder construction, consisting of seven cantilever and suspended span sections set on six concrete and steel piers. In the 1950s this was the cheapest practical method of spanning the Waitemata. The distance was too great for an arch bridge, and a suspension bridge or a reinforced concrete construction would have been too expensive.
In its early years the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority was obliged to be almost as thrift-conscious as the Clufton Bay Bridge Subcommittee. The preliminary plans, drawn up in April 1951 by the Westminster firm Freeman, Fox and Partners (who had earlier designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge), were for a five lane bridge with two footpaths,but this would have cost £8.1 million, and the New Zealand government would not approve of anything above £5 million. The designers were obliged to remove the footpaths and one of the traffic lanes, this new version becoming known as the “austerity bridge”. The approach roads were pruned to a mere one on either side, but were later reinstated. Even so, the bridge went way over budget and opened 11 months later than planned. The total cost by May 1959 was £7.5 million.
If you examine the bridge from Stokes Point, you can’t help noticing that it is not symmetrical. Though often described as coathangershaped, it is nothing of the kind. The navigation arch is about a quarter of the way along rather than in the middle. There’s a simple explanation for this: the Waitemata Harbour isn’t symmetrical either. The deepest water is much closer to Stokes Point than to Point Erin.
The bridge’s first span, from the northern anchorage to Pier 1, is 177 metres long. Then comes the main navigation span, which is 244m long and 43m above high water. Thereafter, the sections become progressively shorter as you move towards the southern anchorage (177m, 124m, 114m, 103m, 81m). The total length is 1020m. Although Australians sometimes deny the fact furiously, this is 157m longer than the Sydney Harbour Bridge (a simple arch construction). All the same, the Auckland Harbour Bridge is short stuff compared with the world’s really big connections. One of the causeways across Lake Pontchartrain, in Louisiana, runs for more than 38 kilometres.
The concrete piers, which are hollow with internal cross-walls, were fiendish things to construct. Beginning in late 1955, large steel boxes with cutting edges at the bottom were floated between pontoons to their designated positions in the harbour. The concrete walls of the pier were poured inside this box. As the walls grew, the boxes, or caissons, as they were called, sank deeper and deeper until the cutting edges touched the harbour bed. The recessed area underneath the pier was then pumped full of compressed air at the same pressure as the surrounding water. Workers climbed down long ladders into this air-filled chamber to remove mud, slime and rocks so that the pier would eventually rest on firm foundations. (See diagrams on foldout page following p.32)
It was slow, arduous, dirty work, endlessly filling a large bucket and sending it up to the surface for emptying. At the end of their four-hour shifts the men were taken to decompression chambers for up to two hours. As they dug, the caissons descended in frightening fits and starts. It was no job for claustrophobics, but there were lighter moments. At such pressures (30m below water level) combustion is enhanced. It was common practice for newcomers to be offered a cigarette, on which they would invariably choke.
There were some mishaps during construction. Two piers had to be refloated because they had been grounded more than nine inches (the allowed tolerance) from their correct positions. In May 1957 Pier 5 suddenly developed an alarming 24-degree tilt, and two weeks of dangerous digging in the working chamber was required to right it. But the strength of the piers can be appreciated from the fact that they now support not one bridge but two. As well as fulfilling their original task, they hold up the extensions built by the Japanese company Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries at a cost of $13.2 million and opened (right on schedule) on September 23, 1969.
There are gaps between the extensions and the main bridge, and there is a small break in the original four-lane structure above Pier 3 to allow for expansion and contraction. These are things you don’t notice unless you’re actually walking on the bridge, but there have been only a few times when the public has been legally entitled to stroll across the structure.
One was on May 24, 1959, when more than 100,000 Aucklanders enjoyed the chance to inspect the new landmark before its official opening. Another was in July 1974, when the Authority took a merciful attitude towards North Shore residents stranded by a bus strike and let them use one of the extensions.
The most spectacular occasion was in September 1975, when 82year-old Whina Cooper was leading a mass march from Te Hapua in the far north to the parliamentary grounds in Wellington to campaign for Maori land rights. The Authority had always resisted pleas to use the bridge for marathon runs, bicycle races or processions, but there was no practical way of stopping thousands of Maori protesters and their sympathisers. It was decided to allow them onto one of the extensions.
In good spirits, the protesters began to sing as they marched over the bridge. Remember the singing painters of Clufton? The bridge started to creak and tremble with the vibrations. There was no real risk of its collapsing, but the possibility of serious structural damage had to be averted. The protesters were told to sit down and then removed in small groups.
Many people have tried to walk over the bridge illegally. This is inadvisable. If you go by roadway, Dick Waters and his team will soon spot you on their TV screens, but perhaps not soon enough to prevent you from being flattened by speeding traffic. If you try to use the maintenance crew’s walkway at night, you’ll set off one of the pressure plate alarms or infra-red sensors. In the pitch darkness, you’re also likely to fall.
Illicit walkers are a mixed bunch. Some are blind drunk; some are vandals who get a thrill out of throwing the workers’ gear into the Waitemata; some are just desperate because they have missed the last bus or ferry; a few are intent on suicide. One Tuesday afternoon in April 1987 a couple of tourists sauntered casually along the southbound extension and began to take photographs amidst the peak-hour traffic. They were surprised to learn that New Zealand laws prohibit this.
All kinds of illegal activity took place on the bridge in 1987. On Wednesday, February 11, the famous bungy jumper A.J. Hackett and three companions leapt from the navigation span with rubber ropes tied either to their ankles or round their middles. They were discovered, still dangling, by the police launch Deodar about 7am and released without being charged.
A couple of months later, as a capping stunt, Auckland University students thought it would be amusing to add to the worries of welders who were repairing cracks in the extensions by painting some realistic zigzag fissures of their own.
A week or so after that, Greenpeace members hung a huge banner from the bridge to commemorate the second anniversary of the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. Then, on Sunday, July 19, two men in wetsuits parachuted from the navigation span and were picked up by a friend in a jetboat. The next day an 11-year-old boy took potshots at the bridge’s traffic with his father’s very old Winchester 22. One bullet hit a Ministry of Works Landrover and another nearly killed a female bus passenger.
The most famous stunt connected with the bridge, however, occurred about 20 years earlier. At 2.30pm on March 31, 1967, Captain Fred Ladd flew his Widgeon seaplane under the navigation span at a height of 10m. He had been running a passenger service from Mechanics Bay, Auckland, across the Hauraki Gulf to Waiheke Island and Great Barrier Island for 12 years, and this was his last day in the job. He wanted to do something special to celebrate. “I kept looking at the bridge and a thing inside me kept saying that I just had to go under it,” he wrote in his autobiography A Shower Of Spray and We’re Away. “It was a must.”
A former Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot with more than 16,000 flying hours behind him, Ladd pulled off the feat with ease. In fact, he even took a couple of photographs as he was going under the span. Still, the flight was an undeniable breach of the 1953 Civil Aviation Regulation concerning low altitude flying and he was taken to court for it. The magistrate gave him a very stern lecture about the poor example he had set for other, less experienced, pilots, but discharged him without conviction, demanding only that he pay the court costs of $13.50. It was felt that he had given too much good service to the people of the Hauraki Gulf over the years to warrant a stiffer penalty.
The harbour bridge has served the people of the Gulf well too. Apart from a brief bomb scare during the troubled 1981 Springbok rugby tour, it has never been wholly closed to traffic, even in gale force winds. Still, if Auckland’s traffic continues to grow, a second crossing will become necessary. Various schemes have been proposed. Kauri Point, Birkenhead, in the north, and Point Chevalier, in the south, have so far been the most discussed sites for new anchorages, but a bridge from the North Shore suburb of Devonport and a transharbour tunnel from the inner-city suburb of Ponsonby have also been considered.
Perhaps the most novel proposal came from the urban transport committee of the Auckland Regional Authority (now the Auckland Regional Council) in September 1987. They asked the Swiss monorail manufacturer Von-Roll-Harbeggar to conduct a feasibility study on a two-way monorail system along the out‑side lanes of the existing bridge.
In the meantime, the big Meccano set continues to bless,2 Auckland with its shapely arches and sweeping harbour views.