53. Urquharts Bay and its Gun Emplacment; and the Marsden Point Oil Refinery

After visiting Whangarei Heads, we found ourselves driving the same road a second time to see more sights. We drove out of Whangarei, past some mangrove swamps and round the coastline all the way to Urquharts Bay where there is a gun emplacement, or battery.

The next day, we drove around the other side of Whangarei Harbour to see the oil refinery which we’ve heard so much about about over the years. We are looking forward to seeing that – we’ve had a lot of use out of the petrol produced by this refinery over the years.

This is us driving out of Whangarei, crossing its newest road bridge, Te Matau a Pohe, which gets you from one side to the other of a lengthy inlet within Whangarei Harbour. This bridge, which I’ve so far only heard referred to as ‘the new bridge’ by locals, was opened in 2013 and allows tall yachts and boats to pass under, by arrangement with the local Bridge Control.
A faraway shot of the new bridge taken from an older bridge that crosses a different branch of the inlet.
Our weather is switching between sunny and warm to rainy and warm, several times each day. It’s best to be prepared for anything. People we meet find it cold and some even wear woolly hats. I am so warm in one or two thin layers of clothing that I find this quite funny.
The temperature is around 17 or 18 degrees celcius in the daytime; and at night we only need one or two layers of synthetic blankets. All the layers we were using in the frosts in the South Island have been long since put away and now we don’t even know why we brought them across the Cook Strait.
Mangroves in a rainy patch of weather – a sudden squall that’s come in off the sea. We’ve yet to learn more about mangroves; but since we are now in mangrove territory we are sure to come across information about them at some point soon. We are not going out of our way on this one…just going to enjoy them for what they are for the moment – lovely the way they sit on the water like a cluster of green boats all pushed together.
We came across this natural jetty in Taurikura Bay and later found out its a recognised NZ geo-preservation site. It’s about 20 million years old and formed beneath the ground as an andesitic dike that never managed to reach the surface (much as it was trying), but pushed upwards into a crack or a tube beneath the volcano.
Of course, there’s also a local purakau/story that says local Maori chief Manaia, half bird and half fish, starting building a bridge to reach his girlfriend across the harbour. They fell out of love before he got far with it however, so he never finished it.
The tide’s only halfway out; I would love to come back and see the jetty with the tide fully out.
Mangroves near Urquharts Bay, and guess what, the sun’s out again! There’s a bird in the lower branches with its wings open, drying them out and enjoying the warmth.
We reach Urquharts Bay, a farming and fishing community.
The small hill in the distance is the one with the gun emplacement, where we’ll walk in a few minutes.
There’s the Marsden Point Oil Refinery across the Whangarei Harbour; you can see it from just about everywhere in Urquharts Bay.
From Urquharts Bay we could also see Mt Manaia in the distance; this old andesite volcano (very likely related to the natural jetty) apparently has a great view from the top which we’ll save for next time. It’s the subject of several Maori purakau (stories that interweave with everyday life) with each of the five fingers of rock poking up, which can’t all be seen from this angle, representing a different person in the stories. My favourite is the one about Pito who is running away from Hautatu with her new boyfriend Manaia and his children. Manaia, if you remember, is half bird and half fish; imagine the adventures in running off with someone like that.
Here’s the small hill with the gun emplacement…
Walking round the hill…Kevin takes the low road and I take the high one…
Move, cows!
No? Okay, I’ll go around you…
This is where the gun and magazine once sat – the gun was a 5 inch 51 calibre US naval gun, which was only ever fired three times, all test shots. It was put in place in case NZ was invaded by the Japanese during the second world war, when they were fast moving into the Pacific. This building was covered in camouflage net to make it look like part of a working farm. Other buildings were built into the rocks where they were hidden; and the accommodation house, built of wood (and no longer in existence apart from a bit of foundation), apparently looked just like a farmhouse.

Incidentally, just around the Head from here, at Bream Head (part of Whangarei Heads) is the site of NZ’s only naval loss in NZ waters. This was the ship HMS Puriri which sank in 1941, five sailors drowning with it.
Yep, you can see the oil refinery from here, too.
This was the observation post...
Inside there’s still information to be found, that could be used to pin down suspicious activity.
It’s hard to see, but there’s a map painted all the way around the room just beneath the ceiling that show all the visible peaks and landmarks out there in the environment, and degrees of longitude are also marked all the way around. These bearings made it possible to fire accurately on potential Japanese activity. There were also semaphore marks on the windows so messages could be relayed over distances. Way easier with modern technology!
This was the generator shed.
Walking back, we get to use the track this time; the cows have moved over!
Me with Urquharts Bay in the background, potentially there are relatives here!
Wow! Mid winter, and the manuka is all in flower – wherever we go, we find manuka in flower. Down south it’s much more around early summer when it flowers.
At the Marsden Point Oil Refinery there is a visitor’s centre which has a decent-sized area with information panels, two videos and an extensive and impressive model of the refinery.
Of course, we went around in the wrong direction but in the end it didn’t really matter. The information in the videos was backed up and extended in the information panels, so it was possible to easily learn and understand more about how it all works.
In short terms, the crude oil processed here is made into long residue, bitumen, sulphur, nitrogen, kerosene, gas oils, propane, butane, naphtha, marine fuel, jet fuel, diesel and petrol; with the latter three forming the largest quantities of what is produced.
One question we had before going in was about the pipe that takes the products to Auckland – we’d only ever heard of one pipe and it turned out that there really is only one pipe. Only the jet fuel, diesel and petrol gets to go down the pipe – all of them in the same pipe, one after the other. All other products get trucked or shipped out. The software operators know exactly where each product lies in the pipe at any one moment – apparently it takes the operators years to learn all the processes involved in running the computer systems for the whole refinery.
The refinery runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on two sets of 12 hour shifts. They say it’s quite a sight at night, all lit up, but we didn’t get back out to see this.

This model is in sequence and shows the entire refinery. It was a really impressive piece of work. The woman at the desk told us it was contracted to Holland to construct; three Dutch people took 18 months to construct it before packing it up and shipping it to its home at the oil refinery.
Cute seagull sightings on the way home…
We visited the Kauri Clock Factory back in Whangarei – we had a look around inside, and a chat, and I also had a good look around the yard at the huge lumps of kauri tree trunks and roots waiting to be worked. The clocks and other works inside were lovely, but I prefer the wood it in its natural form!

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