Cape Palliser at the southernmost point of the North Island is one of the windiest places in the country. The roads in the area are subjected to some of the worst weather Mother Nature can throw at them – lashing winds, heavy rain and damaging coastal storm surges.

When disaster strikes and the roads need to be repaired, excavator operator Jaden Field leaps into the cab and transforms into a heavy metal hero, digging deep to put things right with his Fulton Hogan colleagues.

“I’ve spent nine years doing road maintenance and a large portion of that time has been on the coast,” Jaden says. “Down here the locals all know me and they will often wind down their windows and yell ‘good on you Jaden’ as they drive past.”

Working to maintain the network of rural roads managed by South Wairarapa District Council means no two days are the same for the 30-year-old foreman, who leads a team made up of himself, two truck drivers and a squad of traffic controllers who keep everyone safe.

One day they can be doing earthworks, repairing dropouts and completing pavement repairs in the sun, and the next they can be battling howling wind and rain as they clear rocks and fallen trees that pose a risk to the public.

“It’s beautiful on a good day, but on a bad day you can’t get any worse. It can be freezing and it can be windy … on those wet days I feel a bit guilty working from inside the cab while others are outside,” he laughs.

One of his recent jobs was repairing a major 7m deep by 10m wide dropout on Cape Palliser Road near Hurupi Stream, not far from the stunning Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. Over the course of six days, Jaden and his team built a retaining wall and culvert, restoring a road shoulder and lane that had fallen away after a particularly nasty storm.

“We got it all done. It was very vertical, and there was a [water] spring in the bottom. The shape and size of the dropout made it quite technical.”

To cope with the incline and wet conditions on the site, the team used Ecoreef pods – innovative honeycomb shaped blocks that can be interlocked, stacked and then filled with aggregate or planted to create a durable retaining wall.

Manufactured by Agmar Tools in nearby Masterton, the blocks were better suited for the job and more resilient and cost efficient than bringing in large boulders from outside the Wellington and Wairarapa region.

Jaden says a highlight of the job was being involved in a change to the wall’s design to extend an existing nearby culvert, reinforce the wall around it, and cater for cutting and later filling a temporary access track to get his excavator to the base of the site during the work.

Agmar Tools has created small plastic models of the Ecoreef pods that allow them to build Lego-like scale models of the structures they are creating.

The company’s managing director Fred Waiker invited Jaden to provide input into the design and worked with him to update the small scale model, which was then brought on site so everyone involved in the retaining wall’s construction could refer to it while building the full-sized structure.

“The Ecoreef pods allow us to build as we go and make adaptations to the initial design if needed, they’re awesome to work with.

“We have a good working relationship – Fred can visualise the design and I can visualise the excavations. I trust his team, he trusts mine, and we both take a lot of pride in doing a good job.”

It’s clear that this kind of problem solving is part of what makes road maintenance such an appealing career for Jaden. Not only is the work technical and skilful, but there’s a lot of opportunity to use your brain.

“I like that it’s a job with a bit of brains behind it and the feedback you hear is great as well. When you hear positive comments from the community, your manager and the council it’s a good buzz.”

Jaden’s pretty good at his job too. He has twice represented Wellington – Wairarapa at the Civil Contractors New Zealand Cable Price National Excavator Competition, competing with some of the country’s top digger drivers for the national title.

Jaden started off working in demolition for a construction company in Christchurch after leaving school, but quickly graduated from the sledgehammer to an excavator, moving into road maintenance with Fulton Hogan nine years ago.

He says while at school he hadn’t given much thought to what he might do when he left, other than considering becoming a teacher, but he’s thrilled with how it all panned out and wishes he had known about civil construction earlier.

His advice to other people considering joining the industry is to go for it.

“You can start out as a labourer, like I did, and work your way up. You work with a good bunch of people and on our South Wairarapa contract we maintain a huge number of kilometres so you get to see the countryside. Some people don’t get to see the views we do.”

VIDEO: Jaden and his team repairing the dropout on Cape Palliser Road

VIDEO: Jaden at the 2019 National Excavator Operator Competition