GREAT DRIVES. More than just the destination.
22 February 2022
Allan Dick tells us of some of his favourite driving roads in Aotearoa New Zealand.
A decade or so ago, Mercedes-Benz launched a new model into the local market and, as part of the promotion for it, ran a competition asking Kiwis to nominate a Great Drive in this land of ours. As I had been publishing this magazine already for 10 years or more I had a pretty fair idea about which drives would be popular and I pretty much got the Top Ten right and in order.
My role in all of this was then to take this new Merc’ and go and drive over the selected routes selection – a job I found no job at all as I am at my happiest with a tankful of gas and the open road ahead.
So I spent a month driving the Kaikōura Coast Road, the Coromandel Peninsula, Kaitaia to Cape Rēinga, etc.
In all fairness, those roads are pretty well known, but if you put aside preconceived ideas, your satellite navigation and rely on eyes, instinct and an old-fashioned book of road maps, you can have some spellbinding drives in this country without getting lost.
I may have already told you, I find satellite navigation so instructive that I tend to just drive to the destination, almost in a daze and never really ‘turn off ’ when I see an intriguing road sign and do any exploring.
And this nation is compact enough and with a relatively small roading network that even if you do get bamboozled, simply by being aware of which direction is north you will soon untangle yourself. If there is a little advice I can give you, don’t be afraid to turn off main roads and follow your nose. I promise you won’t end up in Siberia! ALL roads in Aotearoa New Zealand end up, eventually, in a place you either know or have heard of. Without further ado, here is a selection of drives that appeal to me specifically and which I would gladly do again later this afternoon if someone wanted me to. I have tried to avoid the obvious – those that made the Mercedes Top Ten list a decade ago – but not entirely. The Lindis Pass Plus is my favourite. This Great Drive actually starts in Fairlie and ends in Cromwell. After Covid it is no longer jammed with tour buses, campervans, articulated lorries and anxious/nervous tour-ists in an unfamiliar land. The road is wide, sweeping and it takes you through some of the most splendid landscapes this country has to offer. Lakes, mountains, rivers and semi-desert are all part of the mix. In pre-Covid days when traffic was heavy, few bothered to stop and explore, simply because they had Queenstown or Wanaka on their mind, but this is just the most sensational, easily accessible drive in New Zealand.
There are towns (Tekapo if you like touristy places, Twizel and Ōmarama for Kiwi honesty), but the rest is all just plain, old-fashioned majesty. Burkes Pass, just before you burst from farmland into the breathtaking Mackenzie Country is a must-stop at ‘Three Creeks or Dave’s Place’ – a village of old garages, service station and cars.
There are some detours and side drives on the way – Mount Cook of course and the rebuilt Lake Ōhau Village are easy sealed roads. For a little more adventure, Quailburn Road about 10 kilometres before Ōmarama takes you past the access road to the remark-able Clay Cliffs and on to an old 19th-century farm that is now a DOC treasure. It is gravel, but easily driveable. But the MNM on this drive (Must Not Miss) is midway through the Lindis Pass itself – Old Faithful Road which is about a six-kilometre drive on the gravel, original Lindis Pass Road to the ruins of the old Lindis Pass Hotel. Here there is a DOC campsite. Nobody knew about this gem until about four years ago and now it’s not unusual to find two or three campervans in here at night. There is plenty of room and a nice, clean, long-drop DOC dunny.
There is plenty to stop and do and see every millimetre of this drive. That’s my favourite in terms of ease of driving and the fact that so many people simply use it as a direct route to Queenstown without really being aware of the landscapes they drive through. It is a sublime drive.
Heading north on SH3, shortly after passing through Mōkau with its German WWII mine in the main street and then Awakino, you can turn off onto a gravel road that winds its way through lost and lonely country and places that are just echoes you may have heard, somewhere sometime. Places like Waikawau with a beach you have to walk through a tunnel to get to, Marakopa and Te Anga where, I think, there is actually a pub. You can turn off and go via Piripiri to end at Waitomo.
On the way you pass the spectacular Piripiri Cave, a natural bridge with fossilised oysters the size of enormous dinner plates and a waterfall. Carry on through and you find yourself on the road to Kawhia, which is worth a visit.
Next up is Masterton to Cape Palliser. The only trouble with this drive is that you have to come out the way you go in. Martinborough is a delightful little town that’s not as posh as nearby Greytown and still feels like it’s part of New Zealand but with an overlay of tourism and vineyards. The drive to Lake Ferry on the coast is straightforward enough, but once you reach the rugged south coast with the Kaikōura Ranges visible in the distance across the Strait, it becomes pure magic. The destination is really the fishing village of Ngāwī with its rusting bulldozers and feels like New Zealand in the thirties. The Cape Palliser lighthouse is about 300 steps too high for me but others do it, and finding seals in the maze of huge rocks and boulders is a lot of fun. This is real edge of the world stuff – “Out there be whales and octopuses and beyond that, you fall off the edge into dragons and serpents.”
From there we head out of Whangārei to Kaikohe via Maungatapere. This is easily accessible old Northland – few towns on the way but plenty of quite rugged farming hill country. There’s a vast collection of (mainly) Packard cars and machinery at Maungatapere which is worth looking at and in the middle of it all is a complex bridge structure with three legs to it. It’s called ‘Twin Bridges’ but is really two bridges into one. I spent a wonderful afternoon swimming in the river here on one scorching summer day.
A large, triangular drive that starts and finishes in Ōpōtiki. This, of course, is the ‘East Cape’ route, returning via Gisborne and the Waioeka Gorge. It’s a long drive, mainly sealed, although the remoteness and geography of the area mean plenty of slumps, slips and washouts so the road is seldom wide, sweeping and immaculate! Road works are a way of life here. It is a drive of ‘three halves’! Using comfortable ‘Pākehā’ standards, the top half of East Cape is relatively ‘wealthy’, the lower half is definitely ‘poor’ and the drive through the Waioeka Gorge is ‘remote’.
You could easily spend a week doing this trip with so much to see and do but, like so many areas of the North Island, you are often aware that you are not in your own backyard and it pays to be doubly polite and respectful and don’t just ‘assume’. This can often be almost another country in the decay from towns that thrived up until the fifties and sixties in places like Hick’s Bay, Tokomaru Bay and Te Karaka.
Funny story. In the eighties, I stopped in Matawai to buy an ice cream. Now Matawai is in the middle of nowhere between Gisborne and Ōpōtiki. When I went into the store I was aware of two or three men outside at a BBQ table eating pies and having a Coke. I just registered them, that was all, but when I came back out I recognised one! He has the most distinctive face ever seen on television – Mister Bean, Rowan Atkinson.
Years later, I was back and went into the store and told the woman behind the counter the story. She pulled out an autograph book and showed me the autograph of John Tra-volta! So, famous people tread this trail.
The drive from Auckland to Wellington used to be the ultimate challenge. When the Dick family moved from Auckland to Dunedin in 1949 I can remember my father agonising over the route. In those days, the Desert Road was unsealed, pumice and another world, the alternative was via Taranaki and the frightening Mount Messenger.
Now though, SH1 is like the main artery down through the middle of the island and is something I have done dozens, if not hundreds of times. For a year, my wife lived in Ōamaru and I had stayed on in Auckland, so I ‘commuted’ once a month, for a week at a time. I drove each way each time and got it down to a fine art.
I would leave Auckland at 4.30 in the morning, drive non-stop to Wellington via a route I will describe shortly, arriving an hour before the ferry – I think it was a 1.30pm sailing, so I got there around 12.30. I would be off the ferry in Picton by 5.00pm. If I was dog-tired I would stop in either Picton or Blenheim; if I was up to it I would stay in the motels in Ward, leaving Ward early in the morning and arriving Ōamaru about late lunchtime.
Now, my route down through the North Island. Down the southern motorway, across the Waikato River at Rangiriri and zig-zag through lush dairy to Te Awamutu. Then a short drive to Kihikihi, a town that back in the Colonial Day was the border to the King Country where Pākehā dared not venture and it was a haven for those fleeing the law. Turn left at Kihikihi out into a landscape that gets increasingly rugged and remote, following a yellow worm on the map. This is an area of much loneliness, through the Ōwairaka Valley, past a huge castle-like rock aptly named Castle Rock and on through bush and forest to the beautiful, bush-ringed lake behind the Waipapa Dam. Make a detour at Mangakino if you like, otherwise on to Whakamaru and turn right down the western side of Lake Taupō to eventually rejoin SH1 at Turangi. The beauty of this drive is the lack of towns and traffic, plus the remoteness of it.
From here it’s a straight run down SH1, across the Desert Road, through Waiouru to Taihape, to Mangaweka. Shortly after, at Vinegar Hill, leave SH1 again and head through the more lonely hill country to Cheltenham, through Feilding and skirt the edge of Palmerston North, head south and eventually rejoin SH1 at Levin where you almost always grind to a halt with the traffic. It’s a long way, but over the years this has become one of my favourite drives.
Like the earlier drive around East Cape, so too you need to show respect for the locals driving from Murapara to Wairoa – through Tuhoe Country past Lake Waikaremoana. Watch for wandering horses. This is about as pre-Euro-pean Aotearoa New Zealand as you can get driving your car!
And finally, two of the great North Island drives – Taupō to Napier is no longer the challenge it once was, but it’s
still worth the effort, while ‘Gentle Annie’, Taihape to Napier still retains all of the elements of adventure.
The Kaikōura earthquake and subsequent closure of the Kaikōura coast road (and railway line) meant many New Zealanders got to see the alternative route – from Waipara through the Lewis Pass, Murchison and on to Blenheim down the enormous Wairau Valley. This is a demanding but spellbinding drive through spectacular landscapes of primaeval New Zealand. The problem was, when it was used as the alternative route it was so heavy with traffic that nobody had the opportunity to enjoy it – it required just too much concentration. But now that the Kaikōura coastal road is open again, the Lewis Pass Plus is again an enjoyable experience – and the road had considerable updates during that time. Take your time, stop, explore and don’t be afraid to turn off down side roads – you can always turn back again.
Proving that you can make silk purses from sows’ ears, let’s look at SH1 from Christchurch to Dunedin. I know that for most people this is a drive of pure drudgery – long straights, flat landscapes – nothingness except neat and tidy farmland and a constant horizon. It’s a drive I do often and I have learnt to love it. I see the small changes – a new toilet block here, a new farm shed there, a field of wheat where last year there were sunflowers, the intrusion of dairy farming, the small towns, the WW2 gun emplacements. Yes, it is flat, but take notice and it’s a charming drive that gets all the better when you leave Ōamaru, the plains and head into the hills. And there is plenty to see and do if you make the time.
Ashburton is a town of remarkable societal achievement, Timaru is charming, Ōamaru I love and Dunedin is home. No matter how many times I do that drive, I love every inch of it. In fact, about a year ago I wrote a story on these pages about such a trip. Driving from Dunedin to Invercargill via the coastal route is fantastic. This is south from Dunedin through my old stamping ground of Brighton and on to Taieri Mouth. I just love this region – it’s where I spent my teenage years. From Taieri Mouth, south via small roads to Toko Mouth – an old-world collection of homemade cribs and baches – and still on small roads, you will find yourself in Kaitangata and on to Balclutha.
This drive contains some good quality, gravel roads. From Balclutha, you will follow the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins to Invercargill. The first time I went to the Catlins was on a camping trip with my parents in 1951 when the area was remote. Really remote. And backward. Back then, the place had an almost sinister and lost reputation. Today it has been ‘discovered’ and is all broad sealed roads and prosperous farms. At first, locals tried to minimise the impact of tourism on their old way of life, but today they have given in, although the transition has been managed well.
It’s not a large area and you can breeze through from Owaka to Invercargill quite quickly, but take your time and try to find the garden shed made from the fuselage of a WW2 bomber in Waikawa! If the tide is out, visit the fossilised forest at Curio Bay. Invercargill is worth a day or two looking around – see a city being rebuilt with a massive CBD redevelopment and visit the Bill Richardson Transport World.
This time a bit of a challenge. ‘The Nevis’ is a 70+ kilometre long alpine valley that takes you from Bannockburn in Central Otago to Garston in northern Southland. There are long climbs in and long climbs out of the Nevis. The valley is squeezed into a narrow gorge in the middle, otherwise, it’s 70 kilometres of pure awesomeness – stark, beautiful and with stacks of old gold-mining stuff. In pre-European times, Māori hardly knew this place – it was remote, the climate fierce and there wasn’t a tree to be seen. Little has changed.
The Bannockburn end is accessible 12 months of the year and the road generally good and OK for anyone with a campervan who doesn’t mind some dust. The Garston end is open only in the summer and is famous for having something like 25 river crossings in 15 kilometres. It’s not for campervans, and while I have done it several times by ordinary passenger car – including an Alfa Romeo – a 4WD is best.
Let’s wrap this up now with some quickies from the South Island. I always enjoy the drive up the Waitaki Valley from Ōamaru to Ōmarama – this is one of the great, hidden gems anywhere in New Zealand. The Old Dunstan Trail, the original route into Central Otago taken by the gold miners is an easy enough drive but only in the summer as it’s closed in the winter. If it’s dry, you can do it easily enough in any passenger car; you don’t need a 4WD. And of course, the West Coast from Karamea to Jackson Bay is a must for anyone serious about seeing Aotearoa New Zealand at its best.
Finally from the South Island, the long and winding road that heads out into the long fingers of land that create the Marlborough Sounds – there are a couple of long roads away from civilisation. But my favourite is from the Rai Valley all the way to the ferry at French Pass across to D’Urville Island. One of these days I will catch that ferry and take my 4WD around the roads of the island with its DOC camps. We all have favourite drives, routes that give us greater pleasure than just arriving at a destination.
Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine.
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