Tribute to Tenacity
21 February 2023
Forgotten history and forgotten sights on the Forgotten Highway
Following 19th-century bridle paths, State Highway 43 traverses remote gorges through dense native forest for much of its 150km length. A short section of the Tangarakau Gorge remains unsealed, unique for one of our state highways, but recently 2km was sealed. and piles of fine metal indicate that there may be further sealing to be done shortly. Known as the Forgotten Highway, it begins (or ends) in Taumarunui and winds its way westward to Stratford. Bizarrely, in a country where Waka Kotahi is determined to lower speed limits on many roads and where the Forgotten Highway is classed as one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the country (it's fine if you take it quietly), for much of its length the speed limit is 100kph, which due to the road's twists and turns is unlikely to be achieved with the best will in the world. There are no gas stations on the highway, so make sure your tank is full before setting off.
There are two ways to travel the highway, the first being by road. We left Taumarunui at the SH43 turn-off, signposted to the beautiful Bradley's Garden and Lauren's lavender farm, and passed through a comparatively built-up area that included the hospital before finding ourselves traveling along almost perpendicular hillsides with signs of much slipping. It must be and must have always been, very hard land to break in and farm.
In fairly short succession, we passed small green and yellow Heritage signs pointing towards the Aukopae tunnel, a historic flour mill, and Papa Drive. Still, there was nothing to say about whether they were publicly accessible, and the signs being rather small, it was a bit difficult to see them until we were on our way past. It's a pity, as the Aukopae tunnel, in particular, looks interesting online, but there's not much information about it. Perhaps Ruapehu District Council could look at some interpretive signage at some stage.
While 'majestic is a word that's been overused when referring to our mature native bush, when driving through it, the word certainly applies. Within the bush, right at the Stratford boundary sign, where a loo is conveniently sited, there's a short path that leads to the grave of early surveyor Joshua Morgan. Joshua died of presumed peritonitis when surveying the road. His co-worker had gone for help, but it was too late in arriving. Seeing the grave in the middle of a vast primordial forest just makes you realise just what conditions those early workers had to contend with.
Taking the 16km detour out to Mt Damper falls is a welcome change after all that driving. Once at the gate, it’s about a kilometer easy walk to the falls that, at 74m are one of the highest in the North Island (at 153m, the Wairere Falls near Matamata are the North Island's highest falls). A walk in the fresh air followed by a cuppa makes for a refreshing break, and once again, there's a loo by the entrance to the track. On the roadside into the falls, the remains of bush locos used in the Moki forest years ago are a point of interest, as is a rickety old shed precariously perched on a hillside. Once back on the main road, it's not far to the Moki tunnel, a narrow, one-lane 180m tunnel that was hand-dug in 1935 by pick and shovel. Originally 5m high, it was lowered by 2m in 1989. While photographing, we noticed that the roof was lined by wooden trusses. Quite a job to install them, I imagine.
Another gorge, another waterfall, this time the pretty Raekohua Falls, which can easily be seen from the car a short way down a side road for those of limited mobility. We notice that locals enjoy their signwriting. Then looking back from the top of yet another saddle, we get our last glimpse of Mt Ruapehu, rising above the distant ranges like a huge cloud.
The first thing we see on reaching Whangamômona is a bullock. Like Raurimu Rex, the moa at Taumarunui railway station, and the kiwi at National Park, it's made of driftwood by artist Jack Marsden Mayer and was commissioned by the community in 2019 to celebrate the republic's 30 years of independence. Yokes and chains were added and attached to a log that was pulled from the Pohokura River more than 100 years ago. The sign reads that the log was "cut through with an axe by a Real Man".
I guess that after 30 years, it may be difficult to maintain momentum in terms of the republic's well-publicised fight for independence and the election of mayors that included a local goat and a dog. The interior walls of the Whangamomona hotel have a great selection of historical photos, and there's a sign on the bar advising customers that they can buy a passport, but that's about it these days, although I understand that a republic day is held every second January.
No complaints about my toastie, though, which was stuffed with ham off the bone and plenty of pineapple.
Then after winding and climbing our way to the top of the Strathmore Saddle, it was a fairly clear run into Stratford. We didn't see the Douglas brick kiln or the Makahu tunnel and wondered if they may be part of the rail-cart experience.
A way to see the forgotten world from Taumarunui to Whangamomona, having morning tea/lunch/afternoon tea over the full-day adventure and then being bussed back to Taumarunui. Traveling through 20 tunnels, we see settlements built around the railway rather than the road, somewhere people still live, and others abandoned. Steps of a building remain at Heao where the last spike was driven, roughly halfway along the Stratford to Okahukura line (SOL) - Okahukura is 11km west of Taumarunui and is where the SOL joined the main trunk line.
Further along, there is a section of mudstone that contains many small fossils, and inside the Forgotten World Adventures office is a giant crab fossil embedded in the same mudstone.
The rail-cart trip can also be done beginning at the Stratford end, and Forgotten World Adventures General Manager Kara Matheson says that, by arrangement, vehicles can be transported to Whangamomona or from there to your destination point to avoid back-tracking. Forgotten World Adventures' headquarters in Taumarunui has 15-room motel accommodation, and again by arrangement, offers a continental or bacon and egg breakfast or a buffet for groups of 10 or more.
Tours run from October 1st to mid-May, and as well as the different rail-cart journeys, half day, full day, 2 days to experience the full 142kms, there are extended options, some including trips on the Whanganui River, the longest navigable river in the southern hemisphere and the first river in the world to be granted the same legal status (taonga or treasure) as a human being. The comprehensive Forgotten World Adventures' website provides details of these exciting action-packed tours that can include walking, jetboating and kayaking, outstanding history, art, scenery, environmental sustainability, and a boutique B&B stay. We've added the 4-day Epic tour to our bucket list as it seems to have a bit of everything.
Kara says the business was lucky in that 80 percent of their visitors are domestic travelers, so the impact of Covid was less adverse than that experienced in other areas. "Five million people were trapped in New Zealand, and many of them were looking for something to do.
As the carts travel at least 50m apart, covid-19 (orange) guidelines weren't too much of an issue for us as we've effectively been practicing our social distancing since 2012.
Forgotten World Adventures has a new Kiwi owner and aims to become a 'must-do bucket list activity, reveals Kara. The rail-cart trip is a real eye-opener. Just the thought of digging the 24 tunnels (over the total 142kms of line) with picks and shovels, the logistics of bringing in materials, clearing the bush, and cultivating the steep, unstable land, not to mention making a life in remote inhospitable places away from basic services that we take for granted today, was a phenomenal effort by those early pioneers. We learn so much from traveling the Forgotten Highway in one form or another. Given the privations our pioneers faced, this forgotten world is a real tribute to tenacity.
Article kindly supplied by NZ Today / RV Lifestyle
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