A bit of the Bard to begin and a rollicking railroad ride at the end, with one of New Zealand’s most isolated villages, reveling in a jaw-breaker of a name, Whangamomona, in between.
The Forgotten Highway is worth discovering.
State Highway 43, a 151km road from coastal Stratford through the heart of the North Island hill country to Taumarunui in the north, is one of the great adventure road trips in New Zealand.
It follows the line of an ancient Maori trade route. In the 19th Century a bridle path was cut through, and later the government of the day, in burst of pioneering enthusiasm, decided to drive a rail line between the two towns. Work was started in 1901 but took another 32 years before it was completed. It was built with picks and shovels and the back-breaking work of hundreds of men living in conditions of great deprivation.
You can learn a bit more about the line’s history on the Forgotten World Adventures website.
Though much more traveled these days than when I first explored it 25 years ago, it is still a chance to get away from traffic and crowds of selfie-stick-wielding tourists to discover the remnants of pioneering times last century.
Along the way you’ll find the mouldering remains of villages that flourished during the 50 years it took to drive a road, well, more like a track, through what have been labelled the Heartbreak Hills.
For years men and women, families, struggled against the isolation, the relentless rain, and the bush trying to carve out a farming life. Most failed, beaten back by the elements and a landscape that did not take well to being stripped of its natural forest cover.
Today on the four or five hours it takes to traverse the road you’ll enjoy unspoiled bush, the towering 500m high cliffs of the spectacularly rugged Tarangakau Gorge, pick your way through the eerie 180m long Moki Tunnel, and catch glimpses, vistas even, of the surrounding volcanoes . . . Taranaki, Ruapehu, Ngaruahoe and Tongariro.
Along the way, a 15 or 20 minute walk will take you to lovely Mt Dampier Falls.
Then there is, of course, Whangamomona, fiercely sticking to its reputation as one of the country’s most unspoiled pioneer villages. Nothing much has changed in a hundred years, and the locals like it that way.
Mark you, the Whangamomona Hotel is now a lot more visitor friendly than when I first breasted the bar and asked if one could get something to eat. Without saying so it was made clear that this was a place for drinking. Eating? Not so much! With a bit of a shuffle the proprietress rustled up a fairly basic cheese and pickle sandwich.
Today, oh, how different. It is a welcome oasis of good food and good beer. You can also get a bed for the night. Not exactly like the Mandarin or the Hilton. Share fac. and all that. But a great way to catch an echo of life when times were simpler and travelers’ wants and needs were less demanding.
Back in 1998 local authority bureaucrats, without any consultation with the Whanga locals, decided to split the district between two local authority regions, Taranaki and Manawatu-Wanganui. Same said locals were more than a bit miffed and gave same said bureaucrats a raised index finger by declaring the town an independent republic.
So now, every second January, the village celebrates Independence Day by holding such rustic events as sheep racing, gumboot throwing, possum skinning and whip cracking.
Presidential elections are held. The first president, Ian Kjestrup, lasted 10 years before taking early retirement. He hadn’t planned on becoming president but his name was put into the ballot without his knowledge.
Unfortunately, the second president ‘Billy the Kid’, the first goat elected, only survived the position 18 months before dying on active duty – weed-eating on the town hillside. Tai the Poodle was duly elected in 2003, unfortunately 12 months later there was an assassination attempt on his life and he had to retire due to this leaving him in a severe nervous condition. Murtle the Turtle was elected as president and was in office for 10 years until October 2015 when sadly he, too, passed away.
Vicky Pratt, one of the hotel’s owners was then “elected” without her knowledge. She was working in the kitchen when nominations were called and thereby failed to withdraw the nomination. At least it brought the village into the 21st century by electing a woman to the top job.
So as you can guess this is a village with an eccentric spirit.
The Forgotten Highway cuts away north from Stratford close to the coast in southern Taranaki, New Zealand.
Hathaway, Romeo, Portia, Lear, Hamlet . . . do you detect a pattern here? They are all street names in Stratford, 67 of them, which may have something to do with Stratford-on-Avon, where William Shakespeare lived. Otherwise it’s pretty much just another Taranaki cow town. Or is that a little rough?
It was originally called Whakaahurangi, so you can understand why in 1877 they changed the name to Stratford-Upon-Patea. The idea was that the Patea River was much like England’s Avon River. Yeah? Nah.
Town’s population 5740 at the most recent census. Altitude 312m
Doctors: Avon Medical Care Centre 137 Miranda St South, Ph 06-765-5454.
Regan St Medical Centre 95 Regan St. Ph 06-765-8178.
Fuel. Don’t head out on to the Forgotten Highway with less than half a tank of gas. Best of all fill up here.
Laundromat: Broadway Laundrette, on the main road.
NZ Post 4e Miranda St Ph 06-765-6009
Police Broadway. Ph 06-765-7145
Public Telephones on the main shopping st.
Tourist Information Stratford i-Site, Prospero Pl, Broadway Ph 06 765-6708 Free-ph 0800-765-6708 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Glockenspiel Tower. Stratford’s glockenspiel is unique in New Zealand. The glockenspiel plays a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet four times daily (at 10am, 1pm, 3pm and 7pm) with figures made by the curator of the Tawhiti Museum, Nigel Ogle. The glockenspiel performs for approximately 5 minutes, after the hour chimes are finished.
However, your best bet is the 7pm performance if you want to get a video of the show. During the day the constant rumble of passing trucks kinda ruins the mood.
Shakee Pear Cafe Taranaki Pioneer Village, 3912 Mountain Rd Ph 07 765-5235. Great little cafe.
Stratford Café and Bakery Broadway. Reasonably priced with generous servings.
Stratford Pioneer Village on the main road, south end of town. Outdoor museum with a collection of early buildings. Got a good cafe on site, too.
Graeme Goble Motors, 115 Regan St. Ph 06-765-5211.
The Goblin Forest (Pictured). Take a walk through this preternaturally green forest and let your imagination run riot. Goblins, elves, hobbits . . . are they lurking among the trees? Or if you are Irish it could be the Little Folk themselves, so it could.
It is otherwise known as the Kamahi Walk because it is primarily kamahi trees. Take Pembroke Rd out of town. Half way up Pembroke Rd stop for a great panorama of the region – Mt Egmont on one side, Ruapehu / Tongariro on the other.
Wilkies Pools. Also out that way. A series of plunge pools carved into the stream bed by the abrasive effect of water-borne sand.
Maunganui Ski Field Walk. In summer you can take an easy walk up the track leading to the skifield. It starts at the Plateau Carpark and clambers through the rugged Manganui Gorge then climbs across a carpet of alpine flower-strewn greys and greens and browns, taking about an hour to reach the skifield. On the ski area itself the going is as easy or as hard as you want to make it. The view is glorious – on a clear day you can even see the South Island.
But remember, this is an alpine environment and the weather can change within minutes. Take a parka, warm clothing, snack bars and let someone know where you are going. If you have the family with you, stay close to the ski tow line – it will guide you down the mountain if the weather closes in. You reach the Plateau Carpark by taking Pembroke Rd on the northern edge of the town.
The Carrington Walkway. Runs through King Edward Park and the McCullough Dell which is a mass planting of rhododendrons and azaleas. Do this especially in October / November when the flowers are at their best.
After leaving Stratford, as you head out across the level landscape between here and the hills ahead, stop for a look back at Mt Egmont/Taranaki.
The Heartbreak Hills
The hills you are about to encounter could aptly be called the Heartbreak Hills. After the first World War we still believed we could build a world fit for heroes to live in.
The returning soldiers were given land in this area. It was a tangle of rugged hills cloaked in dense bush. The settlers simply put a match to the forest, not even bothering to harvest the beautiful native timber. They sowed grass seed on the still-warm ashes and for a while the remains of the fertility in the ash was enough to nourish the grass. A forest’s soil, however, is a delicate balance and without a constant shower of leaves rotting down to become humus, ready to be taken up again by the trees, the soil quickly breaks down.
For a while the forest’s virgin fertility and high post-war commodity prices kept the farmers in the black, but then came the disastrous plunge in prices in 1921. The land began to reclaim its own. Unable to beat back the constant regrowth of scrub or keep down the persistent weeds, beaten by soil erosion and battered by cash shortages that starved them of investment capital, the soldier-settlers abandoned their holdings. The crash of the late 20s and the second World War accelerated that process.
The result, as you’ll see in some places, are derelict farmhouses hidden in the undergrowth and bush.
After WW2 the assault on these wet hills was renewed by a new army of returning soldiers. This time, however, the government of the day broke in the land using machinery and new farming techniques.
The soldiers were given training before taking on their farms. The land itself was more carefully chosen.
The step change that created profitable farms was the advent of aerial topdressing. With the rapid decline of natural fertility, phosphorous, in the form of super-phosphate, had to be applied to maintain plant growth. The only economic way of doing that was from the air and a fleet of aircraft, many of them converted from wartime configuration, began pouring millions of tonnes of fertiliser on to the hillsides.
That storm, of fertiliser from the sky is what finally beat these rainy hills. It has allowed a dense sward of grass to overpower the scrub and the weeds.
The result, as you’ll see, is flourishing farmland finally carved from the Heartbreak Hills.
22.9km The Strathmore Saddle. From the summit you get panoramic views of Mt Egmont/Taranaki and the Central Plateau.
35.5 km Te Wera Arboretum. An easy walk through trees planted by NZ Forest Service to trial tree species for a range of productive and other uses. It contains more than 80 exotic conifer and broadleaf species of trees which are labelled with names and the year of planting. You’ll get views of regenerating native bush, fern gullies and wetland.
45.1km The Pohukura Saddle is named after a prominent Maori Chief and provides views into the valley used as a large railway construction campsite.
55.8km The Whangamomona Saddle.
61.6 km Whangamomona. Rugby fans might be keen to know that Whangamomona is the only club in NZ that is allowed to wear an all-black strip – as they had it well before NZ’s All Blacks. The team also competes for the Dean Cup – the oldest rugby challenge cup in New Zealand dating back to 1907 and contested between three teams in the district – Whangamomona, Strathmore and Toko in East Taranaki.
73.9 The Tahora Saddle offers spectacular views of three prominent Maori Pa sites, railway tunnels and the central North Island Mountains.
80.8 The Moki Tunnel is a 180m long single lane tunnel built in 1936. It was originally built five metres high. However, with the introduction of stock trucks and trailers onto the road, this was not high enough so in 1985, the floor was lowered a further two metres. A few years ago a witty traveler put a sign on it saying “Hobbit’s Hole” and the name stuck.
82.4km Turn off on to Moki Rd to visit Mt Damper Falls a 14km detour. At 74m it’s one of the North Island’s highest waterfalls, spilling over a papa bluff into a bush-clad basin. The falls are particularly spectacular after heavy rain. There’s a 1km, 20min hike from the parking area to the falls, and if you want to get up close and personal you can clamber down a stairway to the base of the torrent.
From the car park step over the stile and walk over the formed track beside the creek. The first 10 minutes are over open farmland – respect private property, leave gates as you find them and stay on the track. Follow the track until you reach the bridge, from whence the bush starts. The track descends gradually to two viewing platforms.
Please be aware that the track crosses privately-owned farmland and during lambing season, from 1 August to 31 October, you need to take particular care not to disturb the stock.
There is a long drop toilet and two picnic tables at the beginning of the track.
90.3km The Tangarakau Gorge You’ll be on a gravel-surfaced road by now. There’s 12km of it. Think positively . . . it gives you a small sample of what all the roads were like back in the day. It will take you through this spectacular sheer-sided gorge, picking its way through lush native bush.
Nearby, just off the main road, is Tangarakau township. Or what’s left of it. It had its heyday when the government was driving the railway through the area. In those days the population was around 1200 souls and the town had shops, a post office, police station and a bank. It even had a coal-fired power station that supplied electricity to local houses.
135km Laurens Lavender Farm. Adjacent to the famous Whanganui River where you can have tea or coffee among surroundings of lavender fields, farm land and bush. Find out more at http://www.laurenslavender.co.nz/
148.4 Taumarunui. A rural service and shopping centre and the largest town in the Ruapehu District. Located on the Main Trunk railway line, it’s probably best known for its railway history – it even has a song about its early rail history “Taumarunui on the Main Trunk Line”.
Yeah, OK, the song is a bit rustic, rural, colonial even . . . but hey it was written in the 50s when New Zealand was, well, a bit rustic, rural, colonial even.
I remember stopping there in the middle of the night when traveling on the Limited Express from Wellington to Auckland – a steam train no less. (I’m very old, see). You’d race off the train into the cafeteria, buy sandwiches and a cup of tea served in cups that were so solid you could drive nails with them. You’d settle back in your seat, put the tea and sammies on the floor while you adjusted the railway pillows used to soften seats as hard as a harlot’s heart . . . just then the engine would re-couple with the carriages, sending tea and sandwiches sprawling all over the floor. So it was back out in a tumbling rush to get a refill before the whistle sounded. I guess it was a way for the Railways Department, as it was then, to increase sales of what was otherwise bloody awful food.
Long before its was a railway town, however, it was an important transport hub . . . it lies at the confluence of the Whanganui and Ongarue Rivers, important navigable routes in the days before there were road or railways. Both Maori and early European used the rivers as highways. The Whanganui River is, in fact, the longest navigable river tin the country.
The name derives from a 17th C Maori chief, Maru, whose skill in battle fended off marauders from further north. Tau mean “you”, nui means “great”, thus the name means Maru the Great.
Doctor: Taumarunui Medical Centre, Kururau Rd. Ph 07-895 3333
The Family Clinic, 17 Morero Tce. Ph 07-895 9283.
NZ Post: 47 Miriama St
Police: 10 Turaki St. Ph (07) 895 8119
Public Telephones on the main shopping st.
Toilets on the w. side of the road in the middle of the town.
Visitor Information, Taumarunui Visitor Centre in the old Railway Station, also on the w. side of the main road in the middle of the town.Ph 07 895 7494
Expert navigator tip: If you are traveling further north, this is the last point for fuel between here and Te Kuiti , 85 km away. Check your fuel.
Forgotten World Adventures 9 Hakiaha St. Ph 0800-853-883 Email email@example.com Rip-roaring jet-boat rides on the ultra-scenic Whanganui River or a rattling great rail ride into the heart of the Forgotten World.
When Ian Balme, a farmer, keen outdoorsman and dedicated entrepreneur, first saw the decommissioned Forgotten World rail line between Taumarunui and Stratford there was a spark of inspiration.
The scenery he saw was rugged, raw and beautiful. Inspired by the Otago Rail Trail, he understood the sense of adventure traveling a railway line creates.
Forgotten World Adventures gives visitors the exciting opportunity to self-drive in modified golf carts along the 142 kms of heritage rail tracks during the summer season of October through to May (with some shorter winter tours available by arrangement), immersed in the remote and stunning New Zealand landscape.
They will be the subject of a subsequent blog.
New World Supermarket On the main road thru town.
Dave West Automotive Engineering 123 Bell Rd Ph 07-895-7228 Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carmichael Motors 139 Hakiaha St Ph 07-895-7493 Aft. hrs 07-895-4483 Email email@example.com.