A CENTRAL NORTH ISLAND
Ihad a voucher I didn’t really need from a special offer website – two nights at a flash Napier hotel – and it was time I saw old friends in Napier. Maybe it could be part of a road trip? Some of the famous places I’ve somehow never visited are in Hawke’s Bay – Cape Kidnappers, Mahia, Waikaremoana. I could even cross the island to other famous unseen places – Waitomo and Kawhia. There’s the road trip.
I live on the Horowhenua coast so started with a drive through the Manawatu Gorge, which could have been circuitous. State Highway 3 slithers between the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges but a slip closed the route for over a year. The detour added half an hour but traffic was restored a week before we got there, except when it was closed for “rock bolting”.
This is Te Apiti, the narrow passage, and it‘s been a steady earner for contractors since the road was shoveled through in 1872. The gorge was created when greywacke was punctured by a river, so the walls are unstable if disturbed. Ironically, it was the road that caused the road to slide into the river.
You’re not allowed to stop in the gorge – nor would you want to. The day after we drive through it’s closed for rock blasting – a few boulders “posed a threat to traffic”.
I drive slowly across the rebuilt section, peering up at the engineering. They cleared loose material right to the top, cut huge steps, then stabilized the face close to the road. At one point a bridge cleverly skirts the scar, the shingle sliding through underneath.
The road emerges from the gorge and we pause to gaze up at Meridian’s wind farm. A total of 189 turbines feed on winds that funnel through here. The towers lumber drunkenly to the cliff edge, the rhythmic phwoosh of their 35 metre blades an eerie soundtrack.
Wind farms generate inevitable opposition when they are proposed, but all local bodies in this region now feature images of windmills in their publications.
I didn’t know it at the time, but road works and energy generation would become unlikely themes for the road trip.
One of the delights of driving through Hawke’s Bay is watching other people work. We even see volunteer firefighters at work – a fire in a smoking motorhome is rapidly sorted by crews from both Waipukurau and Waipawa.
In the Bay they still generate export dollars that don’t rely on milk, grapes or tourists – they have sheep. Local farmers love McDonalds’ lamb burgers, not that they’d be caught eating one, and a venture called Just Shorn has struck a deal that gives local wool “access to 20% of the US flooring market”. Their branding will feature dogs, paddocks and actual sheep. Apparently lots of Americans don’t know where wool comes from, although I find that hard to believe – I hope the facts don’t put them off.
Napier City is more excited about imports, the ones that pour off the record number of cruise ships that will generate over 400 jobs this summer. Passengers get an appropriate welcome to this fecund province – the liners tie up alongside a giant pile of fertilizer.
Our flash night is at the County Hotel, an immaculately maintained historic place, unique in Napier because it’s not art deco. It’s the only Edwardian building to survive the 1931 earthquake, but my Napier mate prefers an Irish bar. It’s spring but the doors are wide open – locals insist there’s perpetual summer in the Bay.
Napier is comfortably compact. Another friend takes me to Nelson Park, a palm-fringed cricket ground transplanted from Surrey. We drive there in minutes and lounge on the boundary while Jesse Ryder nonchalantly pummels his way to 174 in the space of a few sunset beers. We get an appreciative nod as he heads for the pavilion. The next I hear of Jesse, he’s himself been disgracefully pummeled.
We drive down the coast until Cape Kidnapper’s glitters invitingly across a sweeping pebble beach – but it remains a place to visit some day, maybe. You can get to the Cape’s gannet colony only if you fancy helicopter or tractor safaris, or golf in extreme luxury. Instead, we sip wine at Clearview Estate, the least opulent of a string of coastal wineries.
Best of all, and free, is a quiet hour at Tukituki Estuary Wetlands, a community project between Clive and Haumoana. A white heron wheels beside us. Pukeko and egret share a stream. I’m pleased that these images replace my previous association with Clive – I once worked for a burly bar manager whose yarns invariably turned to the Clive tug-o-war team.
North of Napier, after the road leaves the coast, it’s a routine rural drive – until Mohaka. I’ve done minimal research for this trip, so I’ll be unduly overwhelmed at times, and when we drift round yet another bend and encounter Mohaka railway viaduct, I actually whoop with glee.
The road is being resealed right at the only spot to stop, so I can’t ogle this 95-metre beauty close-up. It’s the highest in Australasia but a photo from the sweeping road bridge will have to do. We have to be quick to snap a shot of the viaduct between fleets of log and sheep trucks.
From here to Motere it’s a burlesque of road works. It all fits, of course. KiwiRail is abandoning the Gisborne line – there’s been poor revenue and rails now dangle over a huge slip. Locals lobbying for the line to reopen should wonder why so much is being spent on the road.
So the elegant Mohaka viaduct has probably borne its last train but they should build a viewing platform beside the freshly sealed road – the 75 year old deserves an extended life as a tourist attraction.
At Nuhaka we swing right towards Mahia. A choreograph of road workers occupies the roundabout so we take in the backyards of the tiny town.
Pohutukawa are in early bloom on Mahia Peninsula, but there’s almost no-one at home. A lone sheep ambles down the middle of the railway track, fishing boats rest on front lawns and there’s a solo lounger on a deck. Mahia’s soft white cliffs, uplifted marine terraces, glisten like pyramids. You wonder if this idyllic peninsula will one day be an island – maybe that’s why the dunes subdivision is largely empty.
By the time we leave Mahia it’s lunchtime. Road workers are parked strategically to take in the view. Some take to the surf, others settle for Nuhaka fish and chips.
Our bed for the night is ten minutes north at Motere, chosen for its hot pools.
It also has a street called Possum Bend and a café with a large Smith’s Electric clock stuck at noon.
It’s always lunchtime at Motere. Café and clock are for sale to anyone “needing a lifestyle change”.
Hot springs on the hill feed Motere’s three steel pools and cooler family pools. The paths to the hot pools loop through lush native bush.
Europeans declared a reserve here in 1895 and the facility devolved from a 100-bed hotel with bowling green in the 1920s, to a tavern in the 1970s, and a fire in the 1990s.
Today the whole place is being repainted by the latest optimistic owners. It’s well worth the effort.
The only accommodation at Motere is The Lodge, a pair of rustic cabins across a ford (or a pedestrian swing bridge) behind the historic schoolhouse.
Our cabin overlooks the home paddock, all that’s left of Geoff Prickett’s farm. His wife is away so Geoff hopes the cabin is tidy enough.
He needn’t have worried. We share a mellow evening with wine, ewes and wildflowers.
Backtracking to Wairoa, its old buildings announcing a more bustling past, we push inland towards Waikaremoana. The quiet farming valleys don’t trumpet an approach to the largest virgin forest in the North Island, until we start winding alongside Waikare Taheke River.
Mountains loom on the right as the road starts to climb into bush – but then there’s an incongruous chunk of concrete art deco. This is Piripaua, the third power station in a series that steps down the steep incline from Lake Waikaremoana. Water charges through a 3km tunnel to Piripaua’s vertical turbines, as it has since the middle of World War II.
We wind steeply into forest that conceals what was a tough construction site for 30 years. At Waikaremoana we’ll see a trailer used on the site in 1926. The trailer itself weighed 7.5 tonnes – towed by a traction engine, it hauled 25 tonne loads up from Wairoa.
The million pound project was conceived in 1917, when central government finally moved to harness the country’s hydro generation potential.
The concept was beautifully simple – a dying taniwha (or a massive slip 2,200 years ago) dammed a valley and created the natural reservoir we know as Lake Waikaremoana. Man-dug tunnels, artificial lakes and penstocks harness the force of the 400 metre fall. Today the system generates as much energy as Clyde dam on Otago’s Clutha River, but without wrecking the landscape.
Halfway up, Tuai power station feeds the artificial Lake Whakamarino. We lunch beside the rumble of unattended turbines under an avenue of palm trees, a European touch in a landscape that needs no foreign enhancement. The fish in the lake are foreign too – fishermen outnumber trampers in this National Park.
Lake Waikaremoana appears without warning. It’s as brooding as whakapapa, poets and guide books have promised. The chill air and mist up the valleys remind us how high we are. Thick bush to every shore enhances the mystery and spirit of Te Urewera. Whatever made colonial troops think they could track Maori leaders in here?
Recent developments promise a history rewind. The Tuhoe treaty settlement will give Maori increasing influence in the management of Urewera National Park, and it almost feels like the Department of Conservation is waiting for that to happen. The Park HQ ticks over and tracks are maintained well enough, but it feels like things have stalled. Maybe they are leaving this powerful place to speak for itself, or for its indigenous people to speak for it.
A fenced plot above the lake turns out to be a patch of kowhai ngutukaka – kaka beak or clianthus maximus. It’s certainly huger than suburban varieties and has long been so rare that Maori used its seeds as koha. These plants are bedraggled but alive – Waikaremoana is the heart of a determined conservation programme.
We’re the only guests at the motor camp not anticipating fish for dinner. Checked into our architecturallydesigned cabin, we walk up to Whaitiri Point. This was the site of the famed Lake House, a Government Tourist Hotel built in 1900 for intrepid travellers who expected billiards and ballroom dancing after their lake cruise. Again, the enterprise collapsed in the 1970s and only a temporary sign remains.
I’m astounded by the lack of tourists. In fact, hardly anyone I know has been to Waikaremoana – a shame because it’s an essential experience for New Zealanders and an undemanding drive, despite the unsealed stretch down to the volcanic plateau.
Most visitors are here to walk or fish. Few do both and I rarely do either. But back at Motere, Geoff Prickett shamed me into “doing” the Lake Waikareiti walk – his ten year old had no trouble so I should make it. So for “one hour each way on a well graded path” we’re immersed in massive rimu and beech, tui, keruru and kakariki. Superb.
Lake Waikareiti is almost too perfect to be real. Far higher than Waikaremoana, it’s often in mist, so it’s surrounded by delicate kidney ferns and glistening pink mosses.
At the dayhut by the lake we meet a pair of more earnest trampers. They’ve come in from the east and met some fishermen on the far side of the lake. They’d considered commenting on the blight of foreign fish, but resisted the temptation. Good thing too – in their pack they have a gift: a trout.
Back at Waikaremoana we walk a few minutes off the road to stand beside marvellous falls. At Papakorito, waters bounce 20 metres down splayed rock. Further down Aniwaniwa Stream, tracks down both banks get us close up to a series of falls. Then the stream slides quietly into the lake.
There’s plenty at Waikaremoana to fill many more days – I’ll be back, but today we’re off to Rotorua. That’ll be something different.
The unsealed road crosses Mokau Falls then skirts the lake edgily, before it wanders down into Whirinaki Forest. Guide books make much of this unsealed stretch - it’s not a problem but might explain why Te Urewera is off many tourist trails.
Down on the flat, the road slices avenues slice through Kaingaroa’s radiata forests (fringed with wild blackberries if you stop to look), then it’s Rotorua.
Rotorua is even more given over to international tourism than I remember, but the two places we visit are impressive. The Polynesian Spa has been modernised but the 19th century pools remain exposed. The lake view is improved and the soak no less restorative.
Rotorua Museum is similarly transformed, restored and actually finished. One hundred years on, the initial vision has bteen fulfilled with the completion of the south wing. Today it houses absorbing portraits of Maori, with a focus on wood, stone and fibre objects the artists slipped in. Downstairs, the Te Arawa display offers the swiftest and possibly most balanced (if simple) story of Aotearoa I’ve seen.
In the north wing, the original bathhouse has been uncovered – you can wander through scary rooms where the trendy but gullible came for cures, muddy and electric.
We ignore Rotorua’s current delights and head west, cross State Highway 1 and stumble upon more hydro schemes.
Eight dams regularly interrupt the “flowing waters” of the Waikato River but I’m most interested in Mangakino. This is where my old mate and poet Hone Tuwhare was a boilermaker, conscious of the impact of his work.
Here alien sounds are struck. Nowhere is there greater fuss To tear out the river’s tongue.
Like many hydro construction towns, Mangakino has become a placid lakeside retreat, or so it seems. But in the middle of town, the NZ Army is inexplicably holed up in a back section – the sandbagged sentry has us in his sights as we pass. By the playground, we stop while a tiny child walks at our car, threatening to pelt us with a single stone.
From Mangakino we swing through rolling dairy land, cross the King Country and head for Kawhia. The resting place of the Tainui waka is over 40 meandering kilometres from the main road, which must contribute to its “sleepy” reputation. Today it’s closer to sluggish - although within months we hear of an attack on the local policeman.
But we are welcome at Kawhia Motel – a sign in the window says so and invites us to move into room 4. Anyone else who arrives before the owner gets back from fishing can help themselves to rooms 2 or 5.
We had fancied hot pools on opposite sides of the island but it’s too cold and windswept to dig our own at low tide in Kawhia. Instead, a wander along the waterfront reveals an easy balance of heritage and fun. This place must be bouncing during February’s kai festival.
Our next night is in newish roadside cabins back at Otorahanga. The friendly owner, another semi-retired entrepreneur, has a bach at Kawhia but doesn’t get there much – too busy with the business (and its insistent cat).
I’ve never been to Otorahanga’s famed Kiwi House so take a look. The kiwi are fascinating, but I enjoy getting up close to weka, kakariki, kereru and bellbirds. A freeranging pukeko crashes through rerenga to peck my finger. I assume the godwit and oystercatcher are caged for a reason.
Some New Zealanders smirk when you mention Waitomo. We saw just the main cave, but I think it’s marvellous. Sure, it’s “commercialised” – so are Uluru and Ha Long Bay. Otherwise they’d be too hard to get to.
The Waitomo experience is impressive, from the parking, ticketing and queuing, to the black and silent boat glide, eye-level views of the larvae’s string food traps, waiata from our guide in the Cathedral Cave, and lunch under a soaring canvas canopy. Appropriately (despite the fact their ancestors avoided the place) a Ngati Maniopoto’s warm kaupapa permeates the experience.
We’ve shouted ourselves an economy night at Chateau Tongariro on the way home. En route I get my first glimpse of Te Kuiti (reassuringly rural) and Raurimu, but the only railway spiral visible from the viewing platform is a wire model.
It’s hard for a South Islander to accept, but Ruapehu and her whanau are gems. Approaching from the west we get teasing glimpses above the pastures. The air is so clear, the young and perfect Ngauruhoe pokes up from miles away. We can even see the estranged spouse, Taranaki, in the distance.
Whakapapa skifield is at its best without skiers – you photograph yourself trudging through pockets of snow and clambering rocky outcrops as if you really are in the wild. Then you look up, remember this is an actual angry place and retreat to the bar.
Another recurring theme of this trip has been restored glory, so The Chateau is a fitting finale. The 1920s décor has been refurbished and a new wing neatly blended. The restaurant is fine in every sense and there’s a pianist in the lounge who plays Skylark beautifully.
One more large-tree bush walk (a surprising find behind Ohakune) and two more viaducts and we’re off home.
I worry about my new fixation with viaducts – maybe it’s because when I was 17 I was going to be an engineer. The lone pair of KiwiRail passengers gazing up the rails at National Park Railway Station probably won’t even notice when they’re on viaducts but I’m transfixed. I spend ages at Makatote, our third highest viaduct, just north of Ohakune, and Makohine near Mangaweka on SH1. The Institute of Professional Engineers (IPENZ) is keen too, and proud – they’ve mounted informative plaques beside them all.
Back home, I walk onto our Horowhenua beach. On a clear day we can see Ruapehu at the end of the beach, almost 150 km away – and there she is, glowing in the sunset.
Manawatu Gorge wind turbines. Right Firefighters.
Mohaka railway viaduct.
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Mahia road workers lunch.
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NZTODAY ISSUE 54 Above left Nuhaka fish and chips. Below left Morere tea rooms. Above Motere Lodge swing bridge and ford. Right Motere Lodge.
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Traction engine trailer.
Lake Waikareiti kidney ferns.
Tuai power station.
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Kowhai ngutukaka kaka beak. Lake Waikareiti.
Aniwaniwa Falls. Below Mokau Falls and Waikaremoana east road.
Pukeko in Rerenga. Kawhia Motel.
Ngauruhoe from Ruapehu.
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Raurimu spiral visible wire model.