A CEN­TRAL NORTH IS­LAND

ROAD TRIP

NZ Today - - A CENTRAL NORTH ISLAND - STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY BILL LEN­NOX

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.

The Bay

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.

Te Urew­era

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

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.

The Waikato

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.

The West

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.

The moun­tain

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.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

Jesse Ry­der.

Mahia road work­ers lunch.

Nuhaka round­about.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54 Above left Nuhaka fish and chips. Be­low left Morere tea rooms. Above Motere Lodge swing bridge and ford. Right Motere Lodge.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

Lake Waikare­moana.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

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.

Poly­ne­sian Spa.

Pukeko in Rerenga. Kawhia Mo­tel.

Ngau­ruhoe from Ruapehu.

NZTO­DAY IS­SUE 54

Rau­rimu spi­ral vis­i­ble wire model.

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