Looking for somewhere different for this month’s Weekend Drive, David Coxon’s regular travelling companion, Ashley, suggested an exploratory drive north of the Whanganui River.
Ashley had found a loop from SH3 up into the hills northwest of Whanganui and back to SH3. However, according to the NZ Topo maps the t wo roads from SH3 did not meet in the middle. The only way to be sure was to try it for ourselves and see how far we got. With a late start, travelling time to Whanganui, and the short days of midwinter, Saturday’s excursion was to visit the nearest end of Lake Rotorangi, a 20 minute drive inland from SH3 just north of Patea. This started off as a smooth, sealed and fairly straight road before we hit the hills, the seal ended, and we started following the Patea River up its valley and past signs warning of wandering stock.
Roaming the gloaming
With heavy clouds hanging over the hills and the evening gloom rapidly gathering, there was a feeling of urgency to reach the lake before it got too late, so we marked a couple of scenic locations to visit on the way back out if there was enough light. It was with some relief that we got to the lake before dark, although it was also just as it started raining. Although the weather and lighting wasn’t doing us any favours, Lake Rotorangi was certainly a very scenic place, and one we will visit again in better weather. With darkness rapidly approaching we were soon heading back and managed to reach the first of our scenic stops before it got too dark for photography. It was then a steady run back to Whanganui in the dark and our night’s accommodation. Sunday was our main trip, into the hills from Kai Iwi following Rangitatau East Rd from Kai Iwi, all the way to the end where it split into Watershed road and Ahu Ahu Valley Rd, then follow Watershed Rd, which would hopefully bring us back onto SH3 at Waitotara. If this failed, we had other plans for our return. The first part of the run on a sealed road was very pleasant and scenic with the sun poking through the clouds occasionally. Bushy Park seemed to be the ideal place for a coffee, but when we finally got through the ‘airlock’ style predator- proof gates and to the homestead car park we discovered that although Bushy Park was open, the homestead wasn’t. Rather than just standing in the car park with our homebrewed coffee, we continued our trip, looking for a nice pull- off area.
4WD comes into its own
As we climbed, the road turned to clay and we came into a newly logged forestry block. With the road now slushy and slippery, especially on the corners, we had to engage 4WD and keep the speed down. The denuded landscape looked like a scene of desolation from Lord of the Rings and not what we were looking for as a coffee stop. Luckily, we soon got back into unfelled forest and found a very pleasant roadside clearing where we enjoyed a longer coffee break in peaceful, grassy surroundings. A short drive later we reached the intersection where Kauarapaoa Rd looped back to Whanganui, which I had done before ( Nov 2017 issue). We were now moving into new territory, and the growing level of anticipation and excitement was only slightly dampened by the ‘ No Exit” sign added to the Rangitatau East Rd sign. We now knew we could not do a loop, but how far could we get? The road rapidly deteriorated into a narrow, windy track with grass growing in the middle, but the environment improved from forestry to native bush with ferncovered banks where it was cut into the hillside. There was a feeling of an exciting adventure as we pushed further into the unknown, with ‘ Keep Out’ signs plastered at every possible point where you could leave the road – even if was at a locked gate into a paddock. We assumed these did not apply to being on the road since it looked like a public road, but the signage certainly added to the feeling of being ‘out there’. Eventually we passed a sign for the Jean D’Arcy Conservation Area and felt a bit more secure about entitled to be there.
The end of the road!
Coming out of the conservation area, we found an open gate into a forestry block. The signage was a somewhat confusing mix of ‘no exit road’, ‘ dogs need to have been treated to come here’ and, on the side of the road, more ‘ Keep Out’ signs. After some consideration we decided to keep going as the ‘ Keep Out’ seemed to apply to leaving the road. There was a lot more of the same t ype of road, with some major repair work having been done in some places, and some fallen trees to skirt before we finally came to a closed gate that was clearly the end of public access. What an adventure it had been to get there. As usual the return trip felt quicker than getting there, although with the rather unattractive weather we decided to leave the diversion down Ahu Ahu Valley Rd for another day, stopping for lunch at one of the grassy areas on the side of the road in the conservation area. Although this was a pleasant, scenic place, the damp weather made for a quick lunch mainly in the cars, and not long afterwards we again reached the intersection where we took Kauarapaoa Rd for Whanganui.
Sting in the tail
Although a lit tle easier than our prelunch adventure this was still a very scenic and interesting drive in slowly improving weather. I was relaxing in the knowledge that this was a through road to Whanganui, when I came around a corner to find a work crew and a big digger blocking the road! Fortunately they were happy to shift a few scoops of earth from the middle of the road so we could squeeze through and not have to go all the way back to Kai Iwi. That was the last ‘ interesting’ part of the trip, and it was not long before we were on the easy run into Whanganui and a well- earned real coffee. I thought Whanganui was the end of the adventures, but arriving back in Wellington just after dark we got caught in a weather bomb with torrential rain and lots of surface flooding. I was very glad of the snorkel and good lighting as we struggled the last few kilometres home to end a fantastic adventure.
As we came out of the hills on Papaiti Rd, the sun broke through and we got some nice views of the Whanganui River valley.
The desolation from clear felling of the forest was especially depressing on such a murky day.
Ashley and Gillian’s ‘Rabbit’ overlooking Lake Rotorangi. The barrier is to keep lake users safely away from the Patea Dam, behind us.