THE AMERICAN MYTH
Bly’s grandparents regularly travelled it on horse and cart, and in their time it was common for people and stock to tramp the roughly 8-kilometre length.
‘‘The Saddle Rd wasn’t opened until the 1940s, so it’s a recent alternative.’’
When Bly started farming in the 1960s, there was a stock yard at every rural railway station to send animals for processing. Gradually, trucks became cheaper, and heavy vehicle traffic through the gorge has grown, while rail has dropped.
A major upgrade in the 1960s and 70s made a big difference to the speed and ease with which cars could travel on the gorge road.
‘‘When they put those new bridges in and took those little windy parts out that made a huge difference to the time and safety of the road. Some people don’t like driving it, but there’s very few accidents there.’’
Another myth is that American troops stationed in New Zealand during World War II planned to build a viaduct or bridges along the route.
‘‘It was talked about,’’ Bly says. ‘‘But it was probably something said over a pint of beer – ‘well if it was American we would have bridged it’. But the need wasn’t there then.’’
A search of official records has found no trace of the offer. Manawatu¯ Daily Times, Wi Duncan remembered walking the gorge track in 1870 as a child.
His iwi group was heading west to the mouth of the Pohangina River to harvest whitebait, karaka berries and eels.
A group of Europeans were working on the road at the Woodville end and it was the first time Duncan had met a Pa¯keha¯.
The scenery impressed him, but two years later, it was marred by damage from the road’s construction.
After the road opened in 1872, there was still no bridge at either end, so travellers faced precarious arrangements to cross the river.
In 1875, a toll for the road was introduced, taken at a small settlement called Gorge, at the Woodville end.
At the same spot, a cable was strung across the river and travellers could be pulled across on a plank of wood, 20 metres up. A ferry ran at the Ashhurst end.
In 1885, an English visitor said it was one of New Zealand’s ‘‘chiefest wonders’’. He describes landslides, howls of wind and the carriage’s closeness to the cliff’s edge as ‘‘not 10 inches to spare at many a jutting angle’’, but also the natural beauty.
‘‘Giant totaras, ragged with age, draped with moss and lichen, tower in masses above the lower bush, which is thickly clung, with creepers innumerable.’’
Coach driver York said after six months travelling the narrow road it was still nerve-racking, especially with scared commentary from passengers in the front seat.
The sheer drop was only inches from the wheels, and he would drive the coach and four horses ‘‘with the noses of the first horses pulled hard into the side of the bank’’.