What is it that makes most New Zealand motorists act like sheep when they travel from Auckland to Wellington, or vice versa, and take the same old, same old SH1 route along the Desert Road through Taupo?
Those in the know know that the SH49/SH4/SH3 route through the Ruapehu District is not only shortest, but less crowded and doesn’t get closed as often in winter as the Desert Road does. For the record it’s 648.7 km from Lambton Quay to Queen St via SH1, and 638.3 km via SH4.
But it’s not just the most direct route - there’s a whole new world to explore using the “real” State Highway 1 – a part of the country that has been dubbed the “Forgotten World” because of its links with the historic and highly scenic State Highway 43 from Taumarunui to Stratford.
Take the turn from Waiouru towards Ohakune and it’s not long before you arrive at the Tangiwai Memorial – a tribute to the 151 people killed when the express train from Wellington to Auckland crashed into the acidic Whangaehu River after a lahar took out the railway bridge on Christmas Eve 1953.
A little side trip into the small former settlement of Rangataua will discover “Harrods” and one of the lifeboats from the ill-fated Russian liner Mikhail Lermontov that sank in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986.
Keeping on the back road will bring you out at Ohakune Junction, the start of the Old Coach cycleway to Horopito – the first of the new New Zealand cycleways to be opened and now an easy ride rapidly growing in popularity. The short walk in the native forest just on the otherside of the cycleway entrance is worth the journey alone.
Ohakune Junction is also the gateway to the Turoa Skifield while the main Ohakune township nearby is home to the iconic big carrot that pays tribute to the fantastic produce grown on the rich volcanic soils.
During the winter ski season, Ohakune is fair jumping with apre ski opportunities but for many the highlight is trying one of Johnny Nation’s world famous in Ohakune giant chocolate éclairs.
Another diversion from Ohakune leads to poor cousin Raetihi 11 km away where there is a world class café in Angel Louise which includes a suite of Apple iMacs to surf the web while waiting for your meal. A more recent addition to Raetihi is the Volcano coffee roastery, which doubles as an eatery, making simply delicious hand crafted gourmet pizzas.
The next stretch from Raetihi to Raurimu takes in some of the most marvellous railway engineering in the world, including the curved Hapuawhenua Viaduct – now restored as part of the Old Coach Road cycleway – and where AJ Hackett perfected bungy jumping before letting it loose on the world in Queenstown. It also includes the memorial to the Last Spike where Premier Joseph Ward hammered home a gold spike to complete the Main Trunk Link near Pokaka in 1908.
Slightly further north is the impressive Makatote Viaduct, which is awe-inspiring when one considers the tools available to build it a little over a century ago.
On the other side of the National Park village is the world famous Raurimu Spiral, where engineer Robert West Holmes solved the puzzle of how to lift the railway line 200 metres over five kilometres by including a couple of horseshoes and a tunnel in his ingenious design.
But en route earlier from Raetihi, the road arrives at Horopito, home of Bill Cole’s famous wreckers yard where the iconic movie Smash Palace was filmed. It is only one of at least 14 major feature films shot in the Ruapehu District, rivaling Queenstown as New Zealand’s premier film set. The most recent has been portions of The Hobbit – Sir Peter Jackson’s take on the Tolkien classic but others include the Hollywood blockbuster Willow and, of course, the Oscar winning award trilogy – The Lord of the Rings. It’s also the current end of the Old Coach Road cycleway.
National Park is the link with SH47 to the Whakapapa Skifield and village, where high tea at the picturesque Chateau Tongariro offers magnificent views of Mount Ngauruhoe. But for a really “high tea” you can catch the chairlifts up to the architectural award winning Knoll Ridge Café with views right across the wilderness to Mount Taranaki.
At the foot of the Raurimu hill a new tourist attraction is taking place, closely linked to the Forgotten World theme that is becoming the catchphrase for the Central King Country. Steve Carr and very talented sculptor Jack Marsden Mayer are creating a unique sculpture park where dinosaurs, moas and the fearsome extinct Haast eagle are being recreated in driftwood. Tasters can be seen in the giant kiwi outside Schnapps Tavern in National Park and the much-photographed Raurimu Rex at the bottom of the hill.
On to Owhango, which marks the end of the challenging 42 Traverse – one of New Zealand’s best mountain bike tracks. About a kilometre before the township is Oio Road – the route to Whakahoro and the most popular starting point for a Whanganui River trip in Canadian canoes or kayaks. Whakahoro is also home to Blue Duck Station, a multi faceted farming, tourism and conservation operation. It’s possible to reach the famous Bridge to Nowhere by three methods from Whakahoro – tramp or cycle up the Kaiwhakauka Track to the Mangapurua road, or canoe for a day and a half from Whakahoro.
Owhango falls on the 39th parallel, which puts it on the same latitude as Ibiza, Lesbos, Pyongyang, and the Delaware Bay Bridge in Maryland in the north; Bass Straight and not a lot of other places in the southern hemisphere.
Between Owhango and Taumarunui is the turnoff to Kakahi, the last home of artist Peter McIntyre who fell in love with the trout fishing in the Whakapapa River, equal to any of its better known counterparts that feed into Lake Taupo. He loved it so much he painted many Kakahi landmarks featuring in a very desirable coffee table book. But Kakahi’s enduring attraction is the Te Rena Cut – an old logging railway line that has become the home for a colony of glowworms offering a 180 degree vista of bright lights on fine evenings when the walls of glowworms blend with the stars in the sky. Incidentally, nearby Owhango is considered the second best place in New Zealand to view the stars, and reputedly was just beaten by Tekapo in the South Island for the national observatory. Certainly the night skies are an impressive sight across most of the Central Plateau on fine nights all year round.
Mountain views are consistently available over much of the route to date, but the Piriaka Lookout offers a view that also includes the Whanganui River, which not only includes good trout fishing, but the headwaters also host some Quinnat salmon released in the 1940s. Local legend has it that a 35lb spent salmon jack washed up near the Piriaka Power Station after a 1970s lahar that killed a lot of the big river resident fish. But the fish have returned with a vengeance and the stretch of water below the Piriaka Power Station was one of the beats for the World Fly Fishing Championships in 2008.
Taumarunui, 10 km on, once promoted itself as the “middle of everyone” in recognition of its central location. One thing it’s not is close to a beach. In fact it is probably the furtherest place in New Zealand from a beach but it makes up for that by being the upstream terminus for the navigable section of the Whanganui River, made famous by Alexander Hatrick’s riverboats on the “Rhine of the South Pacific” from the late 1800s through to the early 1920s. Passenger traffic on the Whanganui went into decline once the Main Trunk railway line was completed in 1908 and it was possible to go direct from Auckland to Wellington in under 24 hours, rather than the convoluted train to Wanganui, river steamer to Pipiriki and the Houseboat, and then train from Taumarunui to Auckland that took up to five days.
The jetboat ramp at Cherry Grove is not only the starting point for five-day canoe excursions on the Whanganui River to Pipiriki, the normal take out point, but for a 21.5 km almost white water thriller that takes half a day. The Whanganui is a Grade 2 river at this end, in fact the closest grade 2 water to Auckland for all those needing their grade 2 certificate to compete in the prestigious Coast to Coast across the South Island in February. But local operators describe the four-hour trip as a pink-knuckle exercise, rather than a white-knuckle experience, well within the capacity of most people.
Taumarunui is also the northern end of the “Forgotten World” Highway, which wends its way through rugged country to Taranaki via the Republic of Whangamomona. Masochists cycle the route with at least five major saddles, but a new venture starting in October will allow those less agile to follow the old Stratford to Okahukura rail line on converted golf carts. Operator Forgotten World Adventures has been the catalyst for Taumarunui to rebrand itself as the best place to experience Forgotten World adventures.
A short distance along the River Road on the “Forgotten World” Highway is Lauren’s Lavender Farm, a truly beautiful sight when the lavender is flowering and a very popular café for locals looking for something to do on weekends.
Manson Gardens on the right hand side of the main road through town has recently become home to Taumarunui’s newest tourist attraction – the “Rotary Moa”. It’s one of Jack Marsden Mayer’s driftwood creations that was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Taumarunui – hence the name.
But at the northern end of town is the Top Hat Rock, which commemorates King Tawhiao’s Rohe Potae – the land under the hat. History records that as the Europeans spread throughout the country in the late 1800s, the first Maori King drew a line in the sand and banned access to the land that fell under the rim of his hat that he placed on a map. That’s why this is known as the King Country and why it was one of the last places in New Zealand to be colonised by the pakeha.
King Tawhiao also demanded prohibition and Taumarunui remained dry until the mid 50s when some enterprising souls got round the matter by establishing chartered clubs where members initially imported their own booze, which was kept in their own cubby holes. This has made Taumarunui rather unique in that it had four chartered clubs and only one hotel – a situation that remains today.
One of Taumarunui’s best-known attractions – at least among the golfing fraternity – is the all weather Tarrangower Golf Course.
There’s no petrol until Te Kuiti, so Taumarunui makes a good fill up point if the tank is getting low, and a feed. City types need not despair – Taumarunui has recently become home to Macdonalds – but there are a lot of other fine eateries and cafes offering a variety of food and drink options; not the least being the restaurant in an old railway carriage.
Taking a parallel detour on the Ongarue Back Road to Okahukura takes in the Manu Ariki Marae – home of the longest 7¼" gauge miniature rail line in the southern hemisphere, but also a highly spiritual place for the Kohitanga Church Building Society. Their open days and cultural festivals are something else.
The road rejoins SH4 by crossing the Ongarue River on a dual road/rail bridge which is the effective start of the Stratford Okahukura railway line – and where Forgotten World Adventures converted golf carts will be operating from.
About 21 km from Taumarunui SH4 leaves the Ongarue River to begin the climb over the Hiwi Hills, but it’s only a few km in to the small Ongarue settlement which expects to undergo a revival when the Pureora Timber Trail cycleway is completed in September. Following this road passes through Waimiha and up over the Poro-o-torao Saddle, under which runs a 1.3 km railway tunnel built in 1980 to replace the original tunnel.
A further four km on SH4 from Ongarue Road is the intersection with Ohura Road, that leads through small townships like Matiere, Nihoniho and even Ohura itself that typify the Forgotten World handle. With its former prison converted into a backpackers, Ohura is another township hoping for a tourism-based revival on the back of Forgotten World Adventures and the naming of State Highway 43 as part of the national cycleway network. What may be its salvation are huge underground natural gas resources that could in future power a new thermal power station.
Halfway between Taumarunui and Te Kuiti is the small settlement of Mapiu, followed by an opportunity to view the Omaru Falls – a little known gem – a pleasant walk after a short drive off the main road.
And if waterfalls have appeal, a few kilometres on are the Madonna Falls, right beside the highway, so named because of a vision seen by a young girl some years ago. Before the vision, these waterfalls were better known as “Whiskey Falls” because this was a natural stopping point for sports teams travelling home from games in Te Kuiti, who topped up their tipple with water from the falls.
The Central King Country – or Forgotten World – comes to an end a few kilometres further on when SH4 meets SH3 at what is locally known as the Eight Mile Junction and “civilization” in the form of Te Kuiti is just 11 km up the road.
While it’s possible to complete the section from Waiouru to the Eight Mile Junction in around two hours, this does not do justice to what is arguably one of the most compelling scenic routes in the North Island. Take some time to explore the hidden charms of the Forgotten World – it’s an experience that is truly unforgettable…