Note: There is a Nov 2011 post (click HERE) which covers a later trip over the Forgotten Highway route on my Triumph Street Triple with a lot more photos of the whole trip. The later post also covers the ride over the equally spectacular Gentle Annie road as part of the same weekend ride. The following report is about our first exploratory trip in the car.....
Road trips are always eagerly anticipated, even if it's in the 4x4 on this particular occasion. The trip killed several birds with one stone, so there was plenty to look forward to. The main reason was to take Jennie and our then Wellington-based daughter to the annual World of Wearable Art Show in Wellington. The show is hard to describe but if you imagine Cirque du Soleil mixed with wearable art, all set to brilliant music and special effects, you get somewhere near it! The second reason was to drive the Forgotten World Highway (B to D on the map). It was to double as a sneaky reconnaissance trip for a future weekend motorcycle outing with the lads! This is 170+ km of narrow, twisty road running through extremely remote country with a mix of spectacular gorges and over tall ridges. Very little traffic, no fuel availability, minimal phone coverage and one of the ultimate challenging motorcycle roads unless you break down or have an accident - then it all gets serious very quickly. The other reason for the trip was to catch up with close friends and some relatives in the Wellington area whom we get to see all too infrequently. The trip was to take a leisurely week, although it was noticed that the distance of 1700 km was similar to the under-24 hour endurance ride we'll be attempting on equally twisty roads a fortnight hence - eek!
The first leg from Coromandel in the north to the small rural town of Taumaranui was uneventful in showery weather. The motel we stayed in was full of politicians and dignitaries of all persuasions, all there to attend the funeral of a prominent Maori leader. If there was ever a perfect time for a revolution involving the odd kilo of Semtex or Sarin, this was it. However, the nagging feeling remained that even with NZ's Great and Good out of the way, the country probably wouldn't notice! Taumaranui was bustling with great eateries and seemed completely unaffected by the global downturn.
Next morning, it was off down the Forgotten World Highway. The brain must have been at half mast as I failed to photograph a road sign which said "This is a public road, not a race track". When we got to the evenings' accommodation, there was a photo of the same sign on the bar wall. Some wag had taped over some of the words before taking the photo. There was the blurred rear view of a Nissan Skyline GTR flying by the sign which now read "This is a public race track" - priceless! Nonetheless, I did photograph a sign a little further down the road warning motorcyclists about the perils to come. At least one biker has lost their life on it in the last 18 months.
A sobering warning
Just out of Taumaranui, there are some impressive bluffs composed of layers of gravel and mudstone. These are around 300 metres above sea level in the centre of the north island and were once at the bottom of the ocean. The tilt of the layers was also impressive, showing how geologically active NZ is, sitting smack on the Pacific Ring of Fire and associated tectonic plates.
Gravel and mudstone layers
The road gradually descends into a river valley with the odd bridge crossing, with the valley walls getting progressively narrower and higher - real Lord of the Rings country and not far from where some of the trilogy was shot.
Te Maire Bridge
Stream having cut through topsoil to bedrock
Where's the Gollum then??
Diving up dirt side roads to explore, the value of a 4x4 was very much appreciated as some of the roads (a loose description) were rough and greasy and the chances of getting marooned miles from anywhere with an ordinary car were pretty high. Oh for an adventure bike!!! We noticed on the map that one side road lead to the town of Ohura some 10km away. Thinking that we might stop for coffee at a cafe, we set off. There's a sucker born every minute! Ohura might have been bustling at one stage but it was now a virtual ghost town. Old boarded-up shops and the only thing which looked well-maintained was a junior school, presumably to cater for kids from remote farms in the area.
Note for film makers: If you want to re-shoot Deliverance or Village of the Damned, look no further! Ummm... I've just Googled Ohura and they have a website!! It bears absolutely no relation to reality and must have been put together by the Head Zombie to lure unsuspecting victims there. Guess we were lucky arriving before dark and leaving promptly. Oh dear, there'll be a price on my head now.....
Ohura main street - not a person in sight
Ohura convenience shopping
Back onto the Forgotten World Highway with Ohura left safely behind, it was up another side road to explore. The first item spotted was a long-abandoned stationary steam engine, presumably used to power a small sawmill but there was no sign of that.
Relics of another era
Cool grove of appropriately-named juvenile Lancewood trees
A bit further up the road, we came across a convoy of classic/vintage cars out for a run, although they were not doing the whole Forgotten World Highway. Lovely to see them on the road and the first vehicles we'd seen for nearly 2 hours.. We'd intended to visit a nearby waterfall, but rain was setting in and a trudge through the mud for a kilometre was less than appealing. Instead, we chatted for a few minutes with a local farmer who happened to come by on a quad with his dogs. The isolation meant that his major shopping trips to town only happened every few weeks. The cattle and sheep on his 2500 acre farm also provided meat for home, supplemented by deer and wild pig hunting in the back blocks.
Classic car run
Back-blocks farmer and his working dogs - note sheep crook on quad
Closing in Whangamomona, our destination for the night, the road narrowed even further (if that was possible!) and we soon encountered the Moki Tunnel, hewn by hand in the 1800's but enlarged to allow modern animal stock trucks through (a very tight fit, I tell you!). Apparently, there are fossilised giant crabs in the tunnel walls but as it was a single lane, we weren't game to get mown down in the unlikely event of another vehicle appearing.
Moki Tunnel - 180 metres long
Tunnel roof - see what the top sign says?
Wild goat at tunnel entrance - wicked horns
Tahora Saddle - miles and miles of nothing
All together now - awwwwwww.....
As we arrived at Whangamomona, the sun was not far off setting and a cold beer and decent meal was the next priority. The original hotel burned down in a fire and this one was rebuilt in 1911. Stunningly well-restored and is one of those "must-stay" icons for bikers and other members of the population alike. (Whangamomona Hotel)
The current owners, Penny and Geoff Taylor are superb hosts and the food is equally outstanding. What's more, they are both keen riders, having toured Europe on a Honda Blackbird and currently own a Kawasaki Concours. Every year, there's a Republic of Whangamomona day where people come from near and far. There were two contenders for President of the Republic last time. One was a goat and the goat was duly elected. Only in NZ....
Leaving Whangamomona westbound the next morning for Stratford and an overnight stay in New Plymouth, there was more spectacular scenery and a thought that the slightly better road surface and more open corners were a little better for sport-oriented bikes than further east. Must put it to the test although anyone who pushes really hard on this road is inviting serious grief. Besides, why miss the spectacular scenery?
A shaft of sunlight near the Strathmore Saddle
Yet another spectacularly small road tunnel
New Plymouth - site of first onshore oil discovery in the 1800's
Next morning, it was a gentle cruise to stay with our first set of friends, then on to Wellington for the World of Wearable Arts Award show. A world-class event with stunning wearable art and technical effects and even for an arts ignoramus like me, it would be one of the best ever entertainment events ever attended. Loved it all but the bizarre creatures and items illuminated by ultraviolet light were a personal favourite. Difficult to remember that they were operated by people.
Lit by ultraviolet
2009 Winner from Alaska - made entirely of wood!
The weather forecast the next day wasn't promising but lunch with Jennie's relatives in the Wellington suburb of Eastbourne was very pleasant. Some houses in Wellington are built on extreme slopes with garaging just off the road and a powered elevator system to get the owners and smaller items up to the house with minimum effort! The elevator rails can clearly be seen in the following photo:
Hillside house with access elevator
Arriving at the house of one of my close friends (owns a Blackbird) just north of Wellington for the night, there was time before the rain set in to go out for a spin in his latest toy - a tricked-up turbocharged Toyota MR2 which he's preparing for the track. It will soon be pumping out over 350 bhp and judging by the way it broke traction under heavy acceleration, it ain't too far off now. Not too suitable as a road car though with it's rock-hard race suspension. I don't frighten easily but that thing is insane!!!!
Wolf in sheep's clothing
Weather the following day was appalling as a front passed through, so it was just a case of chilling out and heading home the day after in slowly clearing conditions. Up early and a great brunch in the small town of Bulls, about 1.5 hours' drive north of Wellington. The locals have a great ability to find fun ways of using the name of their town as the photo of the signpost below shows (click to enlarge).
Further up the road at Mangaweka, a Douglas DC3 sits on a roadside platform. Originally a cafe, it's now used by a company as an adventure tourism base. The trip never gets visually boring, that's for sure.
Reaching the central north island volcanic plateau, the bad weather was only just clearing and plenty of snow was in evidence on the slopes of the volcanoes, mercifully not down to road level.
Brooding Tongariro National Park volcanoes
Volcanic ash deposits - Tongariro National Park
Descending from the high altitude of the Desert Road, the weather dramatically improved but there was one surprise left - flooding on the main highway! It was only a foot deep in most places but all the streams feeding Lake Taupo simply couldn't cope with the torrential rain overnight and proceeded to find the quickest route to the lake. This is the area where we start and finish our 1600 km ride in 2 weeks' time so fingers crossed.......
Exiting the flood
From there, it was an uneventful 350 km run to home in Coromandel to be confronted by our cats complaining that our neighbour hadn't fed them all the time we'd been away - typical feline ingratitude!!!
I love road trips - never know what you're going to encounter and this one was no exception. Roll on the next in a couple of months! Hope you've enjoyed the scenic trip through part of the north island of NZ.