The Forgotten World Highway: Taumarunui to Whangamomona
Highway 43 takes you through heartland New Zealand. It’s remote. There’s no petrol station, no shops. We allowed ourselves a day and a half for a drive that, without stops, should take around two and half hours.
Kilometres travelled: 87
Time taken 4.5 hours
Number of stops: lost count – this road suits perpetual meanderers.
Our first side trip was down Aukopae Road ( shingle and mud all the way) past an old ferry landing, along the banks of the Whanganui River, in search of Nukunuku museum. When we reached this sign we abandoned the effort and headed back to the main road.
Nevin’s Lookout at the top of Nevin’s Hill was a good place for lunch, if a little damp under foot. The farmer who owns this land is very trusting – s/he only requests that travellers make sure to close the gate behind them. After a short walk to the top of the hill we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the King Country. On a clear day you’d be able to see Ruapehu from here.
Only the chatter of the fantails and the screech of the magpies broke the deep country quiet. Until I got a text! This spot is one of the two places, both high points, along Highway 43 where there’s reception. Somebody at work has forgotten I’m on leave. At least there were no explosions to worry about and, unlike horses, the cows kept their distance. John followed the example of the piwakawaka (fantail).
Half way along the Tangarakau Gorge is Josh Morgan’s grave. He was the first to survey the trail though the gorge. This is rugged country and this part of the highway is still unsealed. There are frequent slips and wash-outs along the road. Those early surveyors were an intrepid lot and we couldn’t pass without pausing to pay our respects. Josh died on the job – from peritonitis. There was never much chance of surviving that one back in 1893. The nearest doctor was at least a full day’s horse ride away. Surveyor’s wives have always been hardy – they have to be. Back in the day their husbands were away more than they were home. Anne Morgan was a young woman when her husband died. She survived him by sixty years. Even so she requested that she be buried beside him in the bush. I was impressed by this until I got to the gravesite. He’s memorialised. But there is no headstone for his wife!
As we drove out of Tangarakau Gorge the rain set in and our planned walk from the end of Moki Road to the Mt Damper waterfalls wasn’t so appealing. Instead, we detoured down the shingle Raekohua Road to the ghost town of Tangarakau. Two houses at the end of the road still show signs of occupation. It’s too remote, too run down, and too bleak for me. The deciduous trees brought from England by the early settlers are going strong. It’s sad to think about all the hope that was planted with them and then was defeated by the climate, the terrain, the lack of medical care, and government policies. The story of this ghost town is repeated again and again along the highway.
Another twenty or so kilometres along the road we arrived at Whangamomona. Here the welcome is friendly and the hotel warm and dry. There is no cell-phone coverage! No internet! And today there’s plenty of rain. It’s too wet to burn off the cooped up feeling that comes from spending hours in the car. So what better to do than bring the laptop out to this old verandah? It’s dry – if a little but chilly.
John’s just come up to tell me the fire down in the bar is warm. The dress code allows slippers. I think we’ll be cosy.