How enthralling is the idea of exploring a forgotten highway? And the road from Taumaranui to Stratford absolutely lives up to the challenge. A windy, sometimes gravel, always interesting 155km road, The Forgotten Highway weaves through countryside little changed over the past 80 or so years.
Originally built along colonial bridle paths, happily there seems to be very little that has been done to smooth the journey out. And apart from the vehicle you’re traveling in it’s a little like jumping into the Tardis and turning the clocks back. There are historic towns - staunchly independent ones at that - a majestic river with legal rights, magical waterfalls, spooky tunnels and retired bridges. And all the while the highway travels through remote lands dotted by sheep and regenerating deep green native bush.
Whilst the remoteness has protected the character of the area, (please note there’s very little phone coverage, so download your map before setting out), for travellers who are used to petrol stations every 50kms or so, it's worth bearing in mind that you need to fill up in Tauramanui - as there are no stations along the highway. Equally, there isn’t a great range of food stop options, so stocking up with roadie goodies, lunch and drinks is the plan. And because it traverses mountains and valleys, this is not a highway for wannabe Schumachers. Go gently, take detours and enjoy all that this part of New Zealand offers.
It used to be that you’d scream through Taumaranui, stopping only for fish and chips and plates of pre-sliced white bread slathered with butter at the Taumarunui Cafe. However today Taumarunui is a mecca for trout fishing, kayaking, jetboating and general river activities, as the town is nestled between two rivers and is a launch pad for those venturing up into the Whanganui National Park a remote, rugged park, clad in lowland forest, inhabited by native birds busy about their business.
The Whanganui is a powerful and mystical river. In March 2017 it became the world's second (after Te Urewera) natural resource to be given its own legal identity, with the rights and duties of a legal person. And at 290 kms the Whanganui is also New Zealand’s longest navigable waterway. So before taking off on your Forgotten Highway expedition, make sure you spend some time exploring the river.
One of the best ways to explore the river and all that she offers is to get yourself along to Taumaranui Canoe Hire to hire your gear for a leisurely paddle up stream. The tall, bush clad banks frame your meandering path and the air will be filled with bird song and the gentle splashing of your paddles.
However, if this is a little too leisurely for you then go straight to one of the jetboating companies and lose your voice as you’re hurled upstream in one of their grunty speed machines. The Bridge to Nowhere tour with Forgotten World Jets, is an all day adventure that will take you on a jet boat ride down the river, passing through rolling farmland to the Mangaparua Landing. And then your the drivers/tour guides will lead you 3kms up along the old road to the famous bridge, Bridge to Nowhere.
The Bridge to Nowhere was built in 1936 to open the upper areas of the Whanganui to settlers. However, the inhospitable landscape made settlement of the area almost impossible (thank goodness) so six years later it was closed. Today it’s an easy 40 minute walk from Mangapurua Landing and is suitable for all ages and most fitness levels.
Another super kooky way to explore the area is by self drive rail cart with Forgotten World Adventures. Forgotten World Adventures offer a range of tours from a wee 32 km, 3 and ½ hour ride that trips along deserted rail lines through hill country farms, native bush and explores 5 tunnels (make sure you check out the hand-built brick tunnels) before turning back to Tauramanui.
Quaint as this option might be, for all of you looking for slightly more physical adventure then look no further than heading north and embarking on the Pureora Timber Trail, part of the network of 22 rides that make up the network of NZ cycle trails - Nga Haerenga. Arguably the best 2-day mountain bike ride in New Zealand, the Timber Trail runs from Pureora to Ongarue mainly through DoC land and traverses 87kms through Pureora Forest Park, a park filled with a mixture of regenerating and exotic forest. Suitable for moderately experienced riders, this aptly named trail follows an old logging tramline through remote scenery that will leave you awestruck as you spin over swing bridges accompanied by bird song.
After you’ve discovered all that there is to do in and around Taumaranui it’s time to leap in the car, destination Whangamomona. If you’re passing in the summer months then Lauren’s Lavendar Farm is a great pit stop - especially if you’re needing to start your Christmas shopping as they have lots of scented gifts. Otherwise you can simply wander the purple fields inhaling the plant's perfume as you go.
State Highway 43 leads you through the twisty, rugged terrain and into a forested area and as you reach the end of the forest you’ll come to “Hobbits Hole” or Moki Tunnel, a narrow tunnel built in the 1930’s that will make you suck in your tummy as you and your car shimmy through. If you have a campervan don't despair because in the 1980’s they lowered the floor to allow tall trucks to pass through - so you should be fine.
And if you’re up for a detour then take a right onto Mount Damper Road, then another right onto Mangapapa Road (there are signs marked Mt Damper Falls) and you’ll reach the Mt Damper Falls accessway. The North Islands second highest falls, Mt Damper Falls is a glorious cascade (especially after a bout of rain) that plummets within a steep cavern into a pool at the base. The access way is about 20 minutes stroll across a private farm, (please note access is closed during lambing from August 1st - October 31st), and there is a long drop loo and picnic tables at the start of the track. To get up close and personal there are two viewing platforms so you can sit and reflect on the falls tumbling into the pool.
Back to the Forgotten Highway, and if you’re awestruck by the wildly beautiful landscape then shimmy across to Bushlands campground and set yourself up for a night or two. The kooky thing about Bushlands is that it’s also home to Tangarakau Ghost Town, a site that was once, in the 20’s and 30’s, home to several hundred people, all busy working on the railway. Bushlands have powered and non-powered sites as well as cabins if you don’t have a tent in your car.
Sticking with the theme of old towns, the next stop is the delightful Whangamomona. Like a kiwi version of an old wild west town, the main street is framed by colonial buildings all harking back to it’s heyday when the town was established in 1897. Whangamomona has had a bit of a rocky history, the population was decimated by the loss of 51 men in WW1, but then the building of the railway in the 1920’s and 30’s attracted many new people to settle here. However, by the 1970’s the population had declined again and sadly the local school was closed in 1979. Never to be defeated the plucky wee settlement declared itself a republic in 1989 in the face of growing frustration with the two local councils. Today the Republic of Whangamomona has an Historic Places Trust rating, holds it’s own presidential elections and their celebratory Republic Day, which is held every second January draws, numerous visitors from all around. Be sure not to miss it if you’re tiki touring at this time as you’re in for a treat. There are gumboot throwing competitions, a fierce sheep race that rivals the Melbourne Cup (don't forget to pack your fascinator), a whip cracking exhibition and of course - shoot outs! You’ll also be privy to their presidential elections which are pretty exciting and many a nation could take a few pointers from the expert election officials of Whangamomona.
Make sure you pop into the majestic Whangamomona Hotel to get your passport to the Republic, as well as a cold drink or bite to eat.
After all of the exciting racing, shooting and throwing, it’s time to head back into nature and continue exploring the area. And you’re in for a treat if you head to the Otunahe Scenic Reserve as the walk there is something else. Based on a farm, the 70 hectare Otunahe is a private QEII-covenanted reserve and is part of the larger predator controlled area that is managed by the East Taranaki Environment Trust. A superb example of New Zealand’s native forest, the reserve is home to many native birds - the bellbird, fernbird, NZ robin and NZ falcon, the white head and even the very shy nocturnal kiwi. The moderate walk is a magic experience that takes 2 ½ to 3 hours, so pack a picnic and enjoy. Or if you are after something special, organise a group of friends and book in for a night walk where you’ll be treated to the twinkly glow worm grotto and possibly be able to hear the call of the kiwi. It’s a small $10 per person for the opportunity to enjoy Otunahe and you can pay online 15-3947-0463618-00 or pop into the office in Inglewood. (The walk is open October to April and closed over the winter months May to the beginning of October.)