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|Touring New Zealand 2008 - Part 2|
We left Napier the morning after the Art Deco Festival. It looked as if the weather was set fine and it was a lovely day so we decided to leave on the Napier Taihape backroad which is a 140 km Heritage Trail, partially gravel, going over Gentle Annie. We first heard about it several years ago from some other campers at Lake Tutira who sent some information sheets to us in England. It is now one of a network of Heritage Trails which are sponsored by the New Zealand Visitor Network and the local District Councils. They all have information sheets and the main features are numbered and often have display boards on the ground giving something of the history etc. Their markers use cream/pale yellow letters on a, usually very faded, teal green background so are easy to recognise as are their information sheets which have a similar colour scheme.
The route which we know as "Gentle Annie" is officially known as the Inland Patea Heritage Trail and crosses the Dividing Range through an area of great natural beauty and historic interest where earth movements have created unusual mountains with limestone scarps with natural forest. It started as the route of an old Maori Trail from the East coast to the centre of North Island. In the 15th century one of the most famous Maori leaders Tamatea Pokai Whenui (Tamatea means he who explored the land) arrived in NZ on the Takitumu canoe and travelled the trail with his son Kanungunu. Many of the place names near the trail are called after the animals he carried in his basket.
Later Patea, a Maori living at Manawarakau, travelled the trail. Legend says he went on a hunting expedition for a long time and returned with a poor bag to find his woman had filled his storehouse. Her incessant nagging on how poor a hunter he was led him to take her for a walk off a cliff. Rather than face her relatives he fled into the wild country west of the ranges where he remained in what came to be called Patea's Country, a huge tract bounded by the dividing Ranges, Mount Ruapehu and Taihape. The Name gained the Inland to avoid confusion with the town of Patea. For 50 years the Inland Patea's main port was Napier and everything was packed on horses over the ranges. By the 1870s the Inland Patea had vast Stations with Merino sheep and transport was a tremendous undertaking - typical stations could be sheering up to 75,000 sheep and packing the wool over the ranges on strings of pack horses. The strings were hundreds strong with one man to each string of ten. Mules were also used and one in five animals carried provisions and fodder for the trip. Each pack animal carried 200 pounds (91 kgs) and riding ahead were hunters with dogs providing fresh food.
It was a dangerous job and it was not unknown for animals to lose their footing on the narrow rocky path over the precipitous "Gentle Annie" and plunge to their end in the Ngaruroro Gorge a hundred meters below. Panic could easily spread with the rest of the team following. They eventually returned with mail and supplies. This used to be the busiest and longest trail in New Zealand and remained so until Gold Fever struck and eventually in 1908 the railway was opened up to Wellington.
The day was clear and hot and the views all across were stunning. We did not have time to take all the side trips we have done in the past and unusually we did not stop for the night on Gentle Annie in one of the unpublished free DOC camp sites close to Kuripapango on the banks of the Ngaruroro River. Kuripapango is named after a Wanganui Maori warrior who was killed and eaten whilst trying to invade Hawke's Bay in the 17th century. There are several camping sites, the main one used to be down by the river and the track down was a bit broken up. That now seems to be only for anglers in the day and a new site has been set up nearby.
We did not even have time to stop and look at the old Springvale Suspension Bridge over the Rangitikea river which had informal camping for anglers at the rivers edge beneath it. The bridge was built by William Salt in 1923 and traffic is now carried by by a modern replacement which takes traffic over the historic ford. There is a swimming hole just above the bridge and Pete has swum there in the past - it is perfect with a hole perhaps 4 meters deep carved out by the eddies below a set of rapids, clean cool water and a back eddy so one did not have to continually battle the current.
We even missed out Taihape as there was a shortcut to the Route 1 North to Waiouru where we passed the Army museum and had a break and ice-cream. It was then a fast run on main roads past National Park and the central mountains of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and continued up Route 4 to Taumarunui.
We then set out on one of our favourite scenic roads from Taumarunui to Stratford, the SH43. This is a superb scenic road which . was the subject of the first of the Heritage trails in 1990. It has more recently been labeled the 'The Forgotten World Highway' on many of the boards. We have the original Heritage Trail booklet 'Taranaki and SH43' covering the SH43 and a few other less memorable trails. They should be available at Information Offices but have often been in short supply possibly due to the renaming. There are however big introductory boards at either end and signs to further comprehensive boards at most of the main points of interest. It was a fascinating trip on one of the early roads and cut across the grain of the countryside over a number of saddles giving commanding views. It is a road which is only 150 kms from end to end, some of it still unsealed, which merits (and takes) plenty of time. We have previously done the journey a couple of times from both ends but we never tire of it. This time we were short on time and didn't do any of the walks and side trips.
We drove over four scenic saddles, at Tahora, Whangamomona, Pohokura and Strathmore. The first one, the Tahora Saddle has the Kaieto cafe and camp site perched on the peak - a wooden platform on the peak doubles as a view point and helipad. The cafe looks as if the meals are good and there is limited accommodation - one cabin and a single room - and slots for camper vans. The sheltered camping area is relative only to the exposure of the remainder of the hill top! It is somewhere to return to stay but in the cabin. The cafe is full of old pictures and information despite being only a few years old and on our first visit we had an interesting talk to the lady who ran it who was Russian. The family had three qualified helicopter pilots and since then they have sold and moved on.
Then comes a highlight of the trip, Whangamomona Village. We had first been recommended the trip and the village whilst in the Catlins by some people we met (Anne and Mike) and it had been reinforced by another suggestion from a chance meeting in Auckland with someone whose father had worked in the village. Whangamomona, the Valley of Plenty, was first settled in 1985 and quickly reached its full size of about 200. It has always been controversial and had difficult access - in 1903 the Prime Minister, Richard Seddon was tipped into a pothole by the inhabitants as a protest at the road conditions and eventually improvements came.
The community spirit still survives, although to some it now looks little more than a ghost town. In 1989 the village declared itself an independent state in protest at changes in the regional boundaries which removed it from its home in Taranaki. Independence Day celebrations are held every year on the Saturday closest to November 1st. There is a signposted walking trail round the village which we followed part of - much of the village is like a time warp which has led to it being used for several films. The Whangamomona Saddle has a walk leading off from the viewpoint which looks sufficiently interesting we will schedule it for a future trip.
One next passes over the Pohokura Saddle, named after a Maori chief it was settled first in 1880 - in those days the road was so bad it took three days to pack in supplies. As with many other points on the trip there are interpretation boards at the viewpoints. The final Saddle, the Strathmore Saddle can give superb views and on a clear day gives a vantage of the four main North Island mountains, Taranaki (Egmont), Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. SH43 finally ends at the junction with Highway 3 in Stratford.
We have got very set in our ways and one of our regular stops is at Mountain House which has superb food and is in the centre of a magnificent area for walking on Mount Egmont otherwise known as Mount Taranaki. We often drive straight to Mountain House from another favourite area Wanganui and the Whanganui river where we have an interest in the riverboat and leave on the SH43, the Forgotten World Highway, which is fascinating drive across the grain of a countryside which hardly changes with time. There is a link to Mountain House in the fact that it is an area that features in many of Keith's paintings which hang at Mountain House.This year we decided to do the journey in the opposite direction, planning to continue down to Wanganui later.
Even though we were short of time, and were booked in to Mountain House for dinner, we could not resist stopping for icecreams at Stratford's Northern Dairy, one of our favourite dairies, where we inevitably get seduced into huge ice-creams - they have been some of the best value ice-creams we know. The girls put two enormous carefully consolidated and shaped scoops on each cone and charged us $1.50 each and answered our query about the size with the comment "a single is two scoops and a double is three scoops here". We took the pictures last year and got a fascinating picture with a juxtaposition of the two cones, one the typical but sadly less common one on dairies and the cone of Egmont.
Mountain House is sited at 845 meters not far below Stratford Plateau, on one of the only three road entry points to Mt Egmont. We have been to Mountain House several times before - it is small but serves some of the best food we know in New Zealand. The rooms at Mountain House are simple but adequate and the price is moderate at circa $130 for a chalet with full kitchen facilities, and slightly less for a double hotel room. On our previous visits Mountain House was owned by Berta, a skilled chef trained in her native Switzerland, who took great pride in the service provided. She and her recently deceased husband Keith have run hotels in the area for thirty years and she still retains the Andersons Alpine Lodge B&B at this time.
Keith, who was local, was killed in an unfortunate car accident involving tourists driving on the wrong side of the road, just before we came three years ago. Keith was also an artist and there were many of his pictures on the walls. Two years ago Berta held an exhibition of his work and launched a book which contains many of his paintings. The set up was very much a family affair and one very much felt a guest in their home - the lounge had their photo albums on the tables and their scrap books going back twenty years.
Berta has now sold Mountain House to a German who has also recently bought the hotel at Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge and already owned the 3300 acre Awakino Estate overlooking the Tasman sea an hours drive north of New Plymouth. When we arrived everything was in somewhat of a state of flux and the hotel rooms were being upgraded and redecorated. The chalets are going to be turned into hotel rooms we understand. The prices were held for us but we suspect they will rise now most of the sources of accommodation are in one set of hands. The decor in the lounge and dinning room is now in his 'house style' from Awakino and of a high standard but Keith's original pictures have gone to Berta and also many of their personal photo albums so it has lost the homely feel.
The food had increased in price and the selection was reduced but to be fair the hotel was only just open and many changes were in progress. It is really too early to have a view on how it will all turn out but we expect the prices to rise considerably in line with the other hotels in his portfolio. We will review the situation carefully next year - we will probably drop by to see Berta but not book Mountain House until we have seen how it has all turned out, or we may chose to stay at the Andersons Alpine Lodge B&B that Berta still has on the edge of the National Park.
Mountain House is right in the middle of the walking areas in the Taranaki National Park and the walks from Mountain House cover a variety of different forests as one works up through the tree line. Perhaps the most interesting is the Goblin forest which is primarily Kamahi which began life perched on the trunks of other trees, developing distinctive gnarled, intertwined trunks as they grew around the branches of existing trees which have now been stifled. The Kamahi trunks and branches are covered in mosses, liverworts and ferns while other trees and shrubs grow perched on the Kamahi forming compound trees.
It is difficult to give a proper impression of these walks through these spectacular rain forest which surrounds Mountain House, hopefully the pictures will convey something of the extra-ordinary atmosphere. The 15 minute circular Kamahi walk enables one to sample the goblin forests. The Patea Loop Track is a good introductory walk which takes one through the Goblin Forest past incredible moss draped fuchsias as you walk across the deeply dissected flanks of the volcanic cone. It takes a little over an hour. The Enchanted Track is a third round trip walk but one that involves considerable height gain unless you can get a lift to the Plateau and just walk down it. It drops 300 metres with spectacular views of the mountain terrain and The Dawson Falls area as well as the sea and the Tongariro mountains on a clear day. It also gives an excellent opportunity to observe how the sub-alpine scrub changes into the goblin forest as one descends. We normally do it as part of our round trip walks to Dawson Falls.
The Potaema bog walk starts five minutes drive down the road to Stratford from Mountain House. It is interesting as it takes one through a wide variety of different scenery as one approaches the edge. Swamps are areas where the normal sequence of vegetation is interrupted. The Taranaki swamps are, in effect, huge frost hollows, trapping cold air and creating completely different micro-climates in the acidic conditions created by the high nutrient concentrations with abnormally cold temperatures for the height. The Potaema bog is surrounded by a forest of Rimu, rata and Kamahi with kahikatea, New Zealand's highest growing tree growing at the edge. The forest quickly gives way manuka, lancewood, flax and large sedges with sharp cutting edges. The walk ends over the swamp on a boardwalk so one can see the rushes, sedges and blue flowered orchids.
One does need very sturdy walking shoes or preferably tramping boots for all but the Kamahi and Potaema walks even if the weather is good and it seems dry underfoot when you leave. This is an appropriate point to state, for the record, that DOC who laid out the various walks and tracks have defined most of those in Taranaki as Tramping Tracks. DOC's definition of a Tramping Track strictly means "limited formation, often with steep grades, generally marked. Suitable for the moderately fit, experienced and properly equipped people wearing tramping boots" On the longer walks one should remember that the weather on Mt Egmont is well known for rapid changes and appalling conditions can quickly develop even in summer.
The Taranaki forests have less bird life than many forests - this is largely because of the height and low temperatures which dramatically reduces the insect population and hence reduces the number of birds. There are however plenty of Tui and Bellbirds which contribute to the outstanding dawn chorus, Tomtits, the Rifleman which is the almost as small as a Wren, the almost as small Silvereye and the Plump New Zealand Pigeons. The lack of insects does however mean that birds tend to follow one in the hope you disturb the insects.
We generally book a chalet for 3 nights so that we had two full days to enjoy tramping the area. We know that there was a pleasant walk across to Dawson Falls for one day and we still have aspirations for a summit climb.
We have repeated several times the excellent round trip tramp along the Waingongoro Track to Dawson Falls, up to Wilkies Pools then returning on the High Level Round the Mountain Track then dropping down the Enchanted Walk back to Mountain House and returning on the Kamahi track. The first part of the Waingongoro Track is common to several of the walks from Mountain House but after 25 minutes one passes the turn off for the Enchanted walk. After that the stretch to Dawson Falls involves several river crossings which need some care as they can be slippery. We diverted to look at the Waingongoro hut. It is one of a series of huts spaced along the Around the Mountain Circuit (AMC) each hut taking 16 - 24 people on communal sleeping platforms and bunks. DOC have about 900 such basic huts for Trampers in New Zealand.
The most memorable part of the Waingongoro Track is crossing the swing bridge, a flimsy contraption of wires holding up a series of cross bars forming a walkway with only a bit of wire mesh to add confidence. You look straight down to a rocky stream bed far below as you careful inch your way across. Fortunately there was little wind otherwise they do not so much swing but sway and writhe like two drunken snakes hung across the river. This swing bridge is certainly not the longest at 26.5m but supposed to one of the highest at 29m. It certainly looked a long way down as one carefully placed ones boots on the 8 inch wide strips and clutched the two waist high suspension wires and inched across. Not surprisingly there is a faded notice suggesting only one person crosses at a time. After that the remaining river crossings were tame and we seemed to soon be back on familiar tracks from Dawson Falls.
It is worth a look round the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre which is memorable for having some of the worst presentation of information I have ever seen - some examples are white print on a background of tussock grass and other low contrast combinations and information displayed at 45 degree angles to the horizontal so you have turn your head on its side to read it. The maps are without scales and in random orientations so the two maps of the local walks bear no obvious relation two each other. The original information, probably written by the staff, is fine but it is almost impossible to interpret. It was probably some misguided attempt to employ contractors to Jazz Up the displays at vast cost. I took pictures one time as example for my customers of what not do when preparing web sites and presentation material! Perhaps the point of most concern is that there is no information, such as times or distances or difficulty, in the area which would allow visitors to plan even local walks when the desk is closed, presumably there is a policy that you have buy the information. At least they have added a good display case of stuffed birds - the girl from DOC was very helpful and understood our comments on the other displays fully and we noted last time that they now have a lot of additional and legible information and a display case of some the more common animals and birds.
This year the visitor centre was deserted. The shop and Motor Lodge at Dawson Falls did not even have an ice-cream for sale - it has been bought up by the same German who has bought Mountain House and was being done up whilst we were there - the style looked similar. We ate the remainder of our sandwiches then walked down to look at the falls. We also did the recently added very short walk to the old powerhouse where a water driven Pelton Wheel still provides some of the power requirements of Dawson Falls.
It was then time for the next stage, the climb up to Wilkie's pools where the water has sculptured the rock into marvellous shapes. After scrambling up past the pools and taking a few more pictures of the smoothly sculptured rocks forming the falls from pool to pool it is a good place to stop for a muesli bar before returning to join the Upper Around the Mountain Circuit following signs for the Stratford Plateau. This section ends with some excellent views out over the valley. We usually do not go as far as the Plateau as that means a road walk to get back to Mountain House - instead we go down the Enchanted Track to rejoin the Waingongoro Track about half an hour away from Mountain house. The Enchanted Track has some excellent views from the Trig point before dropping steeply down what seemed like thousands of steps back to the Waingongoro Track. In actual fact the descent is 300 meters.
This year it was so wet that we feared the Enchanted track would be very slippery and we continued to the Stratford Plateau then walked down the road for a short distance to join the Patea walk back to Mountain house. By this point it was tipping with rain. The total time was just over 6 hours including the time for short and long stops.
We left Mountain House on Thursday morning and drove into Stratford where we discovered it was Americarna day and over 700 American cars, mostly from the 1960s were in town on display before parading to Hawera then back to the base in New Plymouth. In contrast to the vintage theme at Napier, here the event celebrated USA culture - vehicles, music and food. There were vintage cars, but lots of modern hot rods too. The focus of the event is New Plymouth where on the Friday evening a 2 km circuit of the town centre is closed allowing drivers to cruise around to their heart's content. Its the one thing that people like about Anmerican cars - the cruising. Then Saturday was parade day with a timed procession of vehicles through the town. In Stratford the main street was closed to normal traffic and there were four lines of parked cars. We wandered round and admired the beautiful polished paintwork and shiny chrome. In 2007 we had seen a 1949 Ford Woody with its custom trailer at Napier, and it was good to see it and its owners again. We made sure we left Stratford before the convoy set off at 11.30.
We then continued to Wanganui where we set up the tent for the first time, actually the first two times as we had to move it as we had not realised that a goat was tethered to a long wire by a cord that brought it within reach of the tent. We spent some time in the Riverboat Museum catching up with what had gone on with Dave, the manager and John, the archivist, both of whom we know well. We have written many times about the Whanganui River and the Boats so we will just prove a link.
Our next overnight stop was Wellington where we were staying with John and Blyth before catching the ferry. We found time to stop at the steam museum at Tokomaru to chat to our friends Colin and Esma Stevenson.
The most exceptional aspect is that it is almost entirely the work of one man, Colin Stevenson. It is owned and run entirely by Colin and Esma Stevenson and, unlike almost all such enterprises in Europe, there is no large band of volunteers supporting them. On Steaming days they have a few paid helpers for safety considerations otherwise it is all their own work. The first times we visited it was not in steam and gave the ideal opportunity for a quiet look round - we were the only people present for much of the time but even so the Stevensons found time to come over for half an hour both times to talk and show us the highlights. We found it fascinating and spent several hours each time but even then we felt we had only scratched the surface - there are still many more old pictures and information boards we had not studied in depth.
On the last steaming Sunday we visited, Colin had 8 static engines running inside, not all simultaneously as the boiler will not support them all,as well as two road engines outside and the train was in continuous use on a loop track running through the old Tokomaru station. It is a tremendous achievement for Colin, almost single-handed, to keep so many of they in a such good condition and running when the large ones would have had large teams to run them during their working days.
After having coffee and home made cakes with Colin and Esma we were running rather late for Wellington so it was a non-stop drive to John and Blyth.
Wellington is a delightful city - the most pleasant capital we know. It has a small central area and round it many of the houses almost hang on the hillsides with decks and even carports cantilevered alarmingly from the steep slopes. It is a clean tidy city and not overwhelmed with tourists - most people seem to have a purpose and it is one of the few places in New Zealand where one would only feel slightly out of place in a suit and tie. John and Blyth's house is perched on a hillside overlooking the town with unbelievable views. Their parking space is up an impossible looking slope with part of the drive cantilevered out on a wooden structure. We just make it up in the vans, we have tried reversing up in the past but the wheels just spin - Blyth said it is quite difficult when it gets icy!
We spent the next day round the middle of Wellington, mostly round the harbour area. There were several people on board the old steam crane and we got talking and were shown round the engine room where they were doing a lot of cleaning and painting. The Hikitia was built in 1926 by Fleming and Ferguson, Paisley, Scotland with a crane by Sir William Arrol and Co, Glasgow for the Wellington Harbour Board. The delivery voyage was via Panama Canal under her own power with the crane jib in position. The journey took 84 days which is considered a record distance for a ship of this type. She began work almost immediately and for 63 years was taken for granted and unheralded doing construction work, helping with the demolition of the sunken ferry Wahine and much more.The crane capacity is 80 ton at 50ft radius.
The Hikitia spent her commercial life working in the port of Wellington although she was laid-up for most of 1980's. She is steam propelled by 2 compound engines each 175IHP, converted from coal to oil firing 1963, latter two more economic boilers replaced the original two-furnace Scotch boiler. She is built of steel and is 160ft long with a 54ft beam and is 750 gross tonnage. She was bought by present owners, the Maritime Heritage Trust of Wellington, in 1990 and returned to service in 1992 when she was approved to lift 80 tonnes after succeeding in an 88 tonne lift not bad for a 66-year-old ship. She recently did a 100-tonne test lift to maintain her licence, the same as she did in 1926 on her arrival in Wellington. She is kept in Wellington and is regularly operated (including commercially) and is believed to be the only such self-propelled vessel preserved in operating condition.
It was then time to catch the Ferry to South Island where we were due to sail for 8 days in the Marlborough Sounds. Our Sailing in the Marlborough Sounds merited a separate page otherwise you can continue with Part 3 which covers our stay at Waikawa, visits to wineries and the Knights of the Air aviation museum at Omaka prior to sailing and then continues with Denniston, Otago goldfields, the Burt Munro museum in Invercargill before Warbirds over Wanaka 2008.