03 January 2018 | Stratford Kiwi Motels & Holiday Park, Stratford, North Island, New Zealand
Photo: Baxter approaches the Moki Tunnel (a.k.a. The Hobbit Hole) on the Forgotten World Highway
Having admired a four-times life-size sheep and its shearer in Te Kuiti, we resumed our road-trip southward taking Highway 4 to Taumarunui. Here we turned onto Highway 43 a.k.a. the Forgotten World Highway which would take us southwest for 155 km (97 miles) to Stratford. A slower road than if we had stayed on the bigger Highway 3, we had picked this route because it was given first place in a list of Best Drives in New Zealand for Stunning Scenery that Randall had found online. With the road to Milford Sound (on the South Island) that we had found so impressive in 2015 ranking number 4 on that list, we were pretty excited about the prospects for the Forgotten World Highway.
And the drive did not disappoint us. It was locally beautiful and expansively spectacular.
A lavender farm near the north end of the Forgotten World Highway
It was a little different from what we had expected because I had assumed that the scenery would be predominantly wilderness or forest. There were significant sections that passed through, or by, native forests and bush but most of the road was in rural areas with extensive livestock grazing. Although these areas may not sound particularly scenic and the landscape is far from natural in a land that has no native mammalian herbivores, the topography of the narrow interlocking valleys and long, branched, steep-sided ridges is, at least to me, very pleasing. Perhaps having grown-up with the English Lake District as one of my ideals of beauty, I am far more accepting of grazed landscapes than perhaps a plant ecologist who is in favor of the protection of native vegetation should be. I just like to see the shape of the land where it is interesting just as much as the cloaking beauty of the native forests.
Pasture-covered ridges with patches of woodland near the north end of the Forgotten World Highway
To find this Highway as appealing as we did, you have to be comfortable with twisting and sometimes steep roads. There are very few straight sections and we usually pulled-over to the side when another car caught-up to us as suitable passing places were infrequent. Since Baxter has a manual transmission, we both enjoyed the feeling of control of driving him on the winding route. Even the 11 km (7 mile) section that was unsealed was well maintained and not as slow and tedious as we had anticipated.
New Zealand's oldest heritage trail, the Highway follows ancient Maori trade routes and the tracks of pioneer farmers through historic settlements. The landscape shows "where man and nature have battled for centuries" including Maori Pa sites, farms, and railway tracks and tunnels. The route crosses four saddles (a.k.a. passes or watersheds) where the views are particularly extensive and it dips through the narrow Tangarakau Gorge where the road is enfolded in the lush podocarp forest that characterizes the region.
A hen turkey and fledglings balance on a fence
On leaving the Tangarakau Gorge, the Highway passes through the 180-m (197-yard) long Moki Tunnel which is known locally as the "Hobbit's Hole". The tunnel was dug in 1936 and the hand-carved walls are apparently home to fossilized giant crabs. The roof has attractive timber gables and in 1989 the floor was lowered to allow the passage of triple-decker stock (sheep) trucks. Although only a single-lane tunnel, there are no lights to control traffic so, as with the many single-lane bridges, one direction is designated to have priority and vehicles coming the other way have to be prepared to wait or even back out of the way.
Lichen-covered fence-posts along the Forgotten World Highway
Much to our surprise, the weather was much better than we had expected and the only rain that day caught us on a short walk to, appropriately, Damper Falls. The rain appeared not to make much of a contribution to the waterfall, however, which had only the tiniest trickle of water, the result of an almost island-wide drought. The water drops over a papa bluff (smooth grey sandstone) that at 85 m (280 feet) high is the second tallest waterfall in the North Island.
Damper Falls with only a trickle of water
We stopped for lunch at the Whangamomona Hotel where Randall was shocked to see a sign saying that a 15% surcharge was applied on public holidays. He was disgusted that the landlord would impose this until we later learned that it is a national mandate so that workers would receive appropriate overtime.
Whangamomona Village was established in 1895 and was once a bustling frontier town with up to 300 residents supporting the farming community. In the last 50 years, the permanent population of the village has declined to around 20. In 1989, after some disagreements with local councils, Whangmomona declared itself an independent republic with its own presidential elections. In January of odd-numbered years, thousands of visitors converge on the village to celebrate Republic Day. Passports are issued at the hotel but their purchase appears to be optional.
The other side said "You are now leaving the Republic. Welcome back to New Zealand"
The forecast weather may have been a bit of a deterrent to other tourists because we did not pass many cars going in either direction. For people who either dislike driving on the tortuous road or who are wishing to see some of the remoter sections, it is possible to go on a tour that uses converted golf-carts on the railway tracks that follow about half of the Highway's route.
View towards the railway line from the Pohokura Saddle
At the Strathmore Saddle, we had hoped to see the iconic volcanic cone of Mount Taranaki (a.k.a. Mount Egmont) in the distance but, sadly, it was hidden in clouds. Even when we reached Stratford, within 16 km (10 miles) of the 2,518-m (8,261-feet) tall summit, we could see nothing of the volcano's symmetrical cone.
The town of Stratford (population around 5,500) is proud of its namesake's heritage as the birthplace of William Shakespeare, so all of the roads are named for characters in his plays. The town also claims the first glockenspiel in New Zealand which is part of a large clock-tower on the main street. We dutifully attended the 7 pm "show" which featured doors opening to reveal wooden life-size models of Romeo and Juliette appearing at various windows including a final reunion on the lower balcony. However, we found the tinny-sounding canned music and hard-to-understand speech significantly underwhelming.
The Stratford glockenspiel with Juliette at a mid-height window left and Romeo below right
Our slight disappointment at this performance was compensated by two other aspects of our stay in Stratford. One was that we had a comfortable room in what might well be the neatest and cleanest campground in the world.
The other delight was revealed the next morning when peering between the surrounding trees, I saw the pink light of dawn reflecting off something white that did not quite look like clouds. We jumped into Baxter and drove to the edge of town where, joy, oh joy, Mount Taranaki was free of clouds and had large remnant streaks of snow on top.
Early morning view of Mount Taranaki's summit as seen from Stratford
This marvelous, classically shaped cone has shown no activity in more than 350 years and is supposed to be overdue for another eruption. It is the youngest of the three volcanoes along the same fault line but it sits in regal isolation on a self-made bulge on the western side of the North Island. Maori legend tells that Taranaki used to be part of a tribe of volcanoes in the middle of the Island, but he had to flee southwest after he was caught with Pihanga, the beautiful volcano near Lake Taupo and the lover of Mount Tongariro. Whether fleeing in disgrace or to keep the peace, Taranaki gouged out a wide scar in the earth that was filled with the Whanganui River, and he now sits alone on the coast hiding his face behind a cloud of tears.
The graceful cone of the volcano Mount Taranaki as seen from the southeast
We were thankful that the tears dried-up long enough for us to get a good view of the peak from Stratford. As we drove south on Wednesday (January 3rd), I kept looking back until we found fine views that showed how the cone rises from sea level in a glorious sweep with no foothills. Having studied the unusual pattern on the map of the circular, summit-encompassing National Park in the center of the large rounded peninsula, with the numerous streams and roads radiating from the central peak, it was immensely satisfying to see that this spectacular volcano was even more impressive than I had imagined.