The Forgotten Highway threads its way from Taranaki through forests of beech and small villages (including the unique ‘republic’ of Whangamomona) to Taumarunui, located in the foothills of the Tongariro National Park. Further north, the world-famous Waitomo Glow-worm Caves were formed 30 million years ago and discovered in 1887 by Tane Tinorau and Fred Mace. South of Auckland, on the western coastline, the harbour townships of Kawhia and Raglan were once important ports prior to the advent of road and rail. Today traditional kiwi baches form the majority of dwellings but larger, architecturally designed houses verify that the west coast has become a popular lifestyle choice for many. On our final scenic North Island drive we travel from New Plymouth to Auckland via Taumarunui, Waitomo, Kawhia and Raglan. We visit the gravesite of Billy Gumboot the goat (ex-president of Whangamomona!), float on a raft beneath galaxies of glow worms, enjoy a cultural tour of Kawhia by boat, take a hot sandy bath at Te Puia Springs and arrive in Auckland relaxed and ready to see the scenic South Island.
It’s hard to leave New Plymouth with so much left to do. We’ve walked in Pukekura Park and visited the impressive rhododendron dells of Pukeiti, but the Sugar Loaf Islands Marine Park and the Taranaki Mineral Pools - where you can soak in 27,000-year-old thermal waters - remain outstanding.
“Never mind,” say Bob as we exit town on SH3 to Inglewood. “It’s always good to leave something to come back to.”
At Lake Mangamahoe we stop for a photo of Mt Taranaki’s reflection on the water’s tranquil surface before continuing to the outskirts of Inglewood, where we drive up the mountain through forest bearded densely with lichen and mosses to the Dept. of Conservation information centre. Its displays prove excellent – as do the views – and after soaking up the scenery we drive on to Stratford’s Clock Tower in time for the 10 am glockenspiel, where the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet unfolds to the peal of bells.
After enjoying a latté in the sun we leave town on SH43, or the Forgotten Highway as it’s more commonly known. Flanked by the railroad it’s a heritage trail that runs from Stratford to Taumarunui and has several attractions en route including a brick kiln and boarding house, a disused coalmine, coal seams on the roadside, old bridges and tunnels, riverboat landings and several Maori heritage sites.
We pass the rustic brick kiln and at Strathmore Saddle we stop to stretch our legs and admire the views of Mt Taranaki to the west, and Mt Tongariro, Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe to the east.
In Whangamomona there’s a pub, a café and a garage – and not a heck of a lot more at first glance. A guy in the garage gives us a friendly wave as we pass by.
“Let’s stop for lunch here,” says Bob pointing to M&M’s Café, housed in what was once the old Australasia bank. Inside we meet Marg – one of the M’s – her husband Mert, at the garage, is the other.
Within a short time we discover that this very small town has a very big heart. It’s also possibly the smallest fun ‘republic’ on earth. Marg fills us in: “Bureaucratic bungling in ’89 saw Whangamomona realigned with Whanganui instead of Taranaki and locals got a bit upset” she says, “A meeting in the pub resulted in them declaring it a republic.”
Nowadays they celebrate their independence day in January in style with presidential elections. Past presidents have included Billy Gumboot the goat, who ate the oppositions votes in the ‘99 election but died in active service (his gravesite is now a tourist attraction overlooking the main street) and Tai, a poodle, who was top dog until an assassination attempt left him in no mental state to rule!
In January 2005 Marg’s Mert became president and a crowd of over 4000 poured into town to take part in the celebrations.
“It was all on,” says Marg. “We had a sheep race down the main street, Clydesdale rides, shearing and chainsaw sculpting, wood chopping, and even an eel bath.”
“An eel bath?” enquiries Bob looking startled.
“Oh yes,” laughs Marg. “Some people squirmed but others seemed quite relaxed!”
Bob looks at me and shakes his head, and before we leave town we stick our heads into the pub and visit Billy Gumboot’s grave.
At the Damper Falls we hike to the 85 metre waterfalls which are said to be the highest in the North Island. They spill over a horseshoe-shaped bluff into a bush-fringed pool. “Spectacular,” is Bob’s only comment.
We drive through the Tangarakau Gorge’s magnificent podocarp forests to the Aukopae River Boat Landing, where riverboats landed cargoes of settlers, livestock and provisions before arriving in Taumarunui.
"Well," says Bob, after we’ve checked into our motel and sat down to a meal at a local restaurant, "It may be called the Forgotten Highway but I’m always going to remember that town!"
The morning brings showers as we head north and rejoin SH3 at Eight Mile Junction, pass through Te Kuiti, the Shearing Capital of the World, and turn off to Waitomo Caves.
En route we debate whether to: a) take a black water rafting trip (float on an inner-tube through dark caves with Waitomo Adventures), or b) take a walking tour. Bob’s keen to walk while I’d rather float with Waitomo Adventures as they have an excellent reputation, but in the end, as we only have two more days in the North Island, we compromise and opt for a wetsuit-free cave adventure with Spellbound.
We join a small group at the information centre where we depart with our guide, Katy. A rocky downhill stroll leads to the Mangawhitikau Cave where we don safety helmets and enter its inky blackness. A stream runs through and there are several good examples of stalagmites and stalactites.
We board a raft and Katy instructs us to switch off the miner-lamps on our helmets. Then, as we gently float through the darkness, glow-worms begin to emit bright beams of light tinged with green. Before long countless galaxies are swirling by with such dizzying regularity that Bob comments that he feels like we’re on the set of Star Trek.
And wait, there is a sound...and it’s not the theme music, it’s a... waterfall?!
“Oh no,” yelps Bob, “you promised we wouldn’t get wet!” The roaring gets louder and louder and just as I wonder if I have actually let Bob down, Katy flicks on her safety helmet light and we disembark.
What sounded like a 12 metre waterfall is in fact only a foot high, thanks to the cave’s awesome acoustics. Bob looks rather sheepish when he sees it but Katy reassures him that he’s not the first to be fooled.
Back in Waitomo, we call into the Information Centre. It’s a great place to discover the region as the adjoining Museum of Caves has an excellent display on Waitomo’s ‘karst’ landscapes. There’s also a multimedia show, Arachnocampa Luminosa, which tells the story of the NZ glow-worm.
I squeeze through the cave crawl, a simulated caving experience, and Bob gives it a go too but winds up stuck like Pooh Bear in Rabbit’s hole. Fortunately for Bob – unlike the unfortunate Pooh – we manage to get him out without resorting to drastic measures.
A tad embarrassed, Bob buries himself in the history of cave exploration, while I chat to the friendly information staff about afternoon activities. The choices are endless from abseiling into the spectacular Lost World with Waitomo Adventures (it looks absolutely amazing!) to horse trekking, quad biking, hiking and an early pioneer heritage show at Woodlyn Park.
In the end Bob and I decide to check in to the grand-looking Waitomo Hotel overlooking the village and work out later what we’re going to do next. A narrow staircase leads to our rooms in the original Victorian-style octagonal turret and after settling in we relax outside on lawn chairs that provide vast views over the Waitomo Valley.
Later, feeling more energetic and having enjoyed our small taste of caving in Mangawhitikau Cave, we decide to tour the Waitomo Caves which put this town on the map when they were discovered in 1887.
We join a small group and enter the cave with Richmond, a local Maori guide with an extensive knowledge of the region’s geology. He tells us that Waitomo’s limestone landscape was formed about 30 million years ago from the bones and shells of billions of sea creatures.
We tour the upper levels of the caves, then take the stairs down into the 46-foot-high ‘cathedral’, with its impressive stalactites and stalagmites. The highlight for Bob and I comes at the end with another awe-inspiring boat ride through caverns lit by millions of glow-worms.
We head back to the hotel for dinner in an atmospheric dining room complete with chandeliers. Afterwards we relax beside the log fire where we meet an elderly couple from New Plymouth who reminisce about the hotel’s heydays. “It was pure luxury in the ’30s,” they say. “These days we keep coming back because it’s just as we remember, although it has had a spruce up!”
Our final day in the North Island dawns bright and clear. “Let’s take the back roads through Kawhia and Raglan,” says Bob, who has obviously done his research.
“What a shame,” I say, “we’ll miss Otorohanga’s wonderful kiwi house.” Bob looks suitably remorseful but clearly he’s keen to make the most of our last scenic drive in the North Island.
And so we leave Waitomo driving through a dramatic karst landscape – all rolling hills and rocky outcrops – to Haggas Lookout, where we have a clear view of Mt Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. At Mangapohue Natural Bridge we get out and hike for ten minutes to an impressive rock archway, and do the same again at the Marokopa Falls, which plunge some 30 metres down a cliff face to the valley below.
In Te Anga we head north to Kawhia, skimming the harbour before arriving in the township itself, a thriving port in the 1850s. The sleepy village offers a couple of cafés, a general store, a takeaway, museum and it has a large wharf.
We cruise past the ancient pohutukawa tree, Tangi Te Korowhiti, where Hoturoa, captain of the Tainui waka, moored upon his arrival in New Zealand during the 14th century, and Ahurei, a small hill south of Maketu Marae, where the same vessel was later buried. Beside the carved meeting house at Maketu, we see the Kawhia home of the Maori Queen, and the site where Hoturoa established a school for 12- to 17-year-olds to teach them how to use traditional weapons.
The first European settlers arrived here in the mid-1820s setting up flour and flax mills until the land wars in 1863, which heralded an exodus of settlers from the King Country till 1881. The harbour was also once a busy port, but today it’s a peaceful backwater popular with fishermen, and wind and kite surfers, who we see gliding across the harbour.
Back in town we eat fresh gurnard and chips from Kawhia Seafoods, then drive out to the wild ocean beach and Te Puia Springs, where we dig a hole in the sand and take a hot soak.
“I can’t believe it,” says Bob as we relax in our freshly dug pool, “there’s no-one else here!”
Sandy but rejuvenated we continue on to Raglan. We make a brief stop at Bridal Veil Falls and hike for ten minutes to see its cascading waters, then arrive in town with salty hair and sunburned faces, blending in well with local surfers who hang out on tables outside bustling cafes. We do likewise over lattés at Tongue and Groove before summoning up the energy to peruse Raglan’s wealth of studios and arty design stores including Jet, Kanuka, the Bow Street Gallery and Scintilla, and fine old buildings such as the Harbour View Hotel.
SH22 leads us north on back roads to Tuakau and we cut across to the Bombay Hills, where from the top we watch the sunset over Auckland. The golden glow of the incoming tide sweeps its way up the harbour and as day fades into night, millions of tiny lights turn on, one after the other, illuminating the shape of the isthmus below.
“Gee,” says Bob, “It’s beautiful. How can the South Island get any better than this?”