In early February, Andy and I took a Friday off to extend the long Waitangi Day weekend and packed up the car and doggo to head up north to the Forgotten World Highway. It’s somewhere we’ve been wanting to check out for ages, and this seemed like the perfect time. The Forgotten World Highway is, as it sounds, a stretch of “highway” between Taumarunui and Stratford that fell out of use when it was no longer needed as a thoroughfare for railway construction.
Early on Friday, we set off on the five-hour drive to Taumarunui at the eastern end of Route 43, the boring name for The Forgotten World Highway. Passing alongside the Central Plateau, we drove by the volcanic peak that doubles as a ski field, Mount Ruapehu. We then diverged from the main North Island highway, now on a new road I’d never driven. When the picturesque Makatote Viaduct came into view, we had to pull over.
Built between 1905 and 1908, it was the highest viaduct in NZ at the time, and now holds third place. Pretty impressive!
Continuing on with the train theme, our next stop was to check out the Raurimu Spiral. Apparently it’s a notable feat of railway engineering, but one that was pretty much impossible to see from the viewing platform. At least we got to stretch our legs and still take in the beautiful landscape, even without said spiral.
Higgs was NOT a fan of the platform.
Finally, we made it to Taumarunui and stopped for lunch at a delicious pizza spot. We also grabbed plenty of groceries and topped up on fuel, since the 150 km (93 mile) Route 43 doesn’t have a single gas/petrol station, and there’s only one hotel pub.
All stocked up, it was time to set out on the long and winding Forgotten World Highway.
It wasn’t long before the view opened up all around us.
Rolling hills stretched out as far as the eye could see, and we definitely felt we’d left the modern world behind.
We stopped here and there to take in the view, which got better around every bend. Before long, the road dipped and we found ourselves on the most famous section of the highway, Tangarakau Gorge. This 12 km unsealed stretch winds alongside a river, hugged by soaring walls of dense native bush. You have to go slow, since the road is hardly wide enough for two cars, but you wouldn’t want to rush through scenery like this anyway.
We stopped off at the first point of note, Joshua Morgan’s grave. In 1883, Joshua was a 35-year-old surveyor working in the gorge when he fell ill. Two men walked 50 km to the nearest doctor, but sadly they were too late and Joshua was buried where he died, on the banks of the river.
Morgan was an extraordinary man – the first European to cross the Urewera Ranges and an eyewitness to the 1886 Tarawera eruption. He spoke fluent Maori and often used English and Maori interchangeably. –NZ Herald
Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the railroad completed, but he is now a part of this glorious place.
His is one of many lives lost in this harsh environment, where men carved roads and railways by hand out of dense and unrelenting bush. It’s a wild place still, and its hard to fully grasp the work that went into the highway that now crunches under our car tires, sending up clouds of dust as the sun shines down, a mere three-hour drive from end to end.
As we explored the trail, we had the dense rainforest all to ourselves, another benefit of venturing into the Forgotten World.
Andy and Higgs went down the steep slope to the Tangarakau River, which hardly seemed to be moving.
Some unfurling ferns forming the NZ koru symbol caught my attention on the forest floor.
For a short trail, there was plenty to see.
Refreshed, we left the cool shade of the forest and returned to the bridge and our dusty car.
A few minutes further along the road, we reached another famous landmark of the Forgotten World, Moki Tunnel. One of five tunnels proposed by Joshua Morgan before his death, it was the only one to eventually be built. Completed in 1936, it’s 180 meters (590 feet) long and can only accommodate one car at a time.
While it was being constructed, numerous fossils were found, including giant crabs that can still be glimpsed in the walls (although we couldn’t make any out).
It’s hard to fathom the work involved in constructing this tunnel.
It was dug using two power jack-hammers driven by a coal-fired steam compressor, which was situated at the western Tahora end of the tunnel. The coal was supplied from the Tangarakau Gorge mine, and was brought to the site by Mr. Ron McCartie, a Tahora settler. As the work on the tunnel continued, the coal-fired compressor was replaced with a diesel-powered air compressor, lessening the need for coal. –Kete New Plymouth
Since traffic was pretty sparse, we had plenty of time to explore.
As you can see, someone clever dubbed it the “Hobbit’s Hole,” and the name has stuck.
After a good look around, it was time to drive through the tunnel ourselves.
On the other side, the road was luckily paved again and it felt like heaven! Our next stop was the Tangarakau Ghost Town. I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist a place with a name like that.
Built to accommodate those working on the Stratford–Okahukura railway, Tangarakau’s population peaked in 1929 at around 1,200. It had a school, shops, a police station and even a cinema, but its residents’ lives were inextricably linked to the railroad. When construction was completed in 1932, many left, and by the 1960s, only eight residents remained. Now, there’s just a campground called Bushlands Holiday Park and the remnants of a handful of buildings.
Camping and sheep – about as Kiwi as it gets. It’s hard to picture the once-thriving town that stood here a century ago, having all but disappeared into the bush and fields.
On our way back to the main road, we had to make way for local traffic.
The old railway runs alongside across, over and under the roads around the Forgotten World Highway. The reason behind this stretch of road in the first place, the life of the railway had a huge impact on Route 43. After construction finished in the 1930s, the highway was used less and less. In 2009, the Stratford–Okahukura line had a serious partial derailment which damaged the track, and KiwiRail decided to close it.
The 144-km stretch between Stratford and Okahukura is now exclusively used by an adventure tourism business that has fitted golf-cart like vehicles for use on the tracks. We briefly looked into it, but given the high cost, decided we’d rather explore on our own.
We still had a bit of a drive left to get to our Airbnb in Pohokura, so we set out over yet another saddle before eventually descending to our cozy home for three nights.
You can just glimpse Ruapehu rising into the clouds in the distance.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first part of our trip into the Forgotten World, and you didn’t even have to worry about the drive tiring you out. Up next, check out our awesome little spot in Pohokura, Higgsy “befriending” livestock, a huge waterfall and so much more!