For those who have had it up to their pointy little ears with all things Middle-Earth and want to see the beauty of New Zealand without the promise of hobbits, wizards and monsters dotting the landscape, then the Forgotten World Highway, one of the most beautiful drives in the country for those lucky enough to discover it and one of the country’s best kept secrets, is definitely the road less travelled for you.
Text by Thomas Jones
Our journey started in a café in Stratford, a small North Island farming town that sits on the coast in the lee of a 2,518-metre-high volcano called Mt. Taranaki. Our destination was another café 210km away near the top of the 2,797-metre-high Mt. Ruapehu, another volcano in the middle of the country. Our route: the Forgotten World Highway, a remote and beautiful stretch of road that passes through rugged mountainous farmland and untouched virgin forest, and was once the lifeline of the region when settlers cleared the land more than 100 years ago. Nowadays it is home to just a few farmers and residents who live along the way, but the many abandoned farmhouses, coalmines, flourmills and ghost towns, all tell of a time when the area once flourished.
The road starts off through wide open fields ideal for dairy farming, but it soon turns steep as it gives way to high and marginal land better suited to beef and sheep. Crossing the railway line many times we made our ascent up to the Strathmore Saddle, the first of four mountain passes along the highway, where we stopped to say farewell to Mt Taranaki to the west and hello to Mt Ruapehu in the distance to the east. On the road we were lucky enough to get stopped by a sea of sheep being moved from their pasture to the wool sheds. It took a good fifteen minutes to clear and there was nothing we could do except turn off the engine and wait. This was a rare encounter and one that, in a country renown for its sheep and quaintness, is priceless.
We crossed two more mountain passes, all the time being treated to stunning vistas of the country, before the lush green pastoral scenery gave way to thick forest and steeper, windier roads as we headed on towards the township of Whangamomona, our halfway point and beds for the night. Whangamomona is the largest settlement along the road, and it’s tiny. That said, it’s the highlight of the journey, and a century ago this was the overnight stop for all coach passengers making the crossing.
Today it’s more of a stop for day-trippers on motorbikes and people like us interested in its history and cold beer. The town was first settled in 1895 and had a population of around 300 at its peak. Now it’s about 30, and that may or may not include the pub’s cat. The town half-jokingly declared itself a republic in 1989, complete with its own presidential election, passports and a Republic Day held every two years, which sees the place seething with thousands of visitors and sheep.Click to view slideshow.
Arriving with a raging thirst we grabbed a table outside, ordered the first round of many beers and settled into the summer afternoon as the sun sank slowly into the west. Later on we tucked into a home-cooked meal of fresh venison sausages, mashed potatoes, and apple pie and ice cream before heading into the main bar where we drank beer and played pool with the locals till closing time – thankfully bed was only two flights up. The next morning, feeling a bit worse for wear from all that country hospitality, we breakfasted well and got back on the road.
Not far to the east is the fourth and final pass, the Tahora Saddle, offering more stunning scenery and another chance to spot Mt. Ruapehu in the distance before we reached the 180-metre long Moki Tunnel, carved out of rock by hand in the 1930s to make the road more navigable. Soon the tarseal ran out and we hit a 12-kilometre stretch of gravel road through the stunning Tangarakau Gorge, as beautiful a piece of untouched virgin New Zealand forest as you will ever see. The gorge follows the river downstream and eventually reemerges back into farmland where it meets the larger Whanganui River, who’s side we didn’t leave again until we met the town of Taumaranui and civilization once again.
From here we were on the home stretch as we drove into the Central Plateau and closer to our mountain destination. The forest had long since been replaced by alpine grass country as we closed in on our destination, where we would soon reach the end of the road and swap the car for a chairlift to take us to the top. Alighting at about 2,000 metres at the Knoll Ridge Café we ordered some cold beers and sat back on the sunny wooden deck and gazed back down over the vast volcanic landscape beneath us, all the way across to the coast where Mt. Taranaki was standing 200km away. For a slice of the New Zealand and some good old Kiwi hospitality and scenery that everyone imagines to be true – and it is – then don’t miss the chance to see this ‘forgotten’ part of the world. It will be, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most cherished memories you will ever take home from this beautiful country.