Forgotten World: The North Island's rugged interior

November 16, 2020
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JUST LATELY, I came across a diary of travels in old-time New Zealand called In the Land of the Tui. Published in London in the 1890s, the diary was kept by a woman named Eliza Wilson.

At one point, the redoubtable Mrs. Wilson mentions a curious fact that is still an aspect of New Zealand life today. After running into some Auckland polo players at Christchurch’s Riccarton Racecourse, she wrote that:

“We very rarely meet any residents of Auckland so far south, and it has been pleasant to hear something of that portion of these islands which seems as remote as though it were in another sphere. It is odd that a town, so recently the seat of Government [Auckland was the capital of New Zealand from 1842 until 1865], should now have become strange to the rest of the Colony; but so it is; Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin are always en rapport, but Auckland appears distant and separate.”

There is a very good reason why this was so, and why it remains so. The reason lies in the extraordinary ruggedness of a belt of terrain that stretches all the way from Taranaki, at the westward extension of the North Island, to East Cape at its eastern-most end. This belt of rugged terrain is caused by the collision of tectonic plates, the Australian and the Pacific, and it isolates Auckland from the rest of the country almost as effectively as a larger or more obvious mountain range would.

Both of the North Island’s two largest rivers originate in this belt, which includes Lake Waikaremoana, Lake Taupō and the large volcanoes of the central North Island. The Waikato River flows northward from Lake Taupō to reach the sea south of Auckland. The other of these two big rivers, the Whanganui, originates near Lake Rotoaira and flows northward, then westward, and finally southward to the sea at Whanganui, a distance of 290 kilometres.

Though mainly used by cycle tourists (mountain bikes are best) the Forgotten World Highway can be driven by car; but it pays to fill up first and I wouldn’t take a really flash car down that road.

The Forgotten World Highway (SH 43) runs from Stratford to Taumarunui (names addedin bold for this book). Map data ©2020 Google.

The Forgotten World Highway gets its name because it’s a real back road through the hills into the central North Island. It follows the route of a railway line (used only for goods) and used to be an important pack track for moving animals in the past. Today, it’s very popular with mountain bikers. Quite a lot of the highway is sealed these days as well — progress!

The Forgotten World Highway runs all the way through to Taumarunui, the same town that’s the highest navigable port on the Whanganui River.

There’s a lot that’s really picturesque.

The Whangamomona Saddle, in the middle of the highway, is covered in tropical-looking native bush. It’s close to the hamlet of Whangamomona, which styles itself as the Republic of Whangamomona because it’s so remote!

The Whangamomona Hotel, Whangamomona

The Whanganui River is popular with canoeists who paddle or float down its innumerable bends in an otherwise utterly inaccessible terrain.

As with Lake Waikaremoana, much of the North Island interior is rich in Māoritanga. And the Whanganui River is no exception.

A notoriously unsuccessful attempt to settle European farmers in this area is commemorated by the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’, a bridge at the end of a road that leads to – well – to what some people would consider to be nowhere.

The whole of this interior terrain, right through to the East Coast, is a site for adventures, including rafting and canoeing on wild rivers such as the Motu, which flows down to the Bay of Plenty. These rivers are shorter than the Whanganui – but they are also steeper.

Wild horses inhabit some of the more steppe-like parts of this terrain, in the vicinity of the Kaimanawa Range just east of the large volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park. From the Kaimanawa Range low mountains also run southward to form the Ruahine Range and then, south of the Manawatu Gorge where a river rises to the east of the range and flows west through a great crack in the earth, the Tararua Range and its foothills around Wellington such as the Akatarawa and the Remutaka Ranges.

For much the last 150 years, by the way, the rugged interior area west of Lake Taupō was known as the King Country, as it was an area to which the Māori King and his followers had retreated after being largely defeated in conflict with the colonists and the British, in the days of their pre-Tūrangawaewae exile. I’m not sure whether that expression is still quite as current as it used to be.

Here are some more photos and a video that I took on the way through. The first one shows the really rugged countryside with tiny little flat patches between the hills. This area is farmed, but other areas are just strictly native bush.

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There’s a lot that’s really picturesque:

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The Whangamomona Saddle is covered in tropical-looking native bush. It’s close to the hamlet of Whangamomona, which styles itself as the Republic of Whangamomona because it’s so remote!

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And here’s the movie!


This post is referenced in my new book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand's other half.


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