From Chasms to Coast: A landscape less often travelled

September 5, 2020
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THE landscape north of Wellington, on the west side, is often overlooked by tourists and travellers. But it shouldn’t be.

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The south-western part of the North Island of New Zealand, north of Wellington. Abbreviations are PN for the city of Palmerston North, and T for Mount Tongariro, N for Mount Ngāuruhoe and R for Mount Ruapehu. Green shows forested areas. North at top.

Check out this scene, for instance. Is it the Bastei, outside Dresden?

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Rangiwahia Track Bridge in the Iron Gates area. Image reproduced from the media gallery of CEDA, the Central Districts Economic Development Agency,

No: it’s part of a similar jumble of rock pillars and chasms called the Iron Gates, near the tiny town of Mangaweka, north-east of Palmerston North. From the Iron Gates you can look out over all the plains, with stunning views recorded on this website.

If a spot like this was in Europe or Asia it would be packed, just like the Bastei. But because it’s in the middle of nowhere, even by New Zealand standards, it might just be you and your friends.

And there are other mighty gorges, such as the Manawatū Gorge that I mentioned in an earlier post. Here's an excellent video by Johnny Hendrikus:

The region north of Ōtaki is wrapped around a huge bay called the South Taranaki Bight, which also means that there are plenty of beaches, mostly of a wild and lonesome sort.

‘The Beauty of the South’

Heading north through Ōtaki, Levin’s the first big town you get to. The town is beside two lakes named Horowhenua — the wider region around Levin is also called the Horowhenua — and Papaitonga.

Horowhenua means ‘quaking ground’ and refers to the rather swampy character of this part of New Zealand, which had an important flax industry at one time.

Papaitonga is the smaller of the two lakes but perhaps the most unusual. It’s been preserved with all the native bush around it intact in the form of the Papaitonga Scenic Reserve.

Sometime around the end of the 1800s the politician, poet and conservationist William Pember Reeves wrote a poem about the lake’s preservation, containing the line “Yet in this sacred wood no axe shall ring,” and, fortunately, it’s still that way.

Here’s a really interesting government video about the lake, also known as Waiwiri or ‘trembling waters’:

As the video explains, the area also has a rather bloody history which reminds me of the sort of thing you might hear told about some Scottish glen.

The Town of Forest Glades

There are also several other reserves of conserved lowland rain forest around Levin. The other surving remnants of lowland native rainforest, or ‘bush’, around Levin include Prouse Bush Reserve, Waiopehu Scenic Reserve (probably the most famous), Gladstone Reserve, and Kimberley Reserve.

Levin itself is in a locality originally named Taitoko, meaning sunbeam or ray of light. Perhaps the word referred to dappled glades in which the taitoko streamed through all those ancient, misty forests. These days, there’s growing agitation to restore the name of Taitoko, at least as an alternative official name in the government gazeteer.

Levin, or Taitoko / Levin as it may soon be officially known, is also close to the northern foothills of the Tararua Ranges: a name that refers either to a spear tip (‘tara’) broken in two (‘rua’), or to the two wives of an ancestor named Whātonga.

According to Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, the Ngāti Toa, who migrated to the region from the Waikato about two hundred years ago and came into conflict with Horowhenua and Whanganui Maori, also had their own name for the range, born of their peace treaty with the Ngāti Kahungunu who lived to the east of the range:

". . . the Ngāti Toa people named the Tararua Range as Te Tuarātapu-o-Te Rangihaeata — the sacred back of Te Rangihaeata (a Ngāti Toa leader). The naming followed a peace pact between Ngāti Toa on one side of the range and Ngāti Kahungunu on the other."

But Tararua is the name that has stuck. A number of well-known tramping (hiking) routes in the Tararua start out from Levin, some via the town’s own bush reserves. So you can just put down your coffees in town, strap on packs, and start hiking.

Levin’s quite friendly, and I know some people who live there. But in terms of planning it leaves a bit to be desired, as it simply straggles along the main road, State Highway One.

The city of Palmerston North and the town of Feilding, to Levin’s northeast, were laid out in much grander terms. I’m going to talk about them in the next section.

The land of heart-stopping floods

North from the Horowhenua, you enter a larger region called the Manawatū. This word means ‘heart stood still’. According to Māori tradition, the name was given by an early Polynesian explorer of the new land named Haunui, or Hau.

Manawatū was bestowed by Hau after he arrived at the mouth of this river, which filled him with trepidation at the prospect of having to cross it. A river and a district known ever after for that sentiment.

Perhaps it was in flood at the time. The Manawatū is known for heart-stopping floods that spill all over the plains west of the Gorge. These are likely to get worse with global warming. Here's a good video on the channel of Smartview Media NZ:

The biggest city in the area is Palmerston North: a planned city built around a vast square two hundred metres on a side, with four avenues radiating away from the Square at right angles. Prudently, it’s a bit above the river.

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The Square and Fitzherbert Avenue, Palmerston North. This view looks south-south east, toward the Manawatū River and the foothills of the Tararua Ranges. Image reproduced from the media gallery of CEDA,

A book of cartoons published in 1929 name-checks the Square, and shows the abundant local rain sweeping in at an angle more horizontal than vertical, which is about right for such a land of historic floods, and wind farms today.

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From the cover of a book of caricatures by local amateur cartoonist J. S. Monro, published in Palmerston North in December 1929. A digitised version of the whole book can be read, or viewed, here. The symbol 2/6 refers to its price, two shillings and sixpence.

My editor grew up in Palmerston North and it’s always interesting to go back and see what new improvements have been added to the city.

The latest is He Ara Kotahi, a green commuter pathway with a lovely pedestrian bridge across the Manawatū river and an amazing elevated walkway through native bush as well, at Keebles Bush Crossing.

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He Ara Kotahi Bridge. Image reproduced from the media gallery of CEDA,

He Ara Kotahi, meaning a path of union, opened in 2019. A couple of sections of the pathway are lit by glowing spheres in the ground, which create an impression like glow-worms.

He Ara Kotahi includes the Victoria Esplanade, the other great parkland gem of old Palmerston North. Surviving remnants of the rain forest that once cloaked much of the region, and rose gardens, are both to be found there.

Palmerston North is also a hub of innovation. It’s got a university nearby, Massey University of the Manawatū. The nutrition and pharmaceuticals firm Glaxo — part of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) — began operations in the closely nearby town of Bunnythorpe, now an outlying suburb of the city.

The late, dry as dust, satirist John Clarke grew up there.

Fred Hollows, the famous opthalmologist and humanitarian, also came from Palmerston North.

On the way north out of Palmerston North, if you’re not taking the coastal route, you might pass through Feilding, pronounced feelding.

Feilding’s a prosperous country town that’s long been important for its saleyards, a slice of New Zealand as it used to be in the days when the country was said to live ‘on the sheep’s back’. Feilding still does.

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The Feilding Saleyards. Image reproduced from the media gallery of CEDA,

Like Oamaru in the South Island, Fielding has a lot of surviving colonial-era gingerbread architecture. The Feildingites are very much into keeping it up, and the town’s won New Zealand’s annual most beautiful town award sixteen times.

Feilding is also a planned town, laid out just like Palmerston North around a grand square called Manchester Square, which is closed off at times for market days.

There’s a worry that some of this Victorian and Edwardian architecture, nowadays gaudily painted, might be too expensive for the Feildingites to bring up to modern earthquake codes. It would be a great loss if it had to be demolished!

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Manchester Square. Image reproduced from the media gallery of CEDA,

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Farmers’ Market in Manchester Square, with the clocktower and Feilding Hotel in the background. Image reproduced from the media gallery of CEDA,

It isn’t too gentrified though. I went into Murphy’s Bar where you can get steak for $10, and then visited a friend of mine who has a grassrootsy little shop there, selling crystals.

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The Chasms of the Rangītikei

Past Feilding, you pass through a transitional sort of a region known as the Rangitīkei, after its great river. The Rangitīkei region is more elevated, and the Rangitīkei River has cut its way down into wide gorges, with a shingly bottom. More than the Manawatū, which has only one gorge, even if the Rangitīkei is all on one side of the mountains.

Trains unexpectedly fly off the edges of the chalk cliffs on narrow viaducts in ways that make your heart jump the first time.

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South Rangitīkei Viaduct, crossing Rangitīkei River, close to Mangaweka. Photo by D W B, 3 December 2010, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rangitīkei area includes the Iron Gates, which I mentioned at the start. This is probably the region’s best-kept secret, even from people who live nearby, let alone the rest of the world.

In my next post, I’ll be writing about the city of Whanganui and the mighty Whanganui River.

Some useful resources

Horowhenua District Council: Parks, Reserves and Recreation. Perhaps the best one-stop introduction to places to visit in the Horowhenua.

The Central Economic Development Agency (CEDA). This has two websites, the more business-oriented and the more people-oriented The second of these is one of the best and certainly most media-friendly tourism websites I’ve seen, with all sorts of travel tips and a link to a huge gallery of free, professionally shot photographs and videos to illustrate any talk or article about the Manawatū and Whanganui areas. A very detailed website about the little-known but remarkable Iron Gates area.


Some of the material in this post will be incorporated into my forthcoming book, A Maverick New Zealand Way: The North Island, about which details will appear on my website, A Maverick Traveller, when it comes out.

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