The Talents of Taranaki

October 3, 2020
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IN the last two posts I’ve dwelt on the history of Taranaki, and the region’s famous mountain. But what of its other attractions? In this post I’ll write about those, and then finish by taking my leave on the Forgotten World Highway.

To start with, as you travel north out of Whanganui and cross the invisible frontier into the Taranaki region, the very first place you come to is the town of Waitotara and, to the left, Wai-inu Beach. This is worth remembering because not only is it an attractive beach but also, it’s an approved freedom camping area.

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The first major town that you get to in Taranaki is Pātea. Two posts back I mentioned the invasion of Taranaki, in the 1860s, by a military unit from Whanganui called the Patea Field Force. Well, these days, it’s fair to say that Pātea is more famous for the Pātea Maori Club’s catchy song called Poi E, released on vinyl in 1984 and the first Māori-language song to get to the top of the hit parade in New Zealand.

The story’s all the more remarkable because the song was considered too offbeat and ethnic to get any airplay on the radio, at first.

Well, the fact that the song was a huge hit anyway quite literally ended that era overnight and put modern Māori music on the map. The song even wound up on a British variety show.

Which was, apparently, the sort of thing the Queen liked to watch. And so, next minute, the Pātea Māori Club were invited to give what the British call a Royal Command Performance. But the New Zealand Government refused to help pay their passage. The musicians scraped up the money themselves rather than disappoint the Queen, and went.

A good documentary about the making of Poi E and its times came out in 2016. It would make a terrific feature film but so far that hasn’t happened and I rather suspect it would make New Zealand’s politicians squirm, even today.

Eight kilometres northbound out of Pātea on State Highway 3, Ball Road takes you inland to the Pātea Dam. As you cross the Patea River for the first time some 18 km up the road, the road changes its name to Maben Road and then continues another 10 km to the dam. The Pātea Dam is 82 metres high and located in the same general wilderness as the upper Whanganui River, except that it’s on the Pātea River. The lake behind the dam, Lake Rotorangi, is 46 km long, the longest artificial lake in New Zealand. There’s a freedom camping spot at the dam and a pleasant bushwalk that involves going across the dam.

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The Pātea Dam and the southern end of Lake Rotorangi. Imagery ©2020 CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies,, Taranaki Regional/Stratford/South Taranaki councils. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.


There’s an amazing amount of talent that comes out of even some of the smaller towns in New Zealand: not always appreciated locally. For instance, a bit further up the State Highway 3, at Hāwera, there once lived an author named Ronald Hugh Morrieson.

Morrieson’s novels were about an imaginary small town populated by all sorts of more or less absurd characters.

Morrieson was still fairly obscure when he died in 1972 after having complained to another writer that he hoped he wasn’t one of those blighters [i.e., people; he actually used a cruder expression] who only got to be famous after they were dead. From which springs the title of a surreal docu-drama made about him ten years after he died, called One of those Blighters.

That was around the time that his books were starting to be made into feature films, of which the funniest is probably Came a Hot Friday (1984).

In 1992, with Morrieson about as posthumously famous as he’d feared, the local council decided it was time to have his house knocked down and replaced with a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

Protests from the world of literature and film were to no avail. For apparently, there were still people in Hāwera who thought Morrieson’s novels were about them!

Lucys Gully and the Kaitake and Pouakai Ranges

As you come around the corner from Cape Egmont, there’s a spot near the seaside town of Oakura where the Surf Highway brushes against the former Egmont National Park, now Te Papakura o Taranaki. There are a whole lot of really good daywalks in the bush at this spot.

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Map adapted from NZ Department of Conservation Kaitake Range website, September 2020. Map data Land Information New Zealand.

Lucys Gully is a picnic spot closest to the road, where American redwoods sprout from an understory of giant New Zealand tree ferns: an ecology not seen since the dinosaur age. Here’s a video from the series 'Daily Life in New Zealand' — there seems to be quite a good cafe there as well!

From Lucys Gully and some other roads nearby you can do easy walks in the Kaitake Range which is lush, warm and coastal, pretty much as shown in the video above.

You can also do more alpine hikes in the Pouakai Range, which take two to three days and involve staying in one of the alpine huts on the range. These tracks are more advanced.

The best-known hut on the Pouakai Range is Pouakai Hut. It’s actually the most popular hut in the national park even though it isn’t on Mount Taranaki. And that’s because it’s so close to the coast, with epic views of the coastal plains, New Plymouth and the Tasman Sea, far below.

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Pouakai Hut. Photo by Tamsen Walker from DOC Pouakai Hut brochure, CC-BY-4.0.

View of the sea and the coast from Pouakai Hut. (Small image from DOC Pouakai Hut brochure.)

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Down on the coast, it’s worth visiting Ōakura Beach, from which you can get a good view of the dramatic natural skyline produced by the 156-metre Paritutu Rock and Ngā Motu (‘the islands’), also known as the Sugar Loaf Islands. These are essentially the same as the steep mountains that dominate the skyline of Rio de Janeiro, although the ones in Rio are bigger.

At Ōakura, these amazing natural features are on your right when you face out to sea. In New Plymouth, they are on your left.

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Ōakura Beach facing towards New Plymouth. Photograph by 'RealCaptainUltra', 25 October 2019, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The sand is black. That’s common along of the west coast of New Zealand on both main islands, though the exact substance that makes the sand black changes from place to place. In Taranaki it’s a volcanic mineral, as you’d expect.

You can climb Paritutu Rock for some amazing views, though it’s apparently a bit intrepid and I’ve not yet done it.

New Plymouth

Also known in Maori as Ngāmotu after the islands, New Plymouth is a beautiful, modern city which is all the more beautiful for being under Mount Taranaki as well as beside the sea.

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New Plymouth looking towards Ōakura. From the Photo Gallery of VisitNewPlymouth.

New Plymouth has always been a thrilling sort of place, into which the locals have for a long time put in a lot of effort in terms of civic beautification.

Pukekura Park is one of the best parks anywhere: a really magical place organised around a sort of ravine or grotto in the middle of the city with a lake in the middle, spanned by the Poet’s Bridge. You can hire little rowboats for about NZ $10 for half an hour. In addition to being very restful, rowing up and down the lake is also the only way to get this classic shot, which was in an earlier post.

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The Poet’s Bridge in Pukekura Park with Mount Taranaki peeping over the top. Photo by Te Kaunihera-ā-Rohe o Ngāmotu/New Plymouth District Council.

I don’t apologise for repeating it! (But be warned that there won’t be any snow to speak of in high summer. These are more spring/autumn/fine day in winter shots.)

You might ask why the snow-capped peak of Mount Taranaki seems to rise out of a tropical jungle.

The answer is that, in the Southern Hemisphere, the sort of forest that people from the Northern Hemisphere would think of as tending to go with snow-capped mountains— oak trees, maples, and that sort of thing — never evolved to the same degree.

Instead, the plants that once populated the jungles of the dinosaur age simply adapted themselves to the Southern Hemisphere’s cooler spots without changing outwardly.

There’s just something about the sight of snow-capped peak of Mount Taranaki framed by jungle plants of tropical appearance! To the Northern Hemisphere eye, it is a curious thing!

For 180 years, now, it’s been standard for painters and photographers to show Mount Taranaki with snow on top, behind some tropical-looking local vegetation for contrast.

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Heaphy, Charles, 1820–1881. Heaphy, Charles, 1820–1881 :Mt Egmont from the southward. [September? 1840]. Ref: C-025–008. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23173901.

And there’s plenty of opportunity to see scenes like that in Pukekura Park!

Within the park and its lush rain forest, there’s also a natural amphitheatre called the Bowl of Brooklands where performances are held on a stage above the lake. that’s just magic after dark, especially during the annual Festival of Lights.

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Waterfall in Pukekura Park during the Festival of Lights. Photo by ‘JiaEnzed’, dated 23 December 2013. CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

From a downtown location close to the central city and Marsland Hill, Pukekura Park meanders about two kilometres inland in the direction of Mount Taranaki, which can be seen peeping over the park’s trees and lake in the photo of the Poets’ Bridge.

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When WOMAD comes to New Zealand, it’s held there too.

These days, New Plymouth has an amazing coastal walkway. In fact the United Nations gave New Plymouth an award, a while back, as the world’s most livable city in its size range.

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New Plymouth Coastal Walkway. From 100% Pure NZ. Crown copyright reserved.

If Whanganui has the Serjeant Gallery, New Plymouth has an equally famous one called the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. These days, it has a shiny stainless steel exterior which really has the wow factor.

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre, looking northwest at dusk from Devon Street West. Photo by Sam Hartnett, reproduced with the permission of New Plymouth District Council.

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery includes the Len Lye Centre, dedicated to the New Zealand-born artist Len Lye who lived most of his life in New York but received a lot of support from the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in later life. Lye willed all his major works to the Govett-Brewster. Among a whole lot of other achievements, Len Lye could probably claim to have invented the 1980s rock video — except that he was making films like this in the 1930s.

Just south of New Plymouth is Lake Mangamahoe, which has supplied many a calendar shot over the years.

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Lake Mangamahoe. From the photo gallery of Visit New Plymouth.

New Plymouth used to be quite small and sleepy. But the region has boomed over the last fifty years on the basis of oil and gas, which was first discovered in 1915, as well as its traditional dairy farming sector (Eltham and Ōkato are major dairy factory towns). There are lots of small nodding-donkey wells even in dowtown New Plymouth, and, offshore, you can see the huge Māui platform, which has been there for some decades.

Stratford and the Forgotten World Highway

From New Plymouth I headed down State Highway 3 to Stratford. Stratford’s the place you set off for Dawson Falls / Te Rere o Noke from, and it’s also got quite an interesting glockenspiel clock tower, a glockenspiel being a bit like a xylophone but with metal keys.

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Stratford Clock Tower. Photo by Pseudopanax, 3 January 2011, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, anyway, if you can see that thing, you know you’re in Stratford and not some other town!

Mount Taranaki is covered in hiking trails, with the greatest concentration of them around Dawson Falls / Te Rere o Noke. Even if you’ve got no intention whatsoever of actually climbing the mountain, you can still enjoy yourself on these trails.

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Some of the Hiking Trails on Mount Taranaki. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

Another thing you can do from Stratford, even if you aren’t even going to hike the mountain, is to drive around the mountain on a close-in road loop that’s mostly just 12 km or so from the summit. The loop road undergoes several name changes along the way. It goes right through the national park between the Kaitake and Pouakai Ranges, where it’s called Carrington Road. There’s a big botanical garden called Pukeiti on this section, at around the spot where the road bends from going northward, to going eastward.

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Main roads close to Mount Taranaki. Imagery (c)2020 TerraMetrics, map data (c)2020 Google. North at top.

Between Egmont Village and Inglewood you can also take a detour toward the mountain to a place called Kaimiro, where there’s a place called the VolcaNoview Tavern. Nearby, there are the Stanleigh Garden and the aptly named Berghöhen Garden.

People from Taranaki are very much into creating pleasant gardens, perhaps because of the example set by the remarkable Pukekura Park and also because the climate is very suitable for it. Not to mention the fact of the mountain for a backdrop, which also means that they do a roaring trade in wedding photography.

This October/November, they’ll be having the 33rd Taranaki Garden Festival down in New Plymouth, by the way.

All in all you could have a very pleasant time just puttering around the mountain even without going up it, and discovering other attractions (these are just the ones I’ve noticed). And of course it’s huge when you’re that close.

It’s possible to go all the way around on these close-in roads and eventually back to Stratford. Which is also where State Highway 43, the Forgotten World Highway, begins, in the opposite, eastward direction to the mountain roads.

The Forgotten World Highway’s in the big map at the start of this post. It’s called the Forgotten World Highway 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.

Here are some 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!

North via Mokau

Or, you could go north out of Taranaki the more usual way via State Highway 3. The main attractions in that direction are the Whitecliffs Walkway, Tongaporutu Beach and the wild, sweeping Mokau River.

The Whitecliffs Walkway begins at Pukearuhe at its southern end, where there is also a historic reserve dedicated to the last casualties of the war in Taranaki who were killed here in an especially regrettable incident.

The walkway ends at Tongaporutu, though the northern section of the walkway is currently closed. There is a stock tunnel, also officially closed due to safety concerns, that leads down to the beach at Te Horo, halfway along the walkway.

It’s a really primordial landscape, from which you can still see Mount Taranaki, across the North Taranaki Bight. There are many scenic views along this section of coast.

Tongaporutu Beach, at the northern end of the walkway and accessible at low tide from the hamlet of Tongaporutu, has some absolutely amazing rock stacks known as the Three Sisters and Elephant Rock (which really does look like an elephant. I’ve included a Youtube video which has a lot of scenes of the oddest-looking of the Three Sisters, a sort of upside-down V. You have to get there at low tide!

Some images that are for sale are very artistic, like this one, here.


For general information about Taranaki, is very useful.

Department of Conservation maps provide a great deal of information about each location, with tick boxes to show huts, walks and campsites

This post will be included in my forthcoming book A Maverick New Zealand Way: The North Island.

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