Taihape to Napier: Gently does it, over those hills

By Paul Rush

A gnarly old road with a fearsome reputation links New Zealand's gumboot and Art Deco capitals. Paul Rush traverses it.

At one end of the Gentle Annie Road is the country's gumboot capital, Taihape. Photo / Mark Mitchell
At one end of the Gentle Annie Road is the country's gumboot capital, Taihape. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Back in the not-so-serious 70s, Fred Dagg (comedian John Clarke) was often heard to boast he'd been educated at the University of Taihape, the gumboot capital of New Zealand.

Clarke, who did indeed hail from Taihape, was even seen on television rounding up gumboot-clad turkeys on the farm.

Taihape picked up the gumboot theme and ran with it. The quirky Gumboot Festival, held each year on the Tuesday after Easter, has become a successful drawcard for the town.

These days a giant corrugated iron gumboot by the railway station is Taihape's icon, with the nearby brightly coloured railway houses, including one in deep purple, adding vibrancy to the old town.

"I've never heard an overseas tourist say anything bad about Taihape," Graham Shaw, owner of the Coachman Motel, says with obvious pride.

"Tourists think its a marvellous little town, with great craft shops and cafes."

Shaw's wife Alison built the Coachman 30 years ago, when Taihape was a quiet railway town.

When the railways began to run down in the late 70s a lot of people left but tourism is now luring them back.

The town's strategic position at the southern end of the Volcanic Plateau on SH1 has made it a popular travellers' stop.

There's much more to Taihape now than a cup of railway tea and a sandwich. Adventurous folk can enjoy walking, tramping, whitewater rafting, jet boating, bungy jumping and the world's highest flying fox. Skiing, snowboarding and trout fishing are all within an hour's drive.

My visit comes at the start of a mission to cross the Gentle Annie Road to Napier, a three-hour drive that includes a 30km stretch of gravel.

It is, by reputation, a challenging route and what a nightmare journey it must have been in the old days when it was plagued by mud, frequent landslips and heavy winter snowfalls.

Even in 1980 the AA itinerary cautioned, "Meeting another vehicle may involve backing up for as much as 1km to find a passing place."

But the reality is very different today. When I ask Shaw if the road is safe for two-wheel-drive vehicles, he surprises me by saying that Taihape people regularly take their children over to Hawkes Bay boarding schools and think nothing of driving to the Rangitikei River for picnics.

This route was famously traversed by missionary William Colenso in 1845 when Taihape was merely a bush clearing called O Taihape, the Place of the Hunchback, and he took the word around the central North Island.

In 1867 the first sheep arrived at Erewhon Station and a rough route was started from Napier, reaching Kuripapango and Moawhango by 1883.

All the wool from the Taihape and Karioi areas was taken to Napier, initially by teams of bullocks pulling a dray, later by draught horses, though even they took a staggering 10 days to make the journey.

It wasn't until 1919 that motor vehicles took over.

My journey over the Inland Patea Heritage Trail, colloquially known as the Gentle Annie, was a lot faster but still extremely picturesque.

First halt was the picturesque Moawhango (or wheezy moa) River, which two trout fishermen I met at the motel rated highly.

The nearby Moawhango settlement retains remnants of a colonial village with a fine carved meeting house and a memorial chapel.

As the road climbs there are superb views of the surrounding countryside including the summit of Ruapehu. Then it descends again to the old Springvale suspension bridge over the Rangitikei River.

The route then passes Ngamatea Station, the North Island's largest run holding, before reaching the Ngaruroro River bridge

The Kuripapango Hotel used to stand where there is now a camping site and from there numerous tramping and hunting tracks lead into the Kaweka Ranges. A side road leads to the isolated Kaweka Lakes.

The first view of Hawkes Bay is breathtaking. A convenient layby called Panorama Lookout opens up a vista of the Ruahine Range and rolling hill country as far as the coastal ranges south of Hastings.

The countryside gradually becomes more urbanised as you approach Fernhill, and soon there's a steady stream of traffic on the 20km expressway to Art Deco Napier.

But the abrupt return to civilisation does not dispel the lasting impression of green cattle pastures, snowcapped peaks and the golden tussock-covered Hawkes Bay hills.

And the ease of the journey doesn't reduce the respect the modern driver feels for stalwart pioneers like Charlie Hart who started his stagecoach service in 1910 and George Ward who made the last coach crossing of the Gentle Annie in 1918.

The Gentle Annie route from Taihape to Napier is a soft adventure - but one that brings us closer to understanding how our nation was built.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Taihape is an hour's drive south of Turangi and two hours' drive north of Wellington.

Inland Patea Heritage Trail: The route is 150km from Taihape to Napier. Allow 3-4 hours, plus time for a picnic lunch en route. Ensure your fuel tank is full before departing. The route is not suitable for caravans.

Accommodation: The Coachman Motel is on the main north highway in Taihape.

- NZ Herald

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