A holiday jaunt to Palmerston North and beyond surprises Helen Van Berkel.

They bonded over a Thomas the Tank Engine jigsaw puzzle when they were 5. Ten years later these childhood besties live in different cities. Their separation gave us no choice: the Aucklanders were going to Palmerston North. People laughed when we told them we were going to Palmerston North for the school holidays. But they're not laughing now as they admire our photos and discover, as we did, that the Manawatu is amazing.

It wasn't until we hit Hamilton that we left behind a thunderstorm that rocked our wheels.

The break in the weather meant we could enjoy Hamilton Gardens under lowering skies that mercifully held their water. I love the gardens: there's always something new to see and even in winter, when the flowers are awaiting replanting and the rose gardens are hibernating, you know that next time, there will be something new to see.

I'd bought Grabone vouchers for the Wairakei Terraces in Taupo for that evening. Once we Aucklanders had met the bus from New Plymouth and the girls had reunited, the pools offered the perfect solace for the mum who was tired of the "Ah ma gard! She did what???" squealing catchups of two 15-year-olds. And for two 15-year-olds who were ready for a bit of privacy for the real gossip of who was doing what and to whom behind whatever passes for bikesheds these days.

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Wairakei's heated waters became my new favourite place as they worked their wonders after a day at the wheel of the six-berth Jucy campervan. Although, driving her wasn't much different to driving my work-a-day Honda Jazz — she just had more tea-making facilities.

What to call our camper was a major source of discussion that night: redhead Grace liked "Red's Riding 'Hood". Curly-haired Emily liked "Short 'n' Curlies" but Jucy won because that is what she was.

The once bustling town of Mangaweka. Photo / Helen Van Berkel
The once bustling town of Mangaweka. Photo / Helen Van Berkel

Our itinerary mixed free stuff with paid-for stuff so our first stop after our night of freedom camping in Taupo was Aratiatia Dam south of Taupo. It's an amazing sight: the siren goes off, the gates lift and a curtain of water thunders into the narrow chasm.

Apparently, part of the Lord of the Rings was filmed here, which makes it even more special. For us, it's special all by itself.

Huka Falls is a must-stop. The natural thunder of water here was the backdrop to many a selfie before we set Jucy's nose south again.

Even the girls gasped as we turned into the valley to Awastone — Riverside Haven. The Mangaweka River has carved New Zealand's own Grand Canyon through mudstone cliffs, leaving white walls to gleam in the late afternoon sunshine. We rattled across the single-lane wooden bridge at the bottom and parked as close as we could to the edge of the river, rushing and muddy after days of spring rain. It was the off-season so we had the place to ourselves to enjoy a hot shower and the freedom of a full-size toilet — but this place looks like it hops in summer.

A restaurant and bar give plenty of opportunity to rest one's elbows and socialise. Owner Tom politely warned us we may have to leave well on time the following morning as he was expecting visitors. PM John Key, in fact.

But the imminent arrival did not stop Tom gearing up the next morning to take us rafting down the Mangaweka. Even in full spate, the river gave a gentle trip — the wilder rapids are further upstream, Tom said.

He apologised every time Grace got a wave in the face because he'd deliberately steered into a rapid. And I could tell by the way Grace rolled her eyes when he warned her we were about to enter the Gaping Jaw of Death (it was more like the Snuffling Snout of a Summer Sniffle) that she secretly loved it. The previous night's rain gave us the added bonus of roaring cataracts and bridal veil falls pouring over cliff edges a few hundred metres above.

John Key was still miles away when we pulled out of Awastone and I wondered whether he'd go rafting too. Go on, John. Do it. It's fun.

We chugged into Mangaweka and I found my new favourite place. Behind the main road, and its plane cafe — the plane was placed there by Tom's father, by the way; is a once-thriving main street of now-abandoned wooden buildings and lonely footpaths. I loved every paint-peeled facade and rusted veranda.

In the middle of town is a solid former Bank of New Zealand, of the style that would not look out of place on a Wellington or Auckland main street. Once upon a time this town was going places: now it's a sad but lovely reflection of the New Zealand we remember in our childhood dreams.

We left State Highway 1 behind for the Country Road scenic route. Magnificent bridges spanned broad rushing rivers and newborn lambs frolicked and jumped behind lichen-edged wooden gates as if startled by their own wriggling tails. Black bulls grazed on the rich green pastures, silhouetted against a heavy grey sky. This was a side of our land the city girls had never seen, and they were left speechless in admiration. At least, I think that's why they were quiet.

We even went bush in search of a marvellous wooden bridge I knew only from photographs on the way to the Rangiwahia Hut in the Ruahine Forest Park. As we walked higher and higher, the view became more and more magnificent as we peered through the greys and greens of the native bush at the blues and greens of the river-crossed plains of Manawatu far below.

We were starving by the time we hit Feilding, where spring flowers added a colourful frontdrop to Edwardian architecture and the town's famous clock tower. But we pushed on for a brief reunion with Emily's parents in Palmerston North and on to Himatangi Beach for fish and chips on the beach. Unfortunately, we'd lingered too long in Palmerston North so it was too dark to eat outside - but that delicious paper-wrapped salty, fishy wonderfulness tasted just as good at Jucy's table.

Jucy at the at the Awastone River Haven, Mangaweka. Photo / Helen Van Berkel
Jucy at the at the Awastone River Haven, Mangaweka. Photo / Helen Van Berkel

Enormous piles of driftwood bleached by salt and sunshine littered Himatangi's sandy swathes on our morning walk and judging from the strength of the onshore gale that howled in from the Tasman, I would not have been surprised if some of those trees had been clutching Australia's red soil only yesterday.

A large windmill spied on our fish 'n' chip run to Foxton the previous night drew us back south. The windmill, it turned out, was built to recognise the contribution of the Dutch community down here. I'd had no idea this part of New Zealand was riddled with Dutchies. I felt I should have.

We were going bush again today and we parked at the entrance of the Manawatu Gorge to begin our search for Whatonga. The 6m steel statue built to honour the first chief to beach his canoe on the coast here silently guards the bush and is only a middlingly challenging trek into the magnificent gorge.

A little further on a massive slip has taken out a huge slab of hillside but still offers vertigo-inducing views of the gorge far below. Instead of being fenced off and seen as a setback, the slip is a must-see: come and see our disaster! It's amazing! And it was. And so is the staircase back to the top.

All day, tantalising glimpses of the spinning turbines of Te Apiti windfarm across the river had teased us. The wind when we got there was fearsome — I shouldn't've been surprised: the spinning blades of these turbines turn the tempests from the Tasman into enough electricity to power 39,000 homes. They look lazily majestic from a distance but up close their hum is otherworldly - and they are breathtakingly enormous.

Poor old Palmie is the butt of far too many jokes, but we'd been here for two jam-packed days now and had not even had time to explore the city proper. So our morning coffee stop the next day was at the Victoria Esplanade Gardens — Palmerston North. Cherry blossoms were out and anxious ducks ushered their meandering fluffy young from tasty morsel to tasty morsel on the grass. I spied a little house on a pole behind a garden bench and discovered the free library. You can come here, sit awhile and choose a book from the little wooden house on a pole — as long as you put a replacement in. Any city that has a free library in a park is okay by me.

I thought it judicious to explore the city's art trails on my own: for the kids it was a toss-up between trampoline park Flip City or the Lido swimming (Flip City won) but I got a few precious hours on my own to explore the city's art trail. You can pick up a brochure from Manawatu Tourism of hidden little treasures in the city and take your time. And it's free!

Our final stop was the utterly awesome Owlcatraz near Shannon, an absolute must if you love our native birdlife — and silly puns. I had never seen our native owl, the ruru or morepork, before and I don't think I have ever been so excited to finally meet one. They are the cutest little things I have ever seen: only 175g and 25cm tall. The current inhabitants at Owlcatraz are Owl Capone, Owl McPherson, Owlvis Presley, Owlmo, Owlfalfa and Owlbert Einstein — the PM also popped up again, this time as Jonkey the Donkey. Brilliant. I'm looking forward to meeting Queen Owlizabeth next time.

Sadly it was time to say good bye to Emily and get Jucy home. Manawatu is my new favourite place and anyone who makes a joke about Palmerston North in my presence will now get a punch in the nose.

Mangaweka. Photo / Helen Van Berkel
Mangaweka. Photo / Helen Van Berkel
IF YOU GO

(offers river and camping adventures for the whole family).

Drive the Manawatu Scenic Route.

Download the Palmerston North City Centre Arts Trail Guide.

Stay at the Himatangi Beach Holiday Park, Manawatu.