Tūroa Skifield celebrates 40 years of operation in 2019. In the first of a series to be published this ski season, Rachel Canning recounts the grit and determination of the road-building men and women of Ohakune.
It was a dream of a skifield above the township of Ohakune that motivated the locals to build the Ohakune Mountain Road.
In the days before iwi consultation or resource consents, yard by yard, the locals physically built and self-funded the first 9km of the Mountain Road. The road and adjoining reserve were not part of the original gift Tūroa road. It was later on that Tongariro National Park Board acquired tracts of intact rainforest between Ohakune and the skifield.
In an intense road-building effort between 1952 to 1963, a line was decided and re-decided, a track was hand cut and corduroy logs laid, rocks trucked in and out, a bulldozer cut a track, metal was carted and laid, and bridges were built.
Author of The Ohakune Mountain Road: Yard by Yard, Karen Hawke Grimwade, relates that people would often say, "If the road had not been built, how would Ohakune look now? It may look no different from Rangataua or Horopito."
For the first half of the 20th century, cashing in on climbers wanting to summit the Crater Lake on Mt Ruapehu was the main focus for building the Ohakune Mountain Road. Then snow skiing became all the rage after the Bruce Road was built on the Whakapapa side of the mountain in the 1940s.
By 1952 it had become apparent to the Whale family that sawmilling was drying up. Clarence Whale (known as Tim) had the biggest machines in the district. He owned a D3 and a D6 bulldozer. Increasingly he was using it for road repair or removing stumps to help break in the farmland.
Tim, born in 1910, and his wife Ivy had nine children and the family were involved in sawmilling, from tractor and bulldozer repair and welding, to tree felling, post splitting, fencing to carting and hauling logs.
Tim and Ivy's son and Taupō local Ron Whale, 85, remembers people from Wellington hiring furniture vans and loading up their friends and family and driving past their home at Rangataua, 4km east of Ohakune.
"They would park the furniture van at The Chateau and go skiing for the weekend, probably sleeping in the van."
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Ron and his family could see the economic benefit of those furniture vans stopping in Ohakune.
Authority for a road to be built from Ohakune to the snowline was given by the Premier Sir Joseph Ward in 1909. In 1910 the Ohakune/Ruapehu Alpine Club was formed. The objective: to open up a route through the bush from Ohakune to the snowfields and to maximise the scenery.
Fifteen months later the club faded from view, although interest in building a road was still strong. In 1914 Rangataua township entered as a serious contender. A new track was cut from Rangataua railway station to the snowline and it was 2km shorter, but the route was steeper.
All plans for the Ohakune Mountain Road were put aside by two world wars and the Depression. But by 1947, the Ohakune Borough Council sought government funding and the road had made it into the Taranaki-Wanganui-King Country public works department's 10-year plan.
In 1948 a third route via Horopito was put forward by the Combined Mountain Club Committee, Whanganui. A Horopito route would shave half an hour off driving time from Whanganui, however Ohakune Borough town clerk Ben Winchcombe refuted the Combined Huts claim by pointing out the Horopito route was overly swampy. Taumarunui Borough threw their support behind Ohakune.
By 1950 the Ministry of Works had a preliminary engineering report, but wouldn't release it because they said it was pointless. They asserted the road would never be built.
Two years later the Ohakune Mountain Road Association (OMRA) was formed with 9km of the road built within eight years. OMRA president Max Gould had the vision, drive and leadership. Ben Winchcombe and Wig Whale (Selwyn Whale, brother of Tim) had the political nous to keep the project on the agenda of local and central government. Max Smith provided engineering design. Tim Whale was largely responsible for physically building the road.
In 1952 town clerk Winchcombe began to actively lobby the Tongariro National Park Board to support the road plan. The OMRA had a simple objective, to build one mile of road each year. Engineer Max Smith pegged the first mile and drew up plans approved by Park Board warden Tom Shout during an on-the-spot inspection. An initial £1000 subscription appeal got them started and then OMRA began fundraising.
Ron Whale recalls Winchcombe had two brothers from Taihape who were mad keen skiers.
"Ben came to see Dad and Uncle Wig to get them on board [to join the OMRA]. Dad had the bulldozer and Wig could help deal with the administrators in the government departments," says Ron.
Ron doubts whether the OMRA would get far if a group of locals embarked on a similar road building exercise today.
"They would be shut down by the greenies."
Radio and television personality Selwyn Toogood came to town, Ron says the town would raise £2000 and Tim would do £5000 worth of work.
"The things Mum went without. The women just put up with it. I never knew Mum and Dad to have a discussion. He just went and did it."
Ron says his parents had an extraordinary level of community spirit, as all the people of that time did. He and others building the road supplied all their own tools, power and gear.
Trees were required to be cleared to make way for the road. Ron remembers the Tongariro National Park Board were very specific about taking down as few as possible.
"This is why the road is so narrow around Rimu Hill. The logs were sold and the money came back to the OMRA."
A self-taught mechanic, Ron adapted his old Model Ford A truck so that it had two gear boxes. Ron used the truck for carting fuel to his father's bulldozer up the Mountain Road. It was a challenging drive.
"I converted the truck so it had nine forward gears and three reverses."
In 1953 the Minister of Works the hon Stan Goosman came to visit.
By 1956 a land ownership problem halted construction at the top of Rimu Hill. The owners of Rangataua 2B2B warned the OMRA not to trespass. The conflicting values resulted in a deadlock. A petition was made to Parliament was made, which declined a recommendation. The scenic values of the road were preserved and the land was transferred to the Park Board for £4200 with the original owners retaining milling rights.
Heading into the steeper country, the decision was made to swing away from the original Ohakune/Blyth track and take the road up the western bank of the Mangawhero Stream. OMRA thought a culvert would suffice, the Parks Board insisted on what was to be known as Reids Creek Bridge. The stream was finally bridged in 1958. The NZ Army Engineers set the bridge pillars and OMRA set up aerial wires to haul logs across. The army involvement was part exercise and part public relations to draw in government commitment.
Ron Whale recalls the locals weren't disappointed about the setback at Reids Creek or any setback, because they were so driven to get the road to the top.
"Dad and Uncle Wig were worried about it. Their thinking was 'if we don't keep going they [a government department] will put a spanner in the works and close us down'."
Reids Creek bridge was replaced with a culvert in 1965 when road was realigned.
In 1960 the 9km Bridge was constructed over the Mangawhero Stream, a joint project between OMRA and the Ministry of Works Whanganui.
The construction was relatively straight forward with the former main road bridge over the Mangaturuturu River used.
Road construction beyond the 9km Bridge had some buy-in from the National Roads Board. They were now in the high country and Tim's bulldozer was not big enough for the rocky country.
By 1962, Works Minister Goosman declared the road would be maintained by the National Roads Board, and the road was legalised and officially opened in 1963, with OMRA president Max Gould's wife Beryl cutting the ribbon at Mangawhero Falls.
In 10 years, 12km of road had been built.
It wasn't until 1973 the full 16km length of the Mountain Road was open and access to the snow was a reality.
Ruapehu District Council destination development manager Warren Furner is also in charge of the land transport network for the district. Today the Mountain Road is funded by NZ Transport Authority and is classed as a Special Purpose Road.
The road is administered by the Ohakune Mountain Road Committee, a partnership of more than two decades between iwi, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, Ruapehu District Council and Department of Conservation.
The permission required in the 1950s when the road was built was a significant departure to what is required today. Mr Furner says there was no permission given, other than that given by the Crown.
"There was no opposition. But not being opposed doesn't mean you approve."
The first 9km of road was funded by locals, and Mr Furner says today there would be business cases and case studies written before building a new road.
He says it was a remarkable achievement for locals.
"If that was today and we wanted to build a road to unlock tourism potential then we would go to the Provincial Growth Fund."
Mr Furner says the community spirit in the towns and settlements around the mountain is still very strong.
"The descendants of some of those early road builders are still here and they have the same passion."
From a technical viewpoint, Warren says the first 3km was quite flat and do-able.
But he says the steep section to Rimu Hill and then through the rock to 9km Bridge would have been hard work.
"To see those guys taking on the rock sections with a D3 and D6. I take my hat off to them."
As for Ron and his wife Pat, they left Ohakune in 1962 for opportunities in the Bay of Plenty. All but one of Ron's siblings also left Ohakune and many live in Taupō today.
An outdoorsman for most of his life, Ron explains how tough it is to work in the bush when there is snow on the ground and it's snowing.
As for skiing, Ron laughs and says people who knew the Whale family's contribution to the Ohakune Mountain Road used to ask if they skied.
"We said no, we have to work in it."
Pictured above: Les Bergerson Snr (MoW), Allan Whale, Les Burkie (MoW), Rod Winchcombe, Peter Winchcombe, Charlie Herkt, Jack Rose, Michael Gould, Frank Martin (Mayor), Tim Whale, Malcolm Whale, Rex Whale, Max Gould. The Winchcombe Model A Ford in the background.