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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 7 (November 1, 1928)

A Descriptive and Historical Story of the North Island Main Trunk Railway

A Descriptive and Historical Story of the North Island Main Trunk Railway

The Upper Wanganui region was famous among the Maoris for the size and quality of its timber, and especially of the totara. The many large canoes used on the river right down to Wanganui Heads were usually procured near Taumarunui, at such places as the Pungapunga River, where the people were expert in bushwork and canoe making.

Some of the station names here are fragrant of the forest. Piriaka refers to the “clinging bush vine” (the place where “the woodbine twineth”). Raurimu is “red pine leaf.”

Intermediate Location Signals on the Main Trunk Line.

Intermediate Location Signals on the Main Trunk Line.

Looping the Loop at Raurimu.

With the ascent from the riverside to the tableland above Raurimu the traveller's interest is diverted to the highly skilful engineering work entailed in the construction of the line. In thirty miles run from the Taumarunui Flat the train climbs 2,160ft. to Waimarino (National Park) station. The steepest part is the range that rises immediately above Raurimu Station. To surmount this an ingenious spiral was designed; this was the work of Mr. Holmes, Inspecting Engineer of the Public Works Department (later Engineer-in-Chief). The line is run in an ascending spiral, a complete circle and two loops, with two tunnels. The fashion in which this mountain railway ties knots in itself is rather puzzling on first experience.

The Tongariro National Park.

On this high breezy plateau of Waimarino we enter the charmed region of grand volcanic mountain landscapes, the most wonderful region in the North Island. We get our first views of the sacred mountains of old, the Tongariro Range, its active volcano Ngauruhoe (7,515 ft.), and the perpetually ice-capped giant Ruapehu (9,175), the highest point of the Island, and its only glaciated peak. At an altitude of 2,636ft. we reach the boundary of the Tongariro National Park, a noble scenic sanctuary of nearly 150,000 acres, containing the three famous mountains and several lakes, large areas of forest, and great expanses of subalpine meadow spangled with flowers in the spring and summer. From National Park Station a motor road runs to the heart of the Park, Whakapapa Cottage Camp, thirteen miles from the railway. For a full description of the Park the visitor should read the book issued by the Tongariro National Park Board. Here it is sufficient to indicate the noble pictures which the smoking and icy mountains present to the rail traveller, especially on some fine summer morning as one emerges from the forest and opens out the first prospect across the Waimarino Plain. Ngauruhoe, with its perfect symmetrical cone lifting steeply 3,000ft from the rocky plateau, is the first feature to capture the eye; the curl of page 39 yellow or white steam, or often black smoke, from its crater, indicates its never-dying fires far below. As we go eastward, Ruapehu's snowy peaks make glorious pictures through the gaps in the forest or between the hill spurs. There is a point where, if the atmospheric conditions be favourable, you may see Ruapehu filling the end of a narrow bush canyon, eastward, and looking quickly in the opposite direction, see Mount Egmont's blue and white cone seventy miles away in the west. This is when you cross the Makatote Stream by the greatest
(Government Publicity photo.) Mangatepopo Valley, Tongariro National Park, and the active volcano Ngauruhoe.

(Government Publicity photo.)
Mangatepopo Valley, Tongariro National Park, and the active volcano Ngauruhoe.

railway bridge in the Island, a steel structure bedded in concrete, 864ft long, spanning a gorge 260ft deep. The swift rivers flowing from the west and south slopes of Ruapehu through the dense forest have cut deep gorges in the ash and pumice and rock of the plateau, and these sharply eroded channels are very beautiful with their fringing of bush and ferns. These rifts were the reverse of beautiful to the railway engineers, who found themselves blocked every few miles by a huge gulch, necessitating a costly bridge of steel and concrete. The Manga-nui-o-te-Ao “the great river of the land” is one of these alpine torrents; it is a large river by the time it joins the Wanganui, seven miles above Pipiriki. The Hapuawhenua Stream is crossed by a viaduct, remarkable not so much for its great length (nearly 1,000ft) as for its shape; it is curved laterally in crescent form. The train traveller will notice a short very broad-leafed cabbage tree which grows plentifully along the line-side. This is the toi (both vowels pronounced long), cordyline indivisa, commonly called the mountain cabbage tree.

Ohakune town and Rangataua sawmilling village are places from which Mount Ruapehu is frequently climbed. The summit of the mountain is only about twelve miles airline distant. As we go eastward and emerge from the shelter of the part-wooded hills on to the tussock plain there are some very splendid pictures of the lone volcanic alps in their garment of snow and ice. It is rather strange to remember that that ice-pinnacled peak holds a hot lake on its summit, a lake which sometimes becomes a geyser on a grand scale. The Whangaehu River, a highly mineralised stream which we cross, has its source just below this crater-lake, and it is the subterranean soakage from the sulphurous tarn that gives it its peculiar colour and taste.

The Rangitikei Valley.

Waiouru (“River of the West”), 242 miles from Auckland, and 185 from Wellington, a page 40 bleak, wind-swept tussock region in the midst of a wide country devoted to sheep grazing on large runs, is the highest point on the Main Trunk line, 2,660ft. As we descend by a winding route towards the great upper valley of the Rangitikei the landscape becomes more varied, with forest and hill and stream, and settlement is less scattered. A bright little river, the Hautapu, keeps close company with the rails for some miles as it cascades down to join the Rangitikei. Of historic interest there is little in this part of the country, but the story of pioneering endeavour is plainly written on the face of the land. Taihape (266 miles), which we presently reach, was a few years ago a typical bush township, walled in by a vast dark curtain of heavy timber; often flooded rivers surged through deep ravines. Now it is a brisk modern town of big business and considerable wealth, and the forest around it has given place to well-grassed farms. The deeply cut valley of the Upper Rangitikei is now seen on our left; the sharply carved white cliffs are in high contrast to the wooded and grassed country. There is a fine sweeping bend of precipice, a great natural amphi-theatre, with the rapidwhitened river coursing along the ravine 200ft below the line. The Rangitikei has done some mighty rock-carving in its day. The green terrace below our line on which the Town of Mangaweka stands—it was called “Three Log Whare” in the days of its rough infancy—indicates the level of the strong river at one period of its history. This much-broken country through which we wind on our way to the plains is a great wool and mutton-producing land; dairy farming, too, brings the monthly cheque to many a family. Big engineering works are features in this region of sudden ravines and steep ridges. The principal one is the Makohine Viaduct, a bridge of steel latticework towers set on concrete piers; it is 750ft in length and 240ft above the stream in the gorge.

Manawatu and West Coast to Wellignton. The mountainous character of the Wellington Provincial District on the West confines settlement and farming to a narrow belt between the Tararua Range and the Tasman Sea.

Manawatu and West Coast to Wellignton.
The mountainous character of the Wellington Provincial District on the West confines settlement and farming to a narrow belt between the Tararua Range and the Tasman Sea.

The towns of Hunterville, Marton (the junction with other railway lines), and Feilding, each marking a distinct stage in provincial progress, break the journey through a very kindly, wealthy, pleasant countryside. Many a comfortable country house rests among its gardens and orchards and shelter trees, in the midst of the best of pasture land.

The Manawatu Gorge.

Palmerston North (339 miles from Auckland and 87 miles from Wellington) the largest inland town in New Zealand—a spacious and beautiful provincial centre—is fast attaining the dignity of a city. The only fault one has to find with this wide-spreading place of fine buildings and shady parks and bright flower gardens is its inappropriate and meaningless name. “Manawatu” has often been suggested as the fitting name for the town, and it would become it exceedingly well. As the metropolis of the wealthy farming district of the Manawatu Plains, it could bear no more convenient and euphonious name.

There is much topographical and historical interest in the district traversed on the eightyseven miles run from Palmerston North to Wellington. The southern peaks of the Ruahine page 41 Range of mountains and the northern part of the Tararua Ranges are in sight on the left. Through a deep gorge between their terminals comes the Manawatu River, which we presently cross. The Manawatu, wide-bedded and running in several streams, is an example of a once useful waterway ruined by deforestation along its banks. When the settlers first came into this bush-covered country the Manawatu was navigable by large canoes from its mouth right up through the gorge by which it breaks out from the Hawke's Bay plain.

Farming on these alluvial levels becomes more intensive as we run southward, with the part forested Tararua Ranges now more close and looming bold and blue. By way of variety there is to be seen the great flax-growing swampy plain of Makerua, where the cultivation and milling of the native phormium tenax engage capital and labour on a large scale.

This Manawatu section of the North Island railways was originally constructed and managed by a company formed in Wellington. The memory of one prominent commercial pioneer is preserved in the name of Levin, the principal town of the lower Manawatu country. Before the railway was built, traffic up the coast was by coach, and the route ran for many miles along the ocean beach between Paekakariki and the mouth of the Manawatu. The numerous rivers and streams were forded at their mouths.

The Tararua Mountains take their name from a central prominent height which was termedTararua by the Maoris because of the double peaks
Twenty Years Ago. The first through N.I. Main Trunk Special at Frankton Junction, August, 1908.

Twenty Years Ago.
The first through N.I. Main Trunk Special at Frankton Junction, August, 1908.

(“Tara” is a sharp mountain top, and “rua” means two). The loftiest point is Mount Hector, 5,016ft; the highest peaks of the blue sierra in sight run up to about 4,000ft. The winter snows and the mists resting on the summits of the mountains are poetically described by the Maoris as the hina or “white hair” of the Tararua. Up yonder in the recesses of the range, opposite the railside township of Shannon, are the Mangahao hydro-electric power works. The mountain-streams supply the electric current which lights the Manawatu towns and homesteads, and drives the milking plants and factories and mills of a wide countryside.

Historic Isles of Horowhenua.

As the train speeds into Levin a glimmering water-sheet is seen on the seaward side of the town. This is Lake Horowhenua, a shallow islet-dotted freshwater lagoon, two miles and a quarter long and a mile wide. Most of the small islands which it contains are artificial—the work of members of the Muaupoko tribe a century ago. Here they had hoped to be safe from the famous warrior Rauparaha (the “Maori Napoleon”) and his musketeers; but those little places of refuge proved to be isles of death. After his conquest of Horowhenua the fierce Rauparaha shut up scores of captives on the islet of Namu-iti, near the north end of the lake, and killed some from day to day, as required for food. To the old-time settlers that islet was known as “Ruaparaha's stockyard.”

(To Be Continued)