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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 8 (November 1, 1938)

The Gorge of the Rangitaiki — A New Travel Route — Wild Border River of the Urewera

page 9

The Gorge of the Rangitaiki
A New Travel Route
Wild Border River of the Urewera

(Photo., courtesy Lands & Survey Dept.) The southern entrance to the Galatea estate, North Island, New Zealand.

(Photo., courtesy Lands & Survey Dept.)
The southern entrance to the Galatea estate, North Island, New Zealand.

There is a new road, little travelled as yet, that surpasses some of our celebrated tourist routes—the Buller Gorge, for example—as a highway of unusual landscape values. Some day it will take popular rank as a road of wonder and beauty, and big tourist ‘buses will hurtle round its dizzy corners. They will not hurtle yet awhile; the road is precariously narrow in places and the overhanging mountains have a trick of toppling a rock or so down on the wheelway carved out of their grey flanks.

I had imagined I knew all the wild glens and rugged traverses in and about the Urewera mountain land, from the western sierras to the tapu peak, Maungapohatu, and the gulches and cliffs of the Huiarau range and down to the bays of Waikaremoana. Foot and horseback and camp in the forests that cover most of that region, spread over forty years, gave a pretty thorough knowledge of the highlands and the Maori people. But until a few months ago I had not seen at close quarters that section of the western buttresses of the Tuhoe land between the Galatea plains and the Rotorua—Whakatane main highway at Te Teko.

The link between these places is supplied by this new road, thirty-two miles in length. It was made to give the Government's newly-broken in farm settlement at Galatea—or more correctly, Tauaroa—and the outer world an alternative route to the long way round, via the Kaingaroa Plain and Rotorua. It also gives the Urewera Maoris a better way of communication between Ruatoki and the Whakatane plains and the mountain villages.

New Forest on the Plain.

It rained all the way from Rotorua to Waiotapu and across the Kaingaroa plateau, where the road across the great pumice plain is now shut in by the new forest of exotic pines. When I first rode across the plain, on my way to Ruatahuna, the vast bare prairie spread out as far as the eye could carry; it was without a tree, except for a few gale-beaten cabbage-trees, with frayed-out heads tilted to the north. Now the pines and gums form a dense and lofty plantation and the right angle roads give the only views. We got out of the car to lunch in the soft rain, under the lee of the pines. The new forest, fragrant of resin and eucalypt, has
(From a drawing by T. Ryan, 1890.) The Urewera Ranges (western side) from the Rangitaiki west bank, Kaingaroa Plain North Island, New Zealand.

(From a drawing by T. Ryan, 1890.)
The Urewera Ranges (western side) from the Rangitaiki west bank, Kaingaroa Plain North Island, New Zealand.

warmly blanketed that lone prairie, and distinctly ameliorated the climate.

We came out into the open again when we drove down the eastern slope of the Kaingaroa to the Murupara village and the white bridge over the Rangitaiki River.

Mountain of the Mists.

It had been raining for a week in the high country across the wide river strath. All the tops of the Urewera saw-edge highlands were shawled in fog. We had glimpses of the shoulder of Tawhiu-au, the sacred peak of the Ngati-Manawa tribe, whose homes are on the terraces along the Rangitaiki. A rightly named mountain; Tawhiu-au means “Swirling Mists.” The ragged garments of fog drifted above its steep pyramid; they parted a moment to reveal the high waterfall, a stream that drops straight from the bush and loses itself in a hidden gully. A water-drop-of Maori history; its name is Mangamate—“Stream of Death.”

The Rangitaiki River, we saw as we went down to it from the eastern edge of the Kaingaroa, was in high flood, rushing under the white bridge, eddying in whirlpools. Where we formerly page 10 had to ford the rivers on horseback at doubtful and sometimes dangerous crossings in this country, there are now bridges, nearly everywhere.

Turning off to the left on the eastern bank, we took the new road that leads north through the great Galatea estate. In towards the mountains on the east the main road trended into the ranges—the way to Ruatahuna and Waikare-moana.

The western wall of the Urewera now was on our right hand; we could not see the tops of the peaks, but I knew their outlines by heart, and knew the topography from many a journey into those bush-shadowed gorges. Rolled about in mists to-day the ranges seemed to loom up more sternly than ever; in the gulches between their lower steeps we had glimpses of the thunderous blue mystery land.

Kuhawaea and The Tauaroa Farms.

The Rangitaiki flows in a northerly direction all the way from its source far to the south of us. This part of it, where the alluvial plain of the Kuhawaea opens out between the Kaingaroa tableland and the Urewera wall, was once a lake. The powerful river which fed it at last burst the barriers on the north and emptied the flat-floored valley. The pumice showered on the hills by the Taupo and Tongariro-Ruapehu volcanoes in past ages was borne down in vast quantities to the plains, scouring deep valleys, accentuating the sharp outlines of the sierra that makes Tuhoeland's western rampart and building the long levels that extend to the sea.

We seemed, as we drove over the Tauaroa or Galatea estate that was once the great Troutbeck sheep and cattle station, to be moving endlessly through a prairie of mist. The dim shapes of farm buildings and haystacks appeared and vanished.
A scene on the Galatea estate during the lambing season.

A scene on the Galatea estate during the lambing season.

The Government has transformed this once rough grazing run into a region of well-cultivated farms, about fifty of them, where dairying as well as fat stock-raising is successfully carried on, a home for many scores of people where once a few stockmen, shepherds and shearers were employed.

We crossed the Whirinaki River, rushing in from the mountains around Te Whaiti; its discoloured waters were almost level with the bridge planking. It is the largest tributary in these parts; and timber felling on its upper waters increases its powers of erosion in this pumice plain country that cries out for trees for soil protection and shelter.

Down the Gorge.

The mountains on our right grew more steep and stepped closer to us. We closely skirted the right bank of the Rangitaiki. Over to the west across the river was Galatea proper; that settlement below the Kaingaroa upland was named after the historic redoubt, Colonel Whitmore's military base, now clothed in fern and peace, which preserves the memory of the Duke of Edinburgh's cruise to New Zealand in H.M.S. Galatea. The Kaingaroa, we saw between the drifts of mist, increased in height and its edge dropped down in bluffs of dark volcanic rock.

Presently the river's course narrowed to a gorge. It ran in rapids, plunging furiously. The Urewera Ranges became a series of bold buttresses, rising precipitously above the yellowing current. Our road was cut out of the cliffs; the rata and rimu trees leaned over us wherever there was a firm root-hold. The gutters of the mountains gushed; from every misty alcove and gully a stream dashed out or a waterfall dropped.

(Rly. Publicity photo.). Hongl's Track, near Rotorua, is on the circular route described here.

(Rly. Publicity photo.).
Hongl's Track, near Rotorua, is on the circular route described here.

The rain continued; we could not see the mountain tops; they were hidden from us not only by the steep-ness of their pitch but by the soaking mists. Directly below our road, as it snaked and climbed along the range foot, the river was a continuous succession of rapids. It raved and roared; it was no longer the Rangitaiki of the smooth though swift upper reaches.

There were little islands in its course, with trees and ferns. It charged at them and over them, and sent its spray high up the banks. It was a Mad River of the White Mountains, ten miles of it or more before it steadied down.

Through Ancient Volcano Land.

Now the Kaingaroa Plain edge across the river bumped itself up into mountains. Here was a savage volcano land, the dead yet thunderous nest of the fiery craters of old. The river dashed through an ancient explosion crater or a series of them. A vitreous cliff face opposite us glinted like obsidian; it was clearly the wall of an extinct volcano. It shone in the wet like the explosion pit-walls page 11 on Rainbow Mountain, away yonder on the other side of the Kaingaroa.

A truculent corner, this canyon, it threatened us with its overhanging cliffs and its raving waters. The buttresses of east and west seemed to menace each other; they would have plunged into a battle of the rocks but for this river that pushed masterfully between them. A long waterfall poured over the volcano brim opposite our road, from one of those knife-cut fissures in the eastern wall of the Kaingaroa.

Home of the Maori.

The Waiohau River came swiftly out from the ranges through a basin of cultivated land, a vivid oasis in the fierce toss-up of crag and cliff and all-covering bush.

A Maori meeting-house and a few small whares and a pataka storehouse stood there, the Waiohau kainga. All this country, wild as it is, was a home and fighting ground of various clans of the Urewera people. Hereabouts was the olden fortified village called Tauheke. Descendants of the ancient clans, Ngati-Rakei, Ngati-Haka and Patu-heuheu live in the Waiohau district and such adjacent parts as are habitable.

The canoe-men of the olden tribes navigated the Rangitaiki; they made portages at the wildest parts, hauling their canoes around the banks above the worst of the rapids. It must have been a strenuous job at such places as this Okahu bluff, near the precipitous hill called Arorangi.

The modern highway makers had an even more difficult job, chopping and carving and smoothing this road of ours. The boiling-mad torrent below; the all-too-narrow wheelway; the cliffs impending over us, streaming with little waterfalls, every fern and shrub and bed of moss dripping.

More bluffs; then the ranges at last stepped back again. The valley opened out, and the Rangitaiki recovered from its display of temper and smoothed its face; and you would scarcely have known it for the same mad-drunk and disorderly river by the time we crossed it by the bridge at Te Teko and turned Rotorua-ward.

All that riverside journey—it was on a Sunday—we did not meet car, man, or dog. It was fortunate; the gorge road was narrowest just at the worst cliff corners, and was quite unprotected by parapet or fence.

Guard that Bush.

Of one thing we were convinced—if we had not been convinced already that this Rangitaiki, running in a practically straight course for the greater part of its length, is charged with immense power of damage to the lower lands near the Bay of Plenty unless the bush on the ranges above it is strictly protected. It is only the jungly bush that holds together the unreliable soil of the heights and the hill slants. Guard that forest of the ranges and the bush along the river and its tributaries for your lives, I would say to all who have to do with settlement along the Rangitaiki. The Galatea farms are at the mercy of the mountains that stand sentry on the east, two thousand feet and more above the plains. Not a tree, not a scrap of manuka or of fern should be cut or burned off either on the flanks of the ranges or along the tributary valleys.

I have seen no place in New Zealand where forest preservation is more obviously a national duty than this western side of the Urewera mountain land.

A Grand Circle Route.

To return to the route: It is a magnificent excursion, this Kaingaroa-Rangitaiki-Lakeland journey. Easily in one day, from Rotorua, you traverse the gateway of the volcano gods at Waiotapu and Rainbow Mountain (the Maori Maunga-Kakaramea), the great new Forest of the Kaingaroa, the riverside road with its thrilling moments, and the return way to Rotorua, skirting the three lakes of the woods, Rotoma, Rotoehu and Rotoiti. You see that most wonderful of old volcanoes, Putauaki (Mt. Edgecumbe), springing powerful from the plain; it is a more boldly-cut mountain than even Ngauruhoe. You drive along Hongi's Track, bush avenue of beauty and poetic folk-lore, with its tapu tree—Hinehopu. There is no more wonderful round-route drive in all New Zealand. But mind your steering!