Guide's Perspective - The Bridge to Nowhere & Forgotten Worlds
MoaTours Kiwi Guide Nigel shares some stories from a tour last season to the Bridge to Nowhere on the Whanganui River and the Forgotten World Highway and more. For Nigel part of this tour took him back to where he grew up so it was a real trip down memory lane.
Nigel and friends travelled on our 7 day Bridge to Nowhere & Forgotten Worlds tour in late 2019.
My Bridge to Nowhere & Forgotten Worlds tour with Kiwi Guide Nigel
Hi there, my name’s Nigel Murray and I’m a Kiwi Guide with MoaTours. I’ve been given the honour of sharing my travel diary from one of my favourite tours I guided last season, The Bridge to Nowhere and Forgotten Worlds.
But first, let me introduce myself - in 2009 I had a career change, after roles in the Air Force, the Ports Industry and as Operations Manager for a contracting company it was time to get out and show people around New Zealand. So I started working as a guide leading walking tours in Te Urewera. I did that for a couple of seasons before joining MoaTours and now I meet all kinds of interesting people and travel all over our country, which I think is a world beater. I’ve visited about 30 countries, so I reckon I’m qualified to make these sorts of claims.
Back in 2009 I did a canoe trip down the Whanganui River from Taumarunui to Pipiriki, a really enjoyable few days and the highlight was visiting the iconic Bridge to Nowhere. Little did I know that 10 years later I would be taking people to that same place as a MoaTours Kiwi Guide, I am a lucky man!
So here’s my story from our Bridge to Nowhere and Forgotten Worlds adventure last spring.
Day 1 - Auckland - Rangiriri - Otorohanga - Taumarunui
Our group met up in Auckland and we headed south down the motorway to Rangiriri, a site passed by thousands of motorists, but visited by only a fraction. This was our first stop and most interesting as Rangiriri is the site of one of the most important early conflicts in the New Zealand wars of the 1860s and quite a controversial one at that. The experience at the Rangiriri Cultural and Heritage Centre is hosted by local Ngāti Naho people, descendants of the Māori warriors. Sadly, I will not be taking my group here later this month on my first tour of the new season as this experience is temporarily closed.
From here we stopped in Hamilton to pick up more travellers, then travelled through the Waikato on SH3 to Otorohanga to enjoy a great lunch on a dairy farm, Crosshills, hosted by Debbie and Fraser. Debbie looks after the lunch and Fraser runs the farm but don’t worry you won’t be asked to milk cows as we are out of there before the afternoon milking starts. It’s these home hosted lunches that we all enjoy so much at MoaTours, much more personal than going into a big restaurant. As an “experienced” Kiwi Guide, you do have to be careful as there’s always seconds and desserts on offer at places like this.
After saying goodbye to Debbie and Fraser we head to Te Kuiti. In this King Country town you can come with me to see rugby legend Sir Colin (Pinetree) Meads' statue and read about his career as an All Black or wander the shops and grab an ice cream.
Our home for two nights is the Forgotten World Motel in Taumarunui, I challenge anyone to find a motel that has friendlier staff than these people. The motel is the head office of the Forgotten World Railcart tours, which was set up by Ian Balme; he came up with the idea of using the disused rail line running from Stratford to Okahukura into a rail cart adventure experience. Kiwi Rail has given the company a 30 year lease to use this 144km line, with its 24 tunnels and 91 bridges and that’s what Ian and his team do now, run rail cart tours up the railway line into the “Forgotten World”, which is what we’re doing tomorrow.
We all chatted and got to know each other a bit better over dinner in the dining room before getting some rest for the big day following.
Day 2 - Taumarunui- Forgotten World Rail Carts - Whangamomona- Taumarunui
First thing this morning we jump on the Moa coach to visit one of the most isolated places in the North Island, the “Forgotten World Valley”, between Taumarunui, Whangamomona and Stratford, along the route of State Highway 43. We have a local guide on board for a real insight into the area and I’ll bet there are lots of Kiwis who have been all over New Zealand but haven’t been here yet.
Our first stop is Lauren's Lavender farm on a ridge overlooking the Whanganui River. From here it’s onwards to the Whangamomona pub for lunch where the hotel owners Richard and Vicki greet us like family and tell us their story of how they ended up running this hotel. Make sure you spend some time getting a few photos of the town and a stamp in your passport, from “the Republic of Whangamomona”, seriously!
Whangamomona is an amazing place, on my first visit many years ago I was leading a contracting crew and we were staying the night in the pub. On arrival we were told we were allowed one beer before having a shower as the pipes in the bathroom might freeze. Then after the shower we had to order dinner ASAP as the chef had to finish early because he wanted to watch “Coro”.
After lunch my group departed not by bus but by railcarts which are like golf carts on a rail track. It’s a great way to travel in the open air and a totally different perspective from travelling by road. On my first MoaTours trip some carts had to stop for sheep and the occasional wild pig on the tracks.
There’s a coffee stop at “smoko” time in a bush clearing at Tangarakau, once home to hundreds of people in a mining community. The rail trip ends in Tokirima and you spend the next hour or so on the coach with me back to Taumarunui to an enjoyable BBQ at the motel, a great way to finish.
Day 3 - Taumarunui - Pipiriki - Whanganui River - The Bridge to Nowhere - Whanganui
Today we’re off to Pipiriki, if we’re lucky we’ll have spectacular views of all three of the Central Plateau’s landmark volcanoes as we travel right along the Western edge of Tongariro National Park. On today’s journey we travel through places like Owhango, Raurimu and Horopito on the way to Pipiriki, the kind of “off the beaten track” spots which make a MoaTours itinerary such a deep dive into real New Zealand.
Pipiriki has a colourful history as one of the early Whanganui River port settlements from the 1890s to 1920s. At Pipiriki we meet Ken and Josephine of Whanganui River Adventures, a really neat couple who actually got married on the Bridge to Nowhere, you can’t get much more local than that! The bridge was built in 1936 to give early pioneering farmers access to their farms and the area became known as "the valley of abandoned dreams".
Ken was born and bred on the river, he could drive a jet boat before he could walk and Josephine grew up in Pipiriki too. In fact they and their children all attended the local primary school which now has a new life as their business headquarters. After an hour's spin up this beautiful river to Mangapurua Landing those who want to walk through the bush with me for 40 minutes and have a picnic at the bridge leave the boat, while those remaining on board go further up the river with Ken, with his amazing knowledge of the river and its stories you’ll be well entertained.
Then it’s back to Ken and Josephine’s for a “comfort stop” and maybe an ice cream from their wee shop. (Get the picture here, I like ice cream?) We then follow the river south by road to the tiny village of Hiruhārama/Jerusalem and the convent founded in 1883 by Suzanne Aubert at the invitation of local Māori. Jerusalem is also the final resting place of the poet James K Baxter who established a community here in 1969 which disbanded after his death in 1972. In the late afternoon we arrive in the river city and enjoy dinner before heading to bed.
Day 4 - Explore Whanganui – Taihape
Today we meet local guides to find out more about Whanganui, one of New Zealand’s great little cities. First we visit the regional museum to meet our personal guide, Lisa, what she doesn't know about this museum and the region isn't worth knowing. We dive a bit deeper into the region's stories and quirky attractions, such as how one of the 239 bends in the river has a kaitiaki, or guardian, who maintains the mauri (life force) of that stretch of the river and how the river gained international attention in 2012 when it was granted its own legal identity with the same rights as a person.
Later in the morning we are welcomed to Sarjeant on the Quay for a guided tour of this art gallery which has been part of the city's culture for over 100 years. After lunch as we leave Whanganui we call into meet Lisa's Dad, Haimona, at St Paul’s Memorial Church in Putiki, to hear the stories of the intricate Māori carvings and tukutuku, wall panels.
After a leisurely late afternoon trip through the Rangitikei countryside we arrive in Taihape. Our dinner venue is just a two minute ride away at a great cafe.
Day 5 - Taihape – Gentle Annie Road - Havelock North - Napier
After "brekky" back in the same cafe we head out of town on the infamous “Gentle Annie” Road. This is one of New Zealand’s great drives and about a million times more interesting than the usual Napier-Taupo route, we reckon. By all accounts it was a real axle breaker before it was sealed but thankfully for us it’s pretty smooth going nowadays. We felt like we were on another planet as we climbed up to the Central Plateau, it’s not uncommon to see the famous Kaimanawa wild horses on the first part of the road.
This 130km road is how you get to “Erewhon” at 4830 ha it’s the largest farm in the North Island, the current owners bought it six years ago from the late Jim Bull, he was a very well known Rangitikei farmer with land spread all over the region. We always take our time on the road and stop for photos, one of my favourite spots is under the Springvale suspension bridge, built in 1922 and a great bit of engineering.
As we come off the high plateau, we head east towards Havelock North to yet another great lunch spot at Birdwoods Gallery & Cafe. Not only a great lunch, but the grounds are full of plants and sculptures; however it does have a sweet shop and yet another ice cream shop nearby. (Note to self - get a longer belt for my trousers.) We arrive in the late afternoon at Scenic Te Pania in Napier, our home for two nights, and one of my favourite hotels right across from the Sound Shell and Marine Parade. Our adventurous day concluded with dinner, a few drinks and lots of laughs at the hotel restaurant, these are always the best times on tour.
Day 6 - Explore Napier - Cape Kiddnappers gannet colony
This is a day when you don’t have to listen to me all day, I knew you’d be pleased! We start by picking up a local guide who shares the history and stories of the Art Deco areas of Napier, the city’s signature style now. What is amazing to everyone is how quickly this city was rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake, very different to Christchurch's situation 80 years later. Our fascinating jaunt around the city includes Bluff Hill and of course Marine Parade, before a visit to the earthquake exhibition with photos and memorabilia from that auspicious day, which seems all the more relevant now after Christchurch in 2011.
We lunch at a cafe by the beach and take a special tour out to Cape Kidnappers. On a 4WD bus we travel across a farm owned by the American financier Julian Robertson. It's the easiest way to get to the world’s largest gannet colony accessible by land which at any time can be home to 20,000 gannets. Our personal driver tells us about the farm and the birds while I get to open and close the gates! We also learn the origin of the name “Cape Kidnappers”, which comes from an encounter Captain Cook and his crew had with Māori in 1769.
At the end of the day we take a leisurely drive back to Napier followed by another tasty dinner at the hotel.
Day 7 - Napier - Taupo - Tamahere - Auckland
We say goodbye to Napier and head to Taupo on a road that was another axle breaker but has been transformed to a great section of the North Island’s roading network. It brings back a lot of memories for me. I was brought up in the Kaingaroa Forest and we had relatives in Napier so the family would head through the forest in our old van to meet up with the Taupo to Napier road before turning left just north of Rangitaiki. I have so many memories of deep snow and no heater in the back of the van! However, no such worries on the MoaTours coach and it's summer anyway! One thing I know all our travellers and KIwi Guides love is revisiting places from our childhood and earlier lives, something which can only happen when we travel our own country.
After a lakeside stop in Taupo, it’s on to Tamahere for lunch at a really cool house and garden perched right on the banks of the Waikato, Moondance Manor. It’s an amazing setting with impressive gardens. Bring your togs as there’s a rope swing at the end of the garden into the Waikato River! The home is owned by Stephen and Jeanette Williams who have been hosting our groups here for years now and it’s another spot where we are welcomed as family.
This is our final lunch of the tour so we make the most of it before continuing north back to the "big smoke" and the end of what I think is one of the most interesting trips on the MoaTours programme.
Visit the Bridge to Nowhere & Forgotten World yourself!
I hope you enjoyed my travel diary, I’m not a professional writer you know but I am a professional tour guide so if you’re looking for an adventure jump on board The Bridge to Nowhere & Forgotten Worlds tour and maybe you’ll have me as your driver? Hope you like ice cream...