The drive from Napier to Taranaki would essentially cross the North Island from east to west, so I decided to do it over two days with a stop off at Wanganui. But on the way to Wanganui, I called into a small town called Dannevirke, for lunch with Lina, the guide for my overland trip through Africa. How bizarre to meet someone who guided me through ten different African countries, negotiated border crossings and bribed police officials whenever necessary, in a small farming town in the middle of New Zealand! But I'm used to randomness now, so it was all good. Dannevirke is actually in a part of the North Island where many settlers were of Scandinavian descent. They celebrate Norway Day here, and the town hall at Dannevirke proudly sports a cardboard cut-out Viking, posing mid-pillage.
After Dannevirke, it was through Palmerston North to Wanganui, an attractive little town I was simply using as a pit-stop for the night. The next day I made the short drive on to Stratford, on the edge of the Egmont National Park where I had planned to spend the night. Now for those who don't know of Taranaki, imagine a rounded peninsula jutting
A game of mountain hide and seek
out into the ocean, with an almost perfectly conical, 2,500m high snow-capped mountain at its centre, radiating rivers and streams and encircled by thick, ancient forest. Sadly, this monumental natural scene was all hidden by clouds when I arrived in Stratford, another of those Kiwi towns that I was quite frankly depressed to be in. It's got a mock-tudor glockenspiel clock, from which Romeo and Juliet emerge to mark the hour (yes, it's that bad), and for some reason a statue of Shakespeare (and streets named after Shakespeare characters). A grade one case of identity crisis if you ask me!
Not wanting to spend a night in Stratford, I drove on towards New Plymouth and chanced upon a backpackers called The Missing Leg at Egmont Village, right next to the turnoff to the national park. Once again I had the place to myself, but this time it was anything but spooky... a large communal area with comfy chairs and sofas, a wood-burning fire and a lovely Dutch lady who was more chilled than I'd have thought possible in a place with as much bad weather as Taranaki. So I spent a happy day and a half relaxing in the
New Plymouth's Wind Wand
hostel... reading my book, playing solitaire and generally being toasty while the rain hammered down outside.
The next day, I peered out of my window to see no rain falling, so decided it was time to visit the mountain for some walking - even if I couldn't see it. There are three main access points to the upper reaches of the mountain, but I chose North Egmont, which has a good visitor centre and lots of shorter day and half-day walks at a decent elevation. But the clouds were still low, and even at 1,100m I still couldn't see any of the mighty peak I was standing on. And then, just as I got back to the car park, a miracle... the clouds parted to reveal the snow-covered peak and neighbouring Shark's Tooth. Ten minutes later, they were gone again, as if they'd been an apparition. This mountain does not like attention! But, I'd seen it, and with the walk finished I decided to drive on to New Plymouth, the region's largest town, to spend the afternoon by the sea.
New Plymouth is a nice town, blessed with a great location in between the Tasman Sea and Mount
A mist hangs over the Forgotten World
Taranaki. The seafront is dominated by the Wind Wand, a 45m tall flexible pole with a red ball at the top... a sculpture by Len Lye, who designed it about thirty years before it was finally built. Another strange and altogether less successful structure sits at the western end of town, in the shape of a particularly ugly glass abnd breeze-block clock tower, built through public subscription to commemorate an older brick tower demolished in the 1960s. That the horrible replacement was built just 16 years after the original was knocked down represents a particularly dumb and pointless turn of events! You can't even climb up it... how silly. But none of this mattered as the sun set over New Plymouth, and from the vantage point of the observatory I watched the last rays of sun illuminate the slopes and snowy peak of the mountain, which was now sporting only a cloudy sombrero rather than it's earlier rain hat and coat.
And then it was time to drive east to Tongariro. Generally, driving through New Zealand is a pleasent experience, but driving on SH43 from Stratford to Taumarunui is something else. 'The Forgotten World Highway', as it's more enigmatically
known, is a beautiful drive through rolling agricultural land, a steep-sided gorge and some picturesque villages. When I started out there was a low-lying mist which made the landscape even more like a forgotten world. I took about four hours to drive the 155kms, passing through the Republic of Whangamomona (as far as I know, not a different country), the eery Moki Tunnel and the stunning Tangarakau Gorge, with a perfect lunch stop on the bank of the Whanganui River. This tiny slice of NZ should be anything but forgotten... a stretch of tarmac that's much more than a way to get from A to B.
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