Built on colonial bridle paths formed in the late 19th century, the highway is remote and mysterious to the extreme. “A bit upsy downsy” is how one local resident puts it – a classic New Zealand understatement to describe a road that hugs the rugged contours of the land to provide a natural roller coaster experience.
The Forgotten World Highway can be approached from Stratford or Taumarunui. It wriggles its way over four mountain saddles, through an eerie one-way tunnel and along a sinuous river gorge. The only significant settlement on the way is Whangamomona, where the historic hotel is known for its hospitality.
Forgotten is its name, but this route is really a journey of remembrance. Along its length, there are constant reminders of settlers who tried to scratch out a living in the wild, isolated hill country. At the Stratford end of the highway, there’s a side road leading to the evocatively named ‘Bridge to Somewhere’ (in response to the Whanganui National Park’s famous ‘Bridge to Nowhere’). Further on is the almost ghost town of Whangamomona, which flourished in the early 1900s but went into decline after the great flood of 1924. An abandoned coal mining village, the remains of a flour mill and various riverboat landings are other signs of days gone by. For a deeper understanding of local history, follow the sign from Aukopae Landing to Nukunuku Museum.
History is one reason to choose this route, the scenery is another. From the top of the ragged Strathmore Saddle, you’ll see the three volcanoes of Tongariro National Park to the east and the snow-topped cone of Mount Taranaki to the west. The Whangamomona Saddle provides a spectacular view of native beech and podocarp forest – if you have time, park and enjoy the three-hour circular walk that begins here. Tahora Saddle is another place to admire the central plateau volcanoes, and there are Maori pa sites visible on hilltops to the west and east. To see one of the highest waterfalls in the North Island, follow the Moki Forest Road to Mount Damper Falls – an 85-metre tumble of pristine H2O.
Unusual man-made landscape features will capture your imagination on this journey. The historic 180-metre Moki Tunnel, built-in the 1930s, takes you through the heart of a hill. At Maraekowhai Reserve you can see the niu poles. The war pole, Rongo niu, was built in 1864 by the Hauhau warriors to make them invincible to musket fire. The corresponding peace pole, Rere kore, was built at the end of hostilities.
This is a truly amazing place!