If you’re keen to get off the beaten track on your next ride; a good place to start is a locality that isn’t even on the map.
So leave SH1 behind and start hunting out the gorgeous back country roads and tiny communities tucked away in the obscure corners of our country. Places like Tangarakau - a tiny dot on the map between Stratford and Taumarunui, so remote that they have even forgotten to show it on the Forgotten Highway.
But it wasn’t always like that. In its heyday, Tangarakau – which translates as ‘to fell trees’ – was a thriving community that could lay claim to once being the second largest town in central Taranaki. Back in the 1920s, the town was the construction centre of a railway built between Stratford and Okahukara. The work was slow as the builders could only use pick axes and dynamite. However, after the line was completed in 1932, the workers drifted away and most buildings were dismantled and removed.
During the 1960s, the population dwindled to eight. These days, all that’s left is an isolated farming area with a camping ground as its sole facility – sounds perfect for a ride, eh?
So recently four riders travelled to Piopio to ride into remote Tangarakau, which is better known to locals as Ghost Town. The multi-day journey to the village and surrounding settlements covered arduous mixed terrain - including plenty of gravel - and was offset by the lush bush backdrops and barely-formed roads through the picturesque valleys of Aria, Tangarakau and Whangamomona.
The plan was to meet at the local café in Piopio, aptly named the Fat Pigeon. Having ridden these tough roads before I briefed the group about what to expect and we proceeded to tuck into scones and coffee to fuel up for the taxing days ahead.
Clipped into our pedals we left the outskirts of Piopio in a blink, then ventured into the heart of the King Country.
Initially there was plenty of chatter amongst us as the isolated roads zig-zagged through rugged farmland. However, as the wind began to gust, we lowered our heads, hunkered down and started counting pedal strokes as we rode towards the remote region of Aria.
We pass the old Aria Co-operative Dairy Factory, established in 1911. The concrete shed stands tall but unfortunately it’s derelict – it must have been a thriving hub long before Fonterra came along.
As the ride went on, the roads seemed to get smaller, white road markings faded to grey gravel. The tight fence posted lanes weaved through farms. Dust was kicked up by a farm ute passing by with barking dogs hanging out the back.
Yep, we were now in the heart of rural New Zealand and the views didn’t disappoint as we climbed into the rugged region of Ohura. Ohura’s inhabitants number 150, down from around 650 during its mining heyday. But the last mine closed in the 1970s and Ohura is now marked by empty streets and shops, with just a few people choosing to make the town their home. The riders were in awe of the near-abandoned village in the valley of the Waitewhena Stream. The locals must have such solitary lives, away from the trappings of the modern world.
From here we entered the Forgotten Highway, one of the oldest pioneering routes in the country which ebbs and flows amongst green hills. We started to roll towards Tangarakau Gorge and the chatter amongst the group dropped.
Fatigue was now playing a part as we had covered over 100km on a mixture of surfaces. There were a few murmurs about how long was left, but we needed to get through the gravel road gorge before we could even think about putting our feet up.
After ducking through a few one-way miners’ tunnels the group finally saw the sign to Tangarakau – Ghost Town. The final sector was probably the hardest - 6kms of grueling gravel roads filled with wandering stock. We were not only dodging potholes but roaming cows too; then the bush opened up and we entered an eerie paddock – Tangarakau.
The Bushlands Campsite is on the same site as the once-bustling village and you get a real sense of the hard terrain that the railway workers had to battle as the place is surrounded by dense bush. We pitched up and checked into our cabins – which were unlocked of course.
A few yarns and beers were shared and we soon forgot about the suffering. Whilst eating dinner a farmer pitched up in his ute and said ‘are you those fellas on push bikes?’
Turns out a local member of the Taumarunui Cycle Club (Graeme Bell) – who we had been supposed to meet, but missed in Ohura - rang the farmer (Peter) and asked him to go and check if we had made it to Tangarakau, as we were cut off from cell phone range. That’s how they look out for each other in these isolated local communities.
As my eyes opened I could hear the light drops of rain tinkling on the cabin’s rooftop. To be honest, the body didn’t exactly jump out of bed! However, there was another scenic ride ahead that would finish with a pub lunch – so it wasn’t all bad?!
The harsh gravel road that we had come in on didn’t seem that bad on fresh legs. The clouds were hanging in the trees and there was light rainfall; apparently quite common weather in the depths of this remote countryside. A few moans were heard from riders about the not-so nice conditions but as we hit the hills the moans were silenced.
We climbed the Tahora saddle and coasted along the ridgeline; normally you can catch a glimpse of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki but not on this occasion as the mist lay in among the steep valleys. What followed was a long descent to the legendary settlement of Whangamomona; a little town with a rich history that celebrates its claim to be an independent republic every second January. We briefly stopped and chatted to the locals on horseback. Our ride would finish here, but first we needed to punch another few picturesque saddles before we could sink a pint in Whanga.
As we continued the winding road soon hit Whangamomona Saddle, where the last wisps of mist were finally lifting from the high ridges that surround the small settlement. By this stage the riders were feeling the pinch of the previous day’s efforts as we laboured up the saddle.
Like much of the land we rode through, this was once a place of hard labour as the pioneers battled to push through what is now known as the Forgotten Highway. The last saddle of the day would be short and sharp, Pohokura. The moss wrapped around the fences as it lined the tight switchbacks up the saddle. We got to the top and could finally start to see the edges of the land and Mt Taranaki. A short loop back meant a few of the same saddles in reverse before relaxing with a Coke and finally pitched up back in Whangamomona for some grub.
The first settlers arrived here in 1895, with the town proper established some two years later. Growth of the town was seriously affected by the loss of 51 men (including the smaller nearby settlements of Kohuratahi and Tahora) in the First World War and a major flood in 1924.However, the town recovered with the arrival of the railway line in 1933 and its electrification in 1959. But the town went into decline again and the school closed in 1979, followed nine years later by the Post Office. Today, the Whangamomona Hotel is still thriving and it hosts tourists and locals all year round. We sat in the hotel surrounded by pictures from years gone by and, of course, the local rugby teams. As we ate our hearty pub lunch it seemed this was still the meeting place of the local community; farmers turned up on quad bike or horseback and removed their gumboots at the door (obeying the sign).
While the farmers chatted to the pub staff about their trials and tribulations our little band of riders toasted our own trials and tribulations over a beer or two; reflecting on epic riding, amazing back country scenery and that great feeling that comes from having truly ‘escaped’ from our busy lives for a weekend at least.
Words & Images: Liam Friary & Cameron Mackenzie
This story first appeared in Volume 3 of the NZ Cycling Journal. To get the very best of NZ Cycling, subscribe to our print edition.