Words and pics by David Francis #57628
No road, no problem. David Francis and Val Heays #57628 love a challenge, going bush and taking their motorhome Daisy where others fear to tread. Here’s David’s story of a recent adventure that involved mainly metal roads on a 1600km trek from Wellington to Opotiki.
Every campervan tells a story, and ours is strictly of the off-road variety. Over time we’ve gotten to know each other’s limits, but testing those limits is what travelling is all about for us. I am gradually working out the edges of Daisy’s operational envelope by managing to exceed them, and am pleased to report we both understand the limits on a much broader front. Having already sorted out mud and wet grass, we have managed to extend this to sand and river gravel as well.
Problems with water, snow and ice are fairly logically understood, so Daisy’s limits are now pretty well defined, even if it took a couple of jet boaters to get back on our feet this time, rather than the usual tow. A motorhome being ‘rescued’ by a jet boat must be a record of some sort. Our latest trip was all about heading into ‘main road avoidance mode’. After leaving Wellington, we headed up SH1 to Levin, then cut through the back way to Palmerston North, before heading north through virgin country for us, travelling via Cheltenham to Kimbolton. A local recommended a freedom camp at London Ford, but after checking it out we decided that since all the trees had been cut down and there was no shade, we would look for an alternative.
We found another ford close by. It isn’t listed in the guides, but was just what the doctor ordered for a couple of rest days. Situated right on the Ōroua River, it had a great swimming hole which was the perfect place to cool off after a 35km return bike ride to Apiti and back. The locals visited for picnics and swimming. We were right on the fringes of the impressive limestone/sandstone country which we find truly spectacular, and were keen to visit again having traversed the adjoining Pohangina Valley a couple of years ago.
Apart from a brief visit to Taihape to empty the holding tanks and replenish the water supply (not forgetting to pick up a McDonald’s seniors coffee), we remained committed to the back blocks, the deep river valleys and the high, eroded cliffs. After climbing up and down out of the gorges, we eventually arrived at the site of the now defunct Gravity Canyon, where we spent a night. This spectacular spot formed the backdrop for the River Anduin scenes in the Lord of the Rings. The next day found us plunging down to the end of a side road to River Valley Lodge, right on the Rangitikei River, with spectacular gorge surrounds.
We spent the night with young tourists who are bussed in each afternoon to raft the 11km of Grade 5 rafting rapids the next day. I couldn’t resist having a go on the flying fox across the river. It was only February, but all through this area the poplar trees were already starting to drop leaves. The road rose and fell and twisted and turned through a huge station before we eventually emerged onto the Gentle Annie road about 50kms in from Taihape. We spend the night in cloud and misty drizzle right up at the top of the Kaweka Range crossing.
Then it was back onto the gravel again and down to the Ngaruroro River Valley. Seeing the Hawke’s Bay so green at this time of year was amazing, it’s usually parched and baked dry. The wide braided river with ‘roads’ out onto the expanses brought back childhood memories of tenting as a family on the river at Waipapa, and I couldn’t resist spending a night there. After a quick diversion to Hastings for supplies, we headed back inland up the Tutaekuri River for a couple of nights, the second with farmers Jeremy and Sharron who invited us to stay. Heading northwest from here, we proceeded through Puketitiri and on to the Mangatutu Hot Springs at the end of a 12kms track that was right up there with the best (read wildest) roads we have taken Daisy on so far.
We’d intended to spend the next two or three days there, but all plans went out the window when our tyre monitor warned of a puncture in the inner right rear wheel. We had a very quick hot dip before heading back to Hastings – 85kms and three and a half hours away – arriving at Carters Tyres on Waitangi Day evening with 22psi remaining in the tyre. The manager and his wife live above the premises and made sure we were comfortable with a chocolate cake, still warm from the oven! From there it was up through Napier, where we were ‘visited’ by a security guard at a beach at 5.30pm just as we were leaving for Lake Tutira for the night. One of the locals had reported us for ‘freedom camping’ at the site.
After a lovely night at the lake and meeting others on the road, we moved up to Putirino for a couple of days’ R&R. We then headed east for a couple of nights at Pilot Hill, before turning our attention back to the inland foothills of the Urewera National Park, and the spectacularly rugged high country that is farmed through this region. Leaving the north side of the Waikaremoana Road we were immediately on an unrelenting second gear climb of 400 metres out of the valley and onto the tops. The road ahead for the next two days was punctuated with such climbs, dropping back into the Ruakituri River valley, only to climb and descend back to it across continuing saddles – with the odd gate thrown in for good measure.
It was lush and green everywhere and most days there was a chill in the evenings – until the next heat wave arrived and we faced trying to settle for the night with the temperature still hovering around 30 degrees. The heat caught up with me during a day at Te Reinga Falls (almost a mini Huka Falls). I went too far cycling in the blinding heat and exceeded my operational envelope. I was delivered back to Val in a road maintenance inspector’s lovely air conditioned ute with the bike in the tray, suffering from heat exhaustion. (The very kind and concerned driver, Huri, had found him lying flat on the road – Val).
After a full recovery, we pushed ahead up the Tiniroto back road to Gisborne and took a side loop road. This absolutely reinforced our policy of poking our noses down all sorts of roads. Through the swirling confetti of falling poplar leaves, we descended into a spectacular river gorge formed by the Hangaroa River. What an amazing rock bottom the river runs over, with more water it would be very wild! A swim in the river where it flows through the Doneraille Park cooled us down before we continued up the Tiniroto Road, turning left into the amazing hinterland again – our fifth Hangaroa River gorge for the day. The next call was Rere, famous for its waterfall and rock slide in the Wharekopae River. Our meanderings continued up and down the narrow dirt roads, rising to 800 metres at one stage before we arrived at Motu, the starting point for a lot of Motor Rally special stages down to the coast.
The dirt roads throughout our trip north had three common features; heaps of slips/washouts; the sudden appearance of tar seal which meant the road was about to get extremely steep (up or down); and rough surface warnings which meant the frog-hopping goose step Daisy was already doing was about to get even worse. I guess the roads are all showing their age, not surprising considering the weather they endure, and only being patched to a passable state. These ‘side roads’ across the upper Hawke’s Bay and the Gisborne back blocks have taken us through some amazingly rugged country, huge in scale, scarred by slips, impressive in magnitude, daunting in steepness, and totally un-photographable. You have to take your hat off to the people who live, farm and raise families in these remote places, and to the truck drivers who bring their truck and trailer units across these roads fetching and carrying stock, wool and hay.
If you want a drive on an ex-stage coach track carved out of cliffs, which travels in and out of native bush with huge vistas from nearly 800 metres, but corners that wind your arms off and straights averaging just 20 metres, the Mighty Motu is the road for you. The record for the World Championship Rally Stage (rated third most dangerous in the world) is some 37 minutes at an average speed of over 77kph for the 40km. Leaving the road on the outside would give you several hundred metres of free fall before being stopped by bush and trees coming through the floor of the vehicle. Out of respect for Val and Daisy, and the (nil) oncoming traffic, we averaged a surprisingly robust 19kph with the 40kms taking two and a half hours, and enjoyed what I rate up with the wildest of the wild drives in New Zealand. The track is so remote I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet a stage coach, although bikes are more likely now it’s part of the Great New Zealand Cycle Trails.
We took a side jaunt 14kms up a tight gorge side road beside the Takaputahi River to spend the night at a very pleasant campsite. This was so tight in places the road was reduced to concrete platforms out from the cliffs, and of course well-established grass down the middle of the gravel. For the second day in a row, our in hunter-gatherer was well-employed in the blackberry bushes.
We managed to drive to a point right in the bush where someone had installed a rather serious locked gate. It would have been preferable for Val if they’d done this where there was room to turn around, rather than her having to walk me out for around 400 metres. We were 4kms beyond where the GPS thought the road ended at the time.
On this road we spotted the ultimate accessory that would help us in our adventures – a rotary saw and hopper on the end of an excavator arm, that munched its way through deep scrub as the caterpillar excavator advanced making a track for itself. I’m sure Daisy could be fitted with one.
Later the same day we saw the driver take his tractor up the riverbed to be picked up by helicopter and returned early the next morning. Finally we found ourselves in Opotiki, where Daisy was booked in for a full service as recovery for the 1600kms we’d travelled on predominantly unsealed roads since Wellington.
We spent 16 of the 24 nights parked up next to water in some form or another, so the last night in the NZMCA Park in the middle of Opotiki was a bit of a shock to the system. Even driving on a sealed highway with cars zooming past takes a bit of getting used to after being ‘bush’ for so long. I’m off to see if there is someone I can register my new World Speed Record for the ‘Motu by Motorhome’ with.