Epic Whanganui Tramp

A trip report from a five day 100km tramp through Whanganui National Park, starting at Whakahoro, down the Mangapurua track to the Bridge to Nowhere, jetboating to the the other side, and tramping the Matemateonga track out to Aotuhia , past The Bridge to Somewhere finishing at Whangamomona Pub.


Day One: Whakahoro to Johnson’s campsite (8hrs)

P1000255We left our car with Blazing Paddles, and were transported down to Whakahoro, along with a group of excited tourists about to start the Whanganui (River) Journey.

The track starts from the public toilets at Whakahoro (a winding and nauseating 1hr drive from Taumarunui).

For the first two hours into the tramp, we were piloted by a flock of angsty sheep as the track traversed private farmland, before then entering Whanganui National Park.

The track is actually the old, now abandoned, Mangapurua road, an essential service link for farmers in the valley some 80 years earlier. This area is as rugged as it gets. It’s steep, rainy, and service access is via the Whanganui River. So, from the ‘what in the world were they thinking files’ the NZ government, in 1914, allocated random lots of land to returned WWI serviceman, who had been certified as medically unfit for the army and in need of a job. Even with modern machinery in today’s times, it is painstakingly clear this land could never be farmed. But, buoyed by more optimism than I can imagine, these newbie farmers persevered. They cleared the bush with axes, and burnt the scrub. They tramped 20km to the Whanganui River to pick up a bag of grass-seed, tramped back and seeded their fields. And when that bug was empty they repeated, inumerous times more. They built houses and fences. They sheared their sheep and laboriously transported the wool down to the river, for transport to Whanganui town, where if lukcy, the price fetched for the wool, would cover the cost of transport. They fought the forever encroaching bush, the ongoing landslides, as the cleared dead tree roots rotted, and patiently resowed the grass. They lobbied the government to build bridges, and maintain the Mangapurua Road. But one by one the land got the better of them. Optimism was replaced by despair (or maybe sanity) and they walked off, leaving their homes behind. By 1942 only three farms remained, and then came the final blow, a devastating landslide, making the road impassable. The government declared it would fix it no more, forcing the remaining farmers to also abandon their homes and seek a future elsewhere. The land reverted back to the government, and eventually to DOC, becoming incorporated into Whanganui National Park.

Now DOC is embarking on not only upgrading the track, (the original Mangupuroa road), but also preserving the sites of the farmsteads and, since it is mostly flat, grading the road to become a great cycle track.

Entering Whanganui National Park on the MangapuruaAs we entered Whanganui National Park, after approximately 4km from the track start, it was evident this part had not yet been upgraded. The original road was still visible in some places, but in other areas, bad weather, slips, and overgrowth had turned it into a challenging tramp. However, approximately an hour in, we started coming across airlifted track maintenance supplies, stream crossings became solidly built bridges, the track became wider, and finally we came across a digger, which presumably had started at the other track-end and was slowly bulldozing its way forward. The track had just became a cycleway. From there on it was easy tramping – solid bridges, flat terrain, and good sign-posting, with plenty of old land clearings for lunching opportunities.

The track continued to wind its way through the valley, past old farm land, with the farmer’s name recorded at each site. And each time we passed another ex farm site we stopped and pondered – ‘Really? They lived here? They tried farming this? What in the world were they thinking?’.

Behives on the MangupuruaFirst section of cycle track on the MangupuruaIMG_0382

Another couple of hours on, the track then begins to gently rise over the hills to the first camp site, the Mangapurua trig at around six hours in. At this point, we decided to continue on to the second camp site, two hours along, allowing us sufficient time to get to our designated transport point at the river the following day. (As it turns out we had plenty of time, and could have camped at the trig).

Finally, eight hours later, after dodging a family of goats, and passing through many more isolated clearings bespeckled with chimneys, pine trees, honey suckles and various other exotic natives having no earthly business in a native forest park, we reached the second camp site, Mr Johnson’s farmstead. All that was left was an old chimney, some thriving honeysuckle, and a few towering deciduous trees. In his heyday Mr Johnson was also the valley’s postman, and served as the vital communications link to the other farmers in the area.

P1000169P1000196Johnson's Camp Site

The camp site was pleasant, and water was available from a nearby stream. But, it was infested with bunnies. Hundreds of them. This caused me some concern. However, I was too tired to be kept awake by the bunnies of death, and evidently survived the night without a scratch.


Day Two: Johnsons’ to Puketotara hut via Bridge To Nowhere and Matemateonga (4 hours + 1 hour)

This was the most scenic and pleasant section of the Mangapurua track. It’s the favourable side of the valley with gentle rolling grassy flats, instead of the intimidatingly steep ridges bordering the track from our previous day’s tramp. But slowly even this land is now reverting back to bush, helped along by exotic honeysuckle serving as a protector of native fauna. There are many more artefacts to be seen from the early farming community – chimneys, fences, stoves, and exotic trees marking driveways up to homesteads.

Poplars marking a farmer's driveway P1000224 P1000229

Each site tells a story. Perhaps the most interesting is the Bettjeman’s, the last to leave the land, after farming it for nearly 30 years. Arriving in 1917, by 1942, they had built a gorgeous homestead, as well as quarters for their service staff, an ingenious totara refrigeration system at the nearby stream, tennis courts, an orchard, and landscaped gardens. As their neighbours abandoned the land, they absorbed the cleared land into their own, and may have even remained viable, had they not received the devastating death blow to close the road by the Fraser government. Not to be outdone, the forever resourceful and optimistic Bettjeman’s left their 25 year labour of love behind, moved to Te Kuiti, to start over, again, where they continued to farm very successfully for many more years.

IMG_0380Four hours on, and after nearly 40km, since setting out at Whakahoro, we had yet to come across another tramper. The track began winding its way along steep bluffs and through thick forest. And then, as we turned a corner, suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we saw hoards of people taking photos and loitering on an impressive arched concrete bridge.

We had come from Nowhere and crossed the bridge to get to the other side.

The Bridge to Nowhere was intended to establish a vital link to the Mangapurua valley. It crosses a massive ravine, and was intended to make the road passable by motor vehicle from the river end. Alas by the time it was completed most of the farms had been abandoned. The bridge was barely used, and perhaps its most useful function was a sheep-pen for one of few the remaining nearby farmers. Within four years of opening, it was overgrown and forgotten. It had become a bridge to nowhere.

Once on the other side, we were offered tea by one of the jet boat operators, and despite being four hours early, were given a lift to the other side of the Whanganui River to start the Matemateonga track.

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Like the Mangapurua track, the Matemateonga served a similar purpose, and is an old service road to the Whanganui River, which at the time, was the main access point for supplies. (The alternative was the now Forgotten World Highway, SH43, which was longer and more difficult terrain). However unlike the Mangapurua, the Matemateonga has since reverted back to heavy dense bush, with the track overgrown in places. In the few visible clearings all that can be seen is 1000s of hectares of hills and forest as far as the eye can see.

Having come from nowhere, we felt even more isolated.

NowhereThe first part of Matemateonga track is a steep 400m climb up to the ridge. Other than the optional side-trip to Mt Humpheries, this is the only hill on the entire track, and makes for an exhausting climb.

And it doesn’t muck around. The track is short and direct to the point, reaching the hut in just over an hour, where we met up with Dave and his sister, Rebecca, for the next part of the tramp.


Day Three: Puketotara to Pouri (via lunch at Ngapurua Hut) (8 hrs, 22km)

It was bound to happen on a five day tramp in December. Rain. And in typical Whanganui fashion there was no mucking about. The rain was torrential, and remained for the entire day. Fortunately, this was the best day for it. Ahead of us we had a 22km, 8hr tramp, through dense bush. The track was overgrown, and unmaintained in places giving us a sense of ruggedness with just a slight hint of danger. However, the thick forest cover shielded us from most of the bad weather, although it didn’t stop us from soaking through all layers of clothing. We trampled on, and four hours in, met a very inviting hut complete with fireplace. I did not want to move. “We can change our plans”. “Let’s just stay here”. “We’ll make up the distance the following day”, I reasoned. But, the rest of the tramping party had other ideas. It was a quick cooked soup lunch, before squelching on in the tepid foot bath sloshing in my boots. At least if it was really dry and hot the next day, I’d still have access to several litres of water.

The rest of the tramp was easy. Along the way we P1000289spotted a couple of goats and one kaka. The track remained flat, and although overgrown in places, is clearly visible. However, DOC is upgrading this track also, and closer to the second hut, it resembled more the original road, then the rugged trail we had grown accustomed to.

Four hours later we came to Pouri hut. This one, I was allowed to stay in. We made fire, dried our clothes, and savoured hot pasta dinners followed with marshmallow-laden hot chocolates.

Sleep came easily and early.

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Day Four: Pouri to Atohuia (via Mt Humpheries and Bridge to Somewhere) (8 hrs)

This, was probably the most exciting part of the tramp, particularly as it dangerously deviated from the Matemateonga, off to an unmarked track (more later).

We set off at 8am in the morning, and roughly an hour in, reached the turn-off for Mt Humpheries, a local maximum in the vast area. The mountain is an easy 45 minute climb, and well worth it. Even on a hazy day it paints a picture of the remoteness of the area, as well as showcasing the regenerating bush on ex-farmlands from the “what in the world were they thinking” files.

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From Mt Humpheries, its another one hour walk to a mysterious clearing. There, there is a signpost marking the continuation of the track. But, if you look closely, to the right you’ll also see a secret unmarked track. This is the original Matemateonga Road. The DOC signposted Matemateonga track deviates from here through a steep saddle. The old Matemateonga Road continues on a gentle downhill slope through private land to the Atohuia Station. Despite being ‘unmapped’, and ‘unmaintained’, we found trackP1000312 markers, and the track was very easy to follow – probably easier to walk than the DOC traverse over the Kohi Saddle. Several hours later we entered active farmland, piloted by more angsty sheep, and began the tramp down to the Atohuia Road-end*.

From there, it was off with the damp boots, and on with the jandals, as we started the short trek down the gravel road to the Bridge to Somewhere, before then following the old Whangamomona Road winding its way along the river and through native and regenerated bush populated by a plethora of grazing animals. The land through here is a continuation of the Whanganui Forest Park, and is also land proven to have been too difficult too farm in times gone by. There are no fences, and cattle, sheep, and goats wander about aimlessly. Nonetheless, there are plenty of secluded clearings making for lovely camping spots, and following the rain, water was plentiful from nearby streams. However, in drier periods, it may pay to stock up with water from the last hut.

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Somewhat tired, we stopped at what appeared to be a scenic plateau off the track by the Whangamomona River. Little did we know, this was also bovine headquaters, and for most of the night, we were able to listen to the complexities of their communications. My memory is hazy, but I think it went something like this:
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Bovine 1: “Moo! I’m over here!”
Bovine 2: “Moo! And I’m over here!”
Stupid cows.


Day Five: Atohuia to Whangamomona Tavern (4 hours)

This is an easy tramp along the old Whangamomona road. The track passes over rugged bridges, through tunnels, bush, and grassy clearings, as it snakes its way along the Whangamomona River. As the track heads closer to the pub, the road becomes less track like and more four wheel drive like, then it becomes more cycling like, before becoming even passable with Toyota Corollas. Finally, The last 500m are sealed, marking the end of our journey, at the iconic Whangamomona Pub.

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Whangamomona town is an interesting area for several reasons. It is one of only a few places recorded as a micronation in various internet sites. In 1989, Taranaki District Council redrew the local boundaries. This would have forced IMG_0476Whangamomona to become part of the Manawatu, which the locals were not too happy about. So, they did what any sensible body would do, and declared themselves a republic. They have yearly elections, and presidents of the past include Murt the turtle, and Billy the goat. Politics aside, Whangamomona also has some lovely old historic buildings, and can boast having the best coffee and beer for nearly 100km.

At the hotel we met up with Tim, our designated transporter, and settled in for the night.** The hotel is awesome. It’s well maintained, and looks gorgeous. It is also for sale. This might mean our rather intriguing, and seemingly all too common Fawlty Tower like experience with the owner will become a thing of the past. Unless it is bought by another person who hates people. In any event, I’m keen to return, once it’s under new management.

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View all photos here.

*We contacted the station prior to the tramp asking for permission to cross through, but it seems it’s become a popular route for trampers. The station also has shearing quaters, which apparently may also be available for tramping accomodation, depending on time of year.
**For trampers with no Tim available, Blazing Paddles, and other tour operators will also provide transport back to ‘Nui.

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