Getting Lost in New Zealand’s Backcountry
-An Unforgettable Road Trip-
Our adventure began with a near death experience. I departed Nelson with my girlfriend, Lisa, to catch the ferry in Picton that would take us to Wellington and the North Island. We planned a holiday road trip that would take us on a triangular route covering the North Island’s lower half. From Wellington we would head northwest and pick up the Forgotten World Highway in Stratford. Driving east to Tongariro National Park we would stay at the iconic Chateau Tongariro for Christmas and tackle one of the world’s greatest walks, The Tongariro Crossing, on Boxing Day. Afterward we would continue to east coast wine country in Napier and explore the Mahia Peninsula before returning south to Wellington for New Year’s Eve. Two days before Christmas our departure involved the typical frantic last minute searches for hiding cats, sun glasses and iPods but with fingers crossed and the car loaded we were ready. My 1964 Morris Mini Deluxe had recently enjoyed some much needed upgrades. The original 850cc engine had been removed, stored and replaced by a newly built and tuned 1300cc engine. New front disc brakes were added to accomodate the power and I had recently restored the original roof rack that came with the car adding some local Rimu hardwood runners to it for additional support.
The new engine was still very tight after having only been driven around 1000 kilometres over the weeks leading up to our departure. This meant that she was running a little hot and I was looking forward to breaking the engine in properly over the next week and a half of our road trip. With one eye constantly watching the temperature gauge we left Nelson excited to explore some New Zealand roads we had never driven before, especially the Forgotten World Highway. At around 30 minutes in Lisa was settling into her cramped side of the mini sorting maps and other items she felt would be good to keep handy. That’s when it happened. With a sudden crack the front right wheel was gone. At sixty miles an hour we slid into the oncoming traffic lane leaving a trail of sparks behind us. I was able to coax the remaining front left wheel to guide us back into our lane and eventually onto the shoulder of the road before colliding with any oncoming traffic. We slid for about 100 meters before coming to a stop by which time Lisa was already in tears. We were fine but the mini had suffered an odd breakdown. The wheel’s brand new lower ball joint had snapped at the bolt.
The wheel was still clinging to the chassis but kicked out horizontal to the ground resembling a severe compound ankle fracture that an athlete may endure. The car slid resting on the gearbox thankfully not grinding through to the oil reservoir. Once recomposed but well out of cell coverage, Lisa hitched a ride with a kind passer by to the nearest pub with a landline in Canvastown. With the Christmas holidays in full swing and half an hour in either direction from a town of any size, no one was interested in providing a rural tow, but at the pub speaking to the locals, she learned of someone who might be able to help. That someone turned out to be a fellow mini enthusiast with two classic minis and two garages full of spares just up the road. He was a man of few words but when he saw the mini in such a state you could read the care and concern on his face. He trailered the mini to his farm where he was not only able to provide us with the rare spare part we needed, but install it as well and get us back on the road within 2 hours of our breakdown. A real top Kiwi bloke. Unbelievable.
At the canvas town pub Lisa was also able to contact the Inter Islander ferry service and explain our predicament. Fortunately, due to the size of the car we were able to fit onto a later sailing that was fully booked. This meant arriving in Wellington late and driving through the night to Whanganui on the lower west coast of the North Island. Around midnight we blew a headlight but after the earlier drama it was a non-issue. Finally around 2:00am we arrived at our hotel ready for a drink and some sleep.
By ten o’clock the next morning Wanganui was behind us. Driving north Mt. Taranaki presided over the region’s rolling green paddocks serving as a magnificent marker at the beginning of the Highway 43, otherwise known as the Forgotten World Highway. The stunning and exotic beauty of the South Island had spoiled us and the early miles were, admittedly, a bit underwhelming but within an hour the farms and paddocks gave way to exhilarating roads winding through wild native bush leading into the heart of the North Island.
The Forgotten World Highway
“Now deep in the jungle, this was the forgotten world we were looking for.”
The “Republic of Whangamomona” would be our first stop in the Forgotten World. An historic frontier town, it became known by locals as The Republic of Whangamomona after residents became frustrated with local councils and in 1989 they held their very own “presidential elections.” The hotel, with a pub in its lobby, is an iconic watering hole located about half way along the highway. The perfect place for a quick pint. Refreshed and back on the road we pushed deeper into the interior where the highway, which was always more of a bumpy road to begin with, quickly turned to a gravel. The mini was in it’s element rallying through the twists and turns and enjoying the recent power upgrade. This was serious fun. Now deep in the jungle, this was the forgotten world we were looking for. Although relatively short at only 155 kilometres long, the Forgotten World Highway is full of hidden gems. Before reaching the end in Taumarunui, we took a side road to remote Mount Damper Falls- the tallest on the North Island. It was sometime around dusk that we emerged from the Forgotten World pleasantly tired and ready to rest for the night in Taumarunui.
Christmas Day came with the anticipation of reaching our next destination- Tongariro: New Zealand’s oldest National Park, a World Heritage Site and only a few hours drive southeast of Taumarunui. We would be spending Christmas and Boxing Day at The Chateau Tongariro. Situated beneath Mt. Ruapehu and very close to the volcanic peaks of Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, The Chateau is a majestic 1920’s hotel quite reminiscent of the Grand Budapest of Hollywood fame. We had booked in for Christmas brunch and after having nothing but take-aways for the past few days the sumptuous fare offered in such an opulent setting was a delightful Christmas gift to ourselves. We enjoyed the rest of the day at the Chateau and surrounding area knowing that tomorrow would be a Boxing Day to remember.
The idea of this entire road trip began with a desire to hike the Tongariro Crossing, possibly the world’s greatest day hike. Unfortunately the weather had closed in at the Chateau and it was looking more and more unlikely that we would be able to embark on our trek. Being a six to eight hour hike, the longer we waited the worse our chances became but at the last minute of the eleventh hour we finally got the go ahead from park officials and we were shuttled to the head of the track 15 minutes away. Our walk began near the base of the Tongariro Saddle. After a gruelling vertical climb we were rewarded with a spectacular volcanic panorama.
We entered another world traversing through two calderas- orange and red craters that one would expect to find on the surface of Mars. Over my right shoulder an imposing Mt. Ngaruhoe reprised it’s Tolkien role as Mt. Doom dominating the landscape. The stunning beauty of the emerald mineral pools and the Blue Lake edging the Red Crater made it difficult at times to appreciate what a volatile and potentially dangerous place we were playing in. 20 kilometres (12 miles) and seven hours later we decended to our rendezvous point where we met the shuttle that would take us back to the Chateau.
Tongariro National Park
Over the next week we lazily explored Napier and the Mahia Peninsula on the east coast of the North Island eventually driving south to Wellington for New Years eve. New Year’s Day we would catch the ferry back to Nelson and the South Island. Somewhere along the way we lost a rear wheel bearing and half a day in repairs but that is a story for another time. We had seen a lot on this trip and with a unique perspective. People will ask why we endured such a trip in an antique car, especially one as small and cramped as the mini. We had two perfectly good modern cars sitting in the driveway at home that would have made this trip much more comfortable and hassle free. Nearing home we drove over the piece of road where we nearly died so early into this trip. In that moment I contemplated that because of this car we had nearly met our demise but reflecting on our experiences in the mini, I realised more importantly that because of this little car we had a true adventure. We had lived.
Story and Photography by Ernie Little