The bridges of Waioeka Gorge

The road traces two rivers, and along its route are seven laybys so that travellers can stop and breathe in the history, the scenery and the solitude of this spectacular passage. At the start of the drive, the Waioeka River – partly obscured by a tangle of willow branches – flows towards Opotiki, eventually meeting with the sea. It meanders through hills where a myriad of fern trees protrude like cocktail umbrellas through scrubby bush. Next stop was the first of two historic timber bridges. A short bushwalk leads to the ‘harp strung’ Tauranga Bridge, built across the Waioeka in about 1922, to give access to a side valley opened up for farming. Farming didn’t survive but the bridge did and, as possibly the only one of its kind left in New Zealand, has been extensively renovated. Beyond this the river runs more swiftly, cutting deep into the canyon. The cliffs became higher and steeper, the forest thicker. It was raining, as it often is here, and rocks were splattered over the roadside. A large slip was in the process of being removed. Waterfalls percolated down from the bush and splashed onto the tarmac and the trees dripped lichen. About halfway along, the road leaves the Waioeka River and latches onto the Opata Stream. On a lonely river bend we came across the Living Water Bush Café where Brenda sells her home-made cakes and husband Henare serves acceptable coffee from a tiny, gaily painted, vintage caravan. A few kilometres further on is the second saved and restored historic bridge. It spans the Manganuku River and, although it just looked like an attractive old wooden bridge to me, it’s more correctly a ‘Howe Truss’ construction bridge; one of very few left apparently and now part of the Motu Cycle Trail. Adjacent, surrounded by quiet hills, is a riverside DOC camp where once there was a homestead and a school on a 200-hectare farm. Even in the rain it was a lovely, lonely spot to spend the night. Jill Malcolm is a former editor of Motorhomes Caravans & Destinations and author of the Great Kiwi Motorhome Guide.
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