Great drives: Taupo to Napier

Leaving Taupo to tool across the Rangitaiki Plains under a high, bright sky with the road stretching out like a grey belt in from of me I feel elated and free. It’s not always that way. Sometimes it’s only the wind that’s unfettered or a dark sky weighs down on a sullen landscape but even that cannot destroy my unfettered joy of being on this road. In places it passes through upright rows of pinus radiata that form the southern tip of the mighty Kaingaroa Forest. Then about 45 kilometres south of Taupo, the Waipunga River Valley marks the end of the flat and the start of the winding climb into the forest covered hills. Among the birch trees on the water’s edge is a quiet picnic spot and a little further on a lookout over an impressive waterfall. Whatever the weather, the drive over the peaks is always dramatic. The Turangakuma and Titiokura ranges once formed a formidable barrier to this route. Even today, roadside notices give fair warning of fog, high winds, ice, frosts, rockfalls and snow. But the road itself has been smoothed and contoured to ease a journey that now only takes two hours. In 1874, the one horse-and-coach service struggled along for two days. Every trip was a gamble then. Horses were lost to the rivers and coaches overturned. Even 60 years ago the five-hour journey was still a gamble. I remember winding over the gravel road in my father’s Zephyr Six Mk11 and having to get out and wait for the engine to cool, or to walk around corners that were too sharp and steep for the loaded car to manoeuvre. We would often be the only vehicle on the road, and on the summit of Turangakuma we stopped to eat cold sausages and boil the Thermette. Today, convoys of trucks, hauling gigantic loads of logs and other goods, thunder to a stop in the same place as their drivers revive in a truck-stop cafe. From the summit, the road plunges towards the bridge that crosses the deep gorge of the Mohaka River. From there it rises steeply again to top the Titiokura Saddle before the long descent to the Esk Valley. On the left is Trelinnoe, a spectacular 12-hectare garden and cafe, and as the road gradually winds into the valley, the spectacular highlands morph into gentle hills covered with groomed vineyards and orchards that are dotted with the haunts of the bon vivant – a world away from the road just travelled. Jill Malcolm is a former editor of Motorhomes Caravans & Destinations and author of the Great Kiwi Motorhome Guide.
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