Old Horopito School
Horopito- Old Coach Road History
In 1870 Julius Vogel, then Treasurer and later Premier of New Zealand, had a vision of a railway running the length of both islands – a main trunk line.
Gullies, mountains and elevated land
In 1883 the railheads had already reached Te Awamutu coming down from Auckland and Ohakune up from Wellington. John Rochfort, a man who had already surveyed much of young New Zealand, was dispatched to negotiate a route through the dramatically rugged terrain of the lower King Country and Waimarino districts. Rivers, gullies, mountains and elevated land, plus punishing cold in winter, were some of the difficulties that had to be overcome. It was to become Rochfort’s most important work.
As if the terrain wasn’t difficult enough, Rochfort and his party had to cope with Maori who weren’t keen on the idea and stopped the survey three times, turning the party back at gunpoint. They took Rochfort prisoner for three days, and refused to divulge place names for important aspects of the country. Eventually they relented and in 1887 Rochfort completed the work. Over the next twenty years the lines from north and south became closer.
Filling the gap
A road to join the two ends was proposed in 1904. The Public Works Department reasoned that a service road would have to be constructed to transport men and materials to the remaining construction sites, and it would also allow a light coach to ferry passengers from one railhead to the other.
In 1906 the railheads were at Raurimu and Ohakune but work slowed as engineering solutions were planned and implemented. Construction involved building three major viaducts – the huge Hapuawhenua, which carries a world engineering heritage listing, the Taonui, and the Makatote - plus the famous Raurimu spiral, a striking engineering feat of its day - that allows the track to climb up to the Plateau. The engineer who designed them, Peter Seton Hay, the first BA graduate of the University of Otago, was seen as a bit of a genius. Ironically he died before they were completed, of illness gained from exposure while inspecting work on the North Island main trunk line.
Work on the road proceeded under the supervision of William Furkert, engineer-in-chief of the rail project based in Ohakune. The gap to be bridged was 38.5 kilometres.
A bridle track surveyed by Rochfort in 1884, running from Ohakune to Waimarino, was chosen as the service road. It had been upgraded to a dray road in 1895. Early in 1906 ‘every effort’ was made to have the road in ‘practicable order for summer coach traffic’. The road was widened and paved using setts – rectangular pieces of stone with a convex top – which were hand made onsite. Rock for the setts and larger boundary stones was blasted off quarry faces and then shaped. An access road, also paved in setts, built to link the Taonui Viaduct with a future railhead at Horopito, eventually replaced the northern part of the road and remains intact.
Conditions for workers, and sometimes their families, were punitive. Little imagination is needed to understand how it would have been to live in a ‘modified’ tent at that altitude during winter. Tents were supplied by the government but maintained by the men and often had added slab walls and corrugated iron chimneys. Bunks, in one recollection, were constructed of bush vines and tightly stretched sacking. Food was corned beef or bacon with vegetables grown on site. The only fresh meat was native birds.
Known as the ‘Matapuna Ohakune Coach Road’ the entire road was completed and the first coach run took place by the end of 1906. Taking about four hours the coach trips were timetabled to link with the trains. By the end of 1907 the gap between railheads had shrunk to 29 kilometres, by March 1908 it was down to 18. In February 1908 a reporter from The Wanganui Herald took the rail-coach-rail trip from Wellington to Auckland and wrote this description of the journey from Ohakune to Horopito.
Quite an imposing array of vehicles – about nine in number – awaits the passengers, who can step off the train on to the wooden platform improvised from fallen logs, and board the coach without getting to the ground. It is a strange sight this, the train run right in amongst the trees … and the collection of coaches in the heart of the bush. The overland route affords sights which will not be available when the train tears through from Auckland to Wellington in 20 hours.
About a dozen board our coach, and with five good horses – three in the lead – we are soon rattling along over a good service road which is metaled from quarries situated at convenient spots along the route. … A telephone wire accompanies the road, suspended to trees along the track, hanging in loops and jerking round angles which would make a city lineman shed tears. Presently we reach a little bush settlement called Te Raungakapu, where mail is delivered and the passengers regale themselves with hop beer. The railway line is crossed at this spot by the road which afterwards climbs up a thickly wooded hill, winding in and out to negotiate the hill, winding in and out to negotiate the gullies. A way down below – 300 feet, the driver will tell you – is the railway track, itself more than 2600 feet above the sea, so that the road just here must be nearly 3000 feet high. The line is crossed again at Taonui Viaduct, which is already planked and railed, and waiting the rail connection either side. Passengers are invited to walk across the viaduct and some of the more adventurous spirits do so while the coach winds around the road underneath. Its about 100 feet high and is built on a distinct curve, but the iron and wire railing gives one a sense of security. (The Wanganui Herald 15 February 1908)
It was all over
The main trunk line opened on 9 November 1908. The first train through without overnight stops was on 15 February 1909. The road was now little used and northern sections were incorporated into State Highway 49 and later sealed. What remained was used spasmodically by locals until 1964 when the Ohakune Borough Council put logs across it prevent access. Then in 1987 changes to the main trunk line, including construction of a new Hapuawhenua Viaduct, required a large cutting to be created near the Taonui Viaduct, cutting the coach road in two places and dumping fill on it.
Authenticity of the road
The Ohakune Old Coach Road upgrade from a horse pack-track to low maintenance coach road took place when the first motor cars arrived in New Zealand. Because it was abandoned before it needed to be upgraded for motor traffic its integrity has been maintained.
Most of the remaining road is paved in setts, a rare and probably unique surface in New Zealand. Although it offered a bumpy coach ride, it was the best, and possibly the sturdiest, rural road constructed at that time.
Nearly 100 years later, in 2002, only a few people knew that an old overgrown road existed in the bush above Ohakune. Why it was there had long been forgotten.
In October 2002, John McIlroy, a local deer hunter who knew where some of the road was, took Errol Vincent and Mike Ryan bush bashing along the overgrown, mostly hidden Skyline Section.
Department of Conservation historians supported research of official government documents for clues as to why the road was there.
Further research was undertaken at Archives New Zealand and Alexander Turnbull Library in June 2003.
Recognition.The information collected was presented in submissions to New Zealand Historic Places Trust and to Tongariro National Park Board, requesting that this historic road be recognised and preserved as an important part of New Zealand's development.
Historic Places Trust gave the road their highest Category 1 Classification. Tongariro National Park Board agreed to treat the road as a managed site. Now the road must be protected and not allowed to deteriorate.
In 2005 local people and representatives from Tongariro National Park formed a committee to manage the restoration of the road.
Clearing proceeded slowly, with help from Ohakune 2000, Tongariro Natural History Society members and others keen to see the road opened.
When the Ohakune Coach Road was chosen as part of Prime Minister John Key's Great New Zealand cycleway programme, government funding became available.
The road was cleared, drains opened, bridges built and new cycle tracks created.