BEFORE long,” enthused The New Zealand Motor World in 1960, “the Ministry of Works will have brought about a transformation for the man in the driver’s seat and Waioeka will come into its own as one of the loveliest drives anywhere, its hazards forgotten.”
Close to 60 years on, State Highway 2 through the Waioeka gorge is indeed one of the loveliest drives, a bush-clad journey towards Opotiki. Hazards aren’t altogether forgotten — rock falls are regular and as recently as July the road was closed for a week — but compare that to the original Waioeka road that first opened in 1929.
“This road was only about 12 feet wide [and] The possibility of being trapped in the gorge by floods or rock falls had to be taken into serious account,” described the Motor World writer.
Another account of the time, titled Traveller’s Talk, recalls that the 1930s Waioeka road presented “innumerable narrow hair-pin bends, so many of them too narrow for cars to pass. Often in bad weather traffic was held up by slips sometimes necessitating the clearing away of even a large tree fallen across the track.”
A couple of years ago, I emailed briefly with Roger Knight, who travelled the road as a child from the late-1940s. “On one very memorable occasion, Traffords hill was being worked on and our little Morris E Type was towed behind a bulldozer with a wire rope attached to the front axle. The mud was at least two feet deep and we were sort of swinging from side to side.”
More recently, I emailed with Joyce Armstrong, who lived in Moutohora and Whitikau in the late-1920s and 1930s. “I can remember the service car having to make two attempts to negotiate some of the hairpin bends,” Joyce wrote of the 1940s Waioeka trip. “In the early stages there were supposed to be 32 open watercourses.”
Midway along what was clearly once a difficult and unpredictable journey, one of the last major waterways to be securely crossed was the Manganuku Stream. Built in 1928, this bridge was a ‘Howe Truss’, its timber diagonal framing forming an XX pattern, crossed by vertical steel rods.
This 24 metre bridge still stands, now peacefully distant from highway rush due to a 1964 road realignment. Howe Truss road bridges are now rare and it carries a Historic Places Category 2 listing.
Until 2015, the Manganuku bridge was seriously showing its age. But, fortunately for the long-term preservation of a significant piece of New Zealand’s transport heritage, the Department of Conservation led a major restoration project.
“One of the defining characteristics of this structural type is that they can be repaired quite readily, using traditional techniques, Project Manager Will Bamford explained to me.
“The Manganuku bridge is possibly the last surviving Howe Truss road bridge in the North Island. It is an ideal example to be saved for posterity because it’s an easy maintenance prospect, being close to the main highway, with easy access.”
The authenticity of the structure and all the values — historic, aesthetic and technical — should be secure for the next 50 years.
As well as being part of epic 1930s-1950s travel tales involving the Waioeka gorge road, the Manganuku site originally had a school and the farm homestead of the Gibson family.
Under a government scheme to open up such unproductive land, farm settlements pushed deep into the Waioeka and surrounding valleys from the early 1900s. The first ballot for sections was made in 1906.
The intrepid, though ultimately unsuccessful, settlers campaigned vigorously for the Waioeka road to be built. Back then, the main route between Opotiki and Gisborne was what’s become the Motu Road — now increasingly popular as part of the Motu Trails cycleway (www.motutrails.co.nz).
A news report from the mid-1920s confirms that, as a result of the settlers’ campaigning, a sum of four thousand pounds had been allocated for widening the Waioeka road. Fair to say, costs to develop roads of significance were a little cheaper back then.
Further down the valley towards Opotiki is another superb example of bridge engineering: the Tauranga bridge.
This was built around 1922 to secure access over the Waioeka to the Tauranga stream valley, which had been cleared for farming. An earlier bridge had been wiped out in a monumental 1918 flood that also destroyed the Motu settlement and Pakihi valley bridges.
The Waioeka is usually modest but can reach extraordinary heights. Early this year the gorge water level reader recorded a peak of eight metres above normal flow.
Tauranga bridge is far more elaborate than Manganuku, a 57m spanning of the valley with a deck that’s held up by multiple suspension cables. It’s known as a ‘harp strung’ bridge, though with cables angling in from either side and from both banks — sharp strokes across the sky — it looks more like a giant ‘cat’s cradle’ than a harp.
It’s excellent photographic material, endless angles of weathered grey wood and black cable contrasting against the soft roll and flow of water. You can see no sign of modern times.
Multiple cable suspension bridges were widely used in New Zealand from around 1880-1930. Harp strung bridges were far less common, and it seems Tauranga bridge may be New Zealand’s only surviving example of a harp strung road bridge. In recognition, it carries a Historic Places Category 1 listing.
Fortunately, this bridge too has received extensive restoration. The structure is old and the original decking is wrinkled, but it’s far from decrepit.
Barring the unforeseen, it’ll see in its centenary in a few years.
Tauranga and Manganuku bridges are both well back from the road so there’s no instant appeal to stop. It’s easy to glance at your watch, think ‘next time’ — and drive on up the highway.
But give them some time. They’re fascinating pieces of our history, a glimpse of how travel was, a lifetime ago.
• Jim notes that in September, Joyce Armstrong MNZM passed away. He is grateful to have had the opportunity to learn her recollections of 70-80 years ago.