“Mr Buscke would like to give a word of warning to other motorists who may be thinking of taking on the trip,” The Poverty Bay Herald sagely cautioned in February 1914.
“He frankly confesses that it is the most dangerous trip in New Zealand, and he would not take it on again, except in case of urgent business.”
Mr Charles Buscke had just driven the first motor car over the full length of the road. To be fair, it wasn't yet properly open. As well as a dozen river crossings there were many slips. In places, the road was so narrow the travellers had to measure to see if there was sufficient width for the car.
Just over a century later, the Motu Road has been tamed — somewhat — but it remains a remarkable backcountry journey, with 48km of gravel, a highpoint of almost 800 metres altitude and vast forest panoramas.
From Matawai, the road cuts off SH2 and heads to Motu. Much of this flat, sealed 14km is built over the former railway line that once stretched from Gisborne to Moutohora. You can still see the remains of the old Matawai railway station platform and, near Motu, what's left of an impressive railway bridge, built in 1917, that was once just before the railhead.
From about 1930, the Motu Road was replaced as the main road by the Waioeka gorge road — now State Highway 2. But for about 15 years, the Motu Road was a crucial transport link. Travellers would take the train from Gisborne, dine or stay the night at a large hotel in Motu, then carry on to Opotiki and beyond.
The road was much praised for natural beauty.
“The view from [near Motu] challenges description,” wrote one journalist in 1920. Another, in 1922, “Opotiki to Motu, crossing three of the ranges, was worth trumpeting round the whole world. Its beauty was something extraordinary.”
Equally, the road was known for being uncompromising. Newspaper headlines from the 1920s include, ‘FALL OF HUNDRED FEET — OCCUPANTS' LUCKY ESCAPE,' ‘CAR SKIDS OVER CLIFF, CAUGHT HALF-WAY DOWN,' and simply, ‘ASTONISHING ESCAPE'.
After the Waioeka road was opened up, the Motu Road was still used by adventurous motorists and cycle tourists — and stock.
In the early-1930s, tens of thousands of sheep were mustered over both the Waioeka and Motu routes. But huge flocks down the Waioeka frustrated some motorists and raised the ire of the Main Highways Board.
In 1933, a bylaw was passed to prohibit mobs of sheep from being taken down the Waioeka. Next year, it was claimed over 100,000 sheep were taken over the Motu. Several drovers unsurprisingly ignored the bylaw and there was a court case. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, a new bylaw was passed, and sheep were allowed down the Waioeka from January-March.
Plenty of mobs were still taken over the old road. In a 2007 history, ‘The Motu and Beyond', Dick Twistleton recalled, “From Motu until they reached the Waiau Valley [near Opotiki], they would engage an extra drover to help get the stock through . . . Each drover would also have a packhorse to carry his spare clothes, bedding, ground sheet, food and dog tucker . . . stock paddocks en-route were provided by the local authority or sometimes by some farmers. The drovers each night would count the number of stock into the holding paddock to check that they had not lost any.”
Roll on the 1980s and 1990s, the Motu Road became famed for an altogether different speed — motor rallying. The road was rated as one of the world's great rally stages. Loved and feared in equal measure, it was key in the Rally of New Zealand, which was part of the World Rally Championship series.
“It was epic,” is how redbull.com described the Motu a few years back. “Every corner was heavily cambered, so if you got it wrong you'd be mercilessly spat into the scenery.” The stage was won three times by Scot Colin McRae who set a record of 37 minutes to drive 48km. That doesn't sound particularly quick but, out on the road, an average speed of 70 kilometres-an-hour defies belief.
The world rally series last stopped by in 1996, but in recent years the Motu Road has been used by the Silver Fern Rally and Rally Gisborne.
Beyond motorsport, the Motu Road is woven into the history of several adventure pursuits. It was at the sharp edge of commercial cycle tourism when, in 1990, Dreamers & Eastcapers was launched by Tim de Jong and for four years offered supported cycle rides and other activities. The company took around 1000 riders over the road.
In 1994, the Motu Challenge was launched, billed as the North Island's version of the mighty Coast to Coast multisport race. Motu Challenge remains one of the country's toughest races, 172km of biking, running and kayaking; coupled with bike-only and bike/run options. The event starts and finishes in Opotiki and includes the full length of the Motu Road.
The latest twist to the road's much-storied history has been Motu Trails, one of 22 Great Rides on The New Zealand Cycle Trail. Motu Trails officially launched in mid-2012. Since then thousands of keen cyclists have pedalled through the hills.
Some go fast, others amble. For the latter, Motu Road accommodation is available at Matawai Camp & Store, The Weka Nest (Motu), Motu Community House, and Toatoa Farmstay.
There's shuttle transport (minimum numbers apply) from both Gisborne and Opotiki, enabling ride options such as a drop-off at almost 800m elevation and riding down to sea level. Some riders link onto Rere Falls Trail, staying at Te Wera Homestead and/or Eastwoodhill Arboretum.
Cycling the Motu Road, you do have to remember it's open to cars and has some forestry traffic. But the average vehicle count is around 20 per day. Often, you see only a couple of vehicles per hour, with a lot of space in-between — definitely one of New Zealand's iconic wilderness roads.
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