Waitotara Valley Safari (Part 2)

The weekend following the trials doubleheader near Ohingaiti, the Manawatu 4WD Club hosted the 2020 Charity Safari at Ngamatapouri, in the Waitotara Valley, at the end of the countries longest NO EXIT Road.

In stark contrast to last year’s first running of the event, this year entrants were greeted by hot, sunny weather, and dust, lots of dust, 100mm deep in places, dust!!!

The Dust!!!

On check-in each entrant was allocated a ‘team’ named after a native tree. A total of 6 teams were formed, each about 15 entrants, with a club leader, trail car, and support vehicle then added.

The Safari was divided into 6 ‘sections’ of about the same duration, and each team started out at a different point each morning and completed 3 sections both days.

The small groups, spread about the area, worked very well, with very few hold-ups. Even lunch breaks and coffee stops were factored in.

Turning off State H/Way 3 about halfway between Wangaui and Hawera, Waitotora Valley Road is the countries longest No Exit Road and follows the Waitotora River 55km inland to Ngamatapouri.

As you can imagine, it’s not a State H/Way, it’s narrow and winding, and although tar sealed for its length, takes a bit of care as it’s pretty busy at times, with stock trucks, logging trucks, farm machinery and honey trucks joining the local traffic.

Lining up at Makowhai Station.

By the time we got the jeep and caravan to the Safari HQ at Ngamatapouri, it’s fair to say ‘we were pretty focussed’. We could certainly see why registration and scrutineering had been scheduled for Friday. Getting in, and getting set-up, would have taken up much of the first day otherwise.

Our day 1 started from opposite the Ngamatapouri School, and headed up Taumatatahi Road, following the Waitotara River, before heading off-road onto Makowhai Station, where we were to spend the whole day.

And, as usual, we headed for the high country, and possibly the countries most scenic picnic table.  A coffee break here gave us a chance to take in the majesty of Makowhai, and our first views of the central high country, not as far away as you would think.

Looking across Mokawhai with Mt Ruapehu in the background.

The station covers nearly 9000ha and has over 200km of tracks crisscrossing the area. We will cover about 60km today, so we are just scratching the surface.

One of the ironies of life at the top of the Waitotara River Valley these days is the replanting and regeneration of the Manuka trees, that earlier generations had spent most of their efforts trying to eradicate. Makowhai Station is also the home of Settlers Honey, and their Hives and Bees were constant companions on the day.

From our tea break, we head down across the main part of the ‘Manuka Farm’, past the site of one of the station houses that were part of the early makeup of the area, before becoming part of Makowhai, and into the Moeawatea Valley.

The triumphant return of the Manuka!

“(Todays) loop is a journey through history,” our Safari information brochure tells us. “Sets of English trees dot the tracks marking where settlers had once set up home.”

Most fundraiser Safaris cover country that has significant historical and settlement stories, but this day up the Waitotara and Moeawata Valleys has more than usual, with both Rewi Alley and Ernie Matthews having played a large role in the history of the area.

Although it is Rewi Alley who is the more famous, his efforts over the years he spent breaking in the area are overshadowed by his legacy in China.  His work for the Chinese Communist Party saw him become a key figure in the establishment of the Chinese Industrial Collectives, and a much-venerated figure in that country.

Ernie Matthews, on the other hand, is a true Kiwi legend, especially in the 4WD world. A visit to Ernies, ‘the old man of the Moey’ was almost a pilgrimage “back in the day”.

“You can also stop at Ernie Matthews grave,” says the info sheet. “He died in 2011, but his story is very much alive in Ngamatapouri. The shearer farmed the land for 60 years. He walked everywhere.”

The Old Man of the Moey. RIP Ernie.

“The home he left sits there almost untouched. Coffee and food tins sit on his kitchen shelf, with dishes still out drying on the bench.”

Just up the road is the old shearing shed, built entirely of split wood.

We got to spend a bit of time exploring at Ernie’s, even getting to walk through the underpass he had hand-dug to allow the local stream to flow under the road.

From there we moved just a bit up the road to the Historic Opaku Lodge for lunch, then a proper introduction to the area by Tony Woodill, a Waverly resident, at Rewi Alley’s house. Tony has spent most of his life living and working on a number of farms in the district and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the valley and its history.

The rest of the day was spent getting back out to Ngamatapouri, climbing the 15km track Ernie used to walk to check his mail, to the Moewata Road.

The Letterbox at the top of Ernies ‘Driveway’.

Over the winter months, this road becomes so treacherous it is closed by the local council. The track, then road, became another exercise in dealing with the dust hazard, as we headed back to the camp, dinner, and prizegiving.

And tomorrow!

As always with these trips, there is more left unseen than seen, and we headed off back down NZs longest NO EXIT Road, vowing to return for longer.

Fortunately, the Manawatu Club is planning to return next year. We’ve already booked our place!!

The Manawatu Club had a couple of Photographers traveling with the groups over the weekend. To see their work click here.


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