It was Kevin Isemonger’s suggestion that started it.

I was collecting the new Defender from Landrover to explore the Forgotten World Highway, on the way to the Taranaki Best Pairs Trials, when Kevin, who was there discussing the 2020 Car of the Year, the 1953 series 1 Landrover “Oxford”, set to tour NZ early next year, told me about Kiwi Road, and the tunnels.

So, having done the FWH on the way down to the trials, we decided to forgo the return trip back through Whangamomona, and see this apparently unmissable “proper back road.”

Which also meant we could add a visit to Damper Falls, one of the North Islands’ highest waterfalls.

Not being too sure of the difficulty level, or current state, of the road, we decided to leave the Caravan at the Urenui Campground for the day, and do a loop up to the falls in the Defender, and explore a couple of other tunnels on the way.

The tunnels are a bit of an attraction in the area, and there is quite a well established “Tunnel trail” that covers the ones we visited, plus a few more, starting and ending in New Plymouth. It is a very entertaining day’s drive.

But for us, we only had to travel a couple of Km North on SH3, before heading up Okoki Road towards the Uruti Tunnel which is also called the Kaka Road Tunnel. Kaka Road is worth the drive to access the Tunnel from the South where the two roads connect.

The tunnel itself, at almost 200m is the longest in the Taranaki, and took almost 7 years to complete, after work started in 1916. It is still notoriously unstable, and walking through, or stopping in the middle, are not permitted.

Many photos later, we continued north on Uruti Road, then a hard right took us onto Moki Road, and on up to the Moki West Tunnel. This very early tunnel, built around 1913, is not to be confused with the famous Moki Tunnel (The Hobbits Hole) on the Forgotten World Highway.

The Moki West Tunnel is also known as the Kiwi Road Western Tunnel, and is very narrow and tall, with very little reinforcing, even in the roof. Its high, steep roof is almost Cathedral like.

Just a couple of Km on from the tunnel, is the intersection with Kiwi Road, and we turned North again, onto what is claimed to be one of the most expensive roads in the country.

The $40k annual maintenance bill for the road works out at about $10 per car that travels it throughout the year, and even then the council admits “It is usually in pretty poor shape”. A large rockfall kept the road closed for some time a couple of years ago, and there is regular discussion as to whether the council should stop maintaining it.

The first half of the road is actually in good condition, and is just a normal narrow, gravel backcountry drive. The second part is a very different story, and it is partway through this section you come across the tunnel, which was built in 1915, and again has very little supporting structure.

The rock strata running along the walls of the tunnel are a particularly striking part of the drive through.

Although not strictly a 4WD trip, the road is rocky, steep, and a bit rutted in places. At least it was when we went through, it’s not always the case, with ruts, slips, rocks and trees an occasional hazard.

It’s a really rugged area, part of the Mount Messenger Forest, with lots of Tawa and Beech.

The underlying Karst geology, with its massive bluffs, means lots of huge Tree Ferns and Nikau lining the road. It’s a superb drive.

The road opened up quite suddenly as we reached the intersection with Okau Road, and turned right towards Mount Damper Falls, but turned to gravel again as we followed the Tongaporutu river up towards the falls.

At 70meters, the falls are the highest in the North Island, and are a 20 minute scenic walk from the road, along the start of the Te Rerepahupahu track. The base of the falls is inaccessible, but there are a couple of excellent viewing platforms.

The last part of the walk descends back down into the Native bush.

Back at the road, it was decision time. Do we keep going onto Mangapapa Road and the walk into Mangapapa Falls, retrace our route back through Kiwi Road, or just stay on Okau Road back past the Kiwi Road turn off, and out to SH3 at Ahititi.

Delving deeper into the map, we discovered a DOC camp at the start of the walk to the Mangapapa Falls, and what appears to be a 4×4 track from the end of the road through to the forgotten highway. Right, we need to come back with the caravan, stay at the camp, and explore a bit more.

Down to two choices.

Then we discovered another tunnel on Okau Road, and the decision was made. Let’s head for tunnel number five.

The Okau Tunnel is pretty cool. It was constructed a bit later than the others we had been through, during the depression in about 1933. What makes it a bit special is that it is dug through a bluff that is almost completely encircled by the Tongoporutu River, and each end of the tunnel opens up onto a one-lane bridge.

Then, of course, there is the Mount Messenger tunnel, on the way back to Urenui and the camp, make that number six!

It may not have been a real 4WD trip, most of it could have been done in a car, or SUV, but it was quite enthralling. Six tunnels, Kiwi Road, Mount Damper Falls, and with a new Landrover Defender, it would have been rude not to.

Thanks Kevin, you were right!

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