New roads in the 19th century meant new areas being opened up to pastoral farming and, sometimes, warfare, but the Desert Road offered neither. Hugh de Lacy delves.
Of all the key roads in the North Island, none was as late coming into regular usage as that which runs across the Rangipo Desert between Waiouru and Tokaanu, east of the mountains Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.
Widely, but mistakenly, regarded as having been prompted by the start of World War Two and the establishment of the Army training base at Waiouru, the Desert Road was until a few years earlier just an old stage-coach track that fell out of use in favour of the one up the western side.
The eastern route was about 60 kilometres longer, but it passed through bush country made accessible by the completion of the North Island Main Trunk Railway in 1908, and the road traffic tended to follow the rail west from Waiouru to Ohakune and then up the western side of the mountains to Taumarunui.
So it was not until the mid-1930s, when war in Europe was simmering but had yet to boil over, that agitation from the likes of the Auckland Automobile Association (AAA) nudged the first Labour Government to open up the shorter western route.
Until then maintenance of the old track, most of it at an altitude of 600 metres, was so sparse hardly any motorists dared use it, but the development of the road from Bulls to Taihape forced the logic of a road straight across the Rangipo Desert and up the eastern side of Lake Taupo and so on into the Waikato.
This meant a reduction in traffic on the hilly and windy Parapara Highway between Whanganui and Raetihi and on up through Taumarunui to Te Kuiti and all points north.
The fact that there was no obvious prospect of farming the Rangipo Desert was another factor, besides the railway, that drew road traffic up the western route.
Rangipo translates as the place of the dark sky, and the desert was given its name by a tohunga from the Arawa canoe, Ngatoro-i -rangi, who is said to have climbed Mt Tongariro – almost dying of the cold in the process – to claim the eastern side of it for his descendants, now known as the Ngati Tuwharetoa.
Originally the name Rangipo applied only to the land between the volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountains, with the wider region being referred to as the Onetapu Desert, though this subsequently fell into disuse.
The top of the three volcanoes were gifted to the country by the Tuwharetoa chief Te Heu-heu Tukino IV in 1887, which was the nucleus for the proposed Tongariro National Park – New Zealand’s first and just the fourth in the world.
The initial land made up just 2600 hectares and a further 22,400 hectares was later purchased by the Government, which added further bits to it over the years so that it now covers 80,000 hectares.
The creation of the park may have been a factor, alongside the unfarmability of the land on the eastern side of the volcanoes, and the Wellington-Auckland road’s pursuit of the rail up the western side, that delayed so long the construction of the Desert Road.
In gratefully announcing in mid-1936 that the Government was allocating money that year to make the Desert Road at last suitable for motor vehicles, the touring manager of the Auckland AA, R.E. Champtaloup noted that there were “no severe grades and the light nature of the soil should provide very easy constructional work.”
And indeed, given the relative ease with which a road could be constructed there, compared to virtually anywhere else in the North island, it’s even more a wonder that it wasn’t properly formed, nor even metalled, much earlier.
This was despite the first stage coaches creating a dry-weather track by operating an occasional service between Taihape and Taupo as early as the late 1880s.
By mid-1939 work was progressing steadily on constructing a six-metre wide road through the sparse snow-grasses and tussocks that are all that can grow since the mass sterilisation of other seeds by the mainly ignimbrite lava flows of 20,000 years earlier.
The road-builders found the first 20 kilometres or so of the Desert Road north from Waiouru relatively easy going with the volcanic pumice providing a firm and solid base, but before the road was sealed the pumice also generated great clouds of choking dust that were a deterrent against users.
After the long straights, the road reaches a summit at a point known as The Three Sisters, where it suddenly begins bucking, twisting, rising and plunging before latching itself onto the Tongariro River and dropping off the Central Plateau for the run into Turangi.
The declaration of war on Germany in September that year sent the Desert Road construction into over-drive after the Army identified 65,000 hectares of the Rangipo Desert as an ideal training ground, and Waiouru – at the time a bare platform at which the trains sometimes stopped – as its base.
The Government bought it for that purpose within a few weeks of the declaration of war.
Waiouru is the shortened version of the original Maori name Te Wahi Oru Nga Tangata, which prophetically means the place through which everyone must pass, and 7000 trainees at a time passed through it on their way to the North African, European and Asian war theatres.
And after World War Two they continued to pass through there to Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and the half-dozen armed policing actions into which New Zealand was subsequently sucked into.
A workforce of 800 had built more than 230 buildings, 20 kilometres of streets and 8 kilometres of horizontal infrastructure in Waiouru by Christmas of 1940, and New Zealand’s war effort was in full swing.
The Desert Road itself was rapidly completed, and eventually sealed, and three-quarters of a century after most of the other elements of SH1 had come into mainstream usage it became the preferred route through the centre of the island.