From military beginnings to tourist day-trip, the Napier-Taupo Road cuts across the backbone of the North Island. Hugh de Lacy checks out its colourful history.
When the 21-year-old 11th Duke of St Albans, Lord Burford, set a record for the fastest trip from Napier to Taupo in 1891, it took a Pony Express-style relay of speedy horses and eight hours.
Burford – or Charles Victor Albert Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk, to give him his full name – was sojourning in Mother England’s farthest-flung colony before embarking on a military career when he made his great ride for a £300 bet. (According to newspaper reports at the time, the young earl continued his ride the next day, and dined that night with friends at the Northern Club in Auckland.)
The Napier-Taupo road began as one of three tracks used by the Maori of the interior to access seafood from the coast. The route to be taken and the costs involved were, based on various “Letters to the Editor” published in newspapers of the day, a serious topic of speculation, given the “circuitous perambulation” required to navigate the hills, rivers and ranges. In 1869, however, towards the end of the North Island Land Wars, the track took on strategic military importance and was upgraded to a road by the Armed Constabulary.
Building a road dotted with stockades south from Auckland had been the key to General Sir Duncan Cameron’s superbly executed invasion of the Waikato and subjugation of the King Movement, and a fortified road from Taupo to the Hawke’s Bay coast was presumed to be a good way of ensuring the Pai Marire movement didn’t whet the western tribes’ appetite for war.
The first of the stockades was built about halfway along the roughly 160 kilometres of track, at Te Haroto, close to the highest point on the road, the peak Tupurupuru (910m).
It comprised a square blockhouse with an upper storey over-hanging the lower one by nearly a metre.
The others stockades were at Opepe, 20 kilometres south of Taupo; Runanga (30 kilometres further on); Tarawera, on the site of the present pub 80 kilometres from Taupo; and Titiokura, 850m up the Maunga-Haruru Range and about 50 kilometres north of Napier.
It fell to the soldiers of the Armed Constabulary, many of them former professionals under Cameron, to form a road for bullock carts out of the old Maori track that climbed from the 320m elevation at Taupo to cross the pumice flats of the Kaiangaroa Plains at around 675m.
From there the new road plunged 375m down the course of the Waipunga Stream before climbing 300m back over an active fault zone on the Turangakumu Range.
From there the road descended again to cross the Mohaka River and several more faults at around 375m, before making its last climb up over the Titiokura Saddle (675m), and a final descent through the Esk Valley to join the Gisborne-Napier highway 15 kilometres north of Napier.
The missionary William Colenso is thought to have been the first European to traverse the old Maori route, in 1847, and it was well known to Europeans by the time the Armed Constabulary started upgrading it to a road two decades later.
The Hawke’s Bay Provincial Government, founded in 1859, had made driving a road through to Taupo a priority, and had got as far as completing one to Patoka, 50 kilometres north of Napier, by the time the troops started work at the other end.
However the eventual road was shifted east to the Esk Valley and thence to Titiokura, rather than through Patoka and the gap in the Te Waka Range to Puketitiri.
Helped by friendly Maori, the constabulary took five years to form the road using picks, shovels, barrows and some horse-drawn equipment, and by 1874 the Government troops around Taupo were being supplied in part by bullock carts from Napier.
In that year too a civilian coach service was launched, making it a three-day’s journey to Taupo with overnight stops at pubs – still there – at Te Pohue, Tarawera and Rangitaiki.
In 1893 the road out of Napier was shifted west to avoid the 43 river crossings necessitated by the Esk River route, but by the time Lord Burford did his epic horseback ride the Land Wars were long over and the stockades had been abandoned for five years.
A dozen years after Burford’s ride the Napier-Taupo road entered the automobile era when a steam-powered Locomobile car made the trip in a day.
Though the Hawke’s Bay Motor Company was formed that year, 1903, it would be another decade before horse-drawn coaches were replaced by the first of the tough old Cadillac service cars that would become the pioneers of New Zealand’s motor services in both main islands.
The roofless Cadillacs could cart nine passengers and their luggage in alfresco luxury between Napier and Taupo in the same time it took Lord Burford to do it with his relay of fast horses.
Since then the story of the road has been one of constant upgrading, driven mainly by commercial traffic in timber and agricultural products heading south to the Port of Napier from the hinterland.
It was slow growth, though, with the average vehicle movements a day totalling just six in 1919, rising to 13 in 1926, and not cracking the hundred until 1950 when the first 35 kilometres out of Napier was sealed.
The biggest engineering challenges were posed by the 50 kilometres stretch of mountainous roads that included the climbs up the Turangakumu and Titiokura peaks, and by the approaches to the bridge over the Mohaka River.
So tough were these climbs on heavy trucks that before World War Two transport companies used to stash spare gearboxes along the route, and some drivers became so skilled at changing truck gearboxes en route that they could do it in 90 minutes.
For years the road was synonymous for cars and trucks alike with broken axles, blown tyres, boiled radiators and either dense clouds of choking dust or splattering mud.
In the 1950s the wool boom driven by the Korean War ultimately funded major upgrades aided by the new technology of photogrammetry – using aerial photographs to make topographical measurements – allowing, for example, realignments that lowered the Turangakumu road summit to be lowered by 100m.
The Mohaka Bridge, originally built in 1910, was replaced by a new steel one 216m long and 32m above the river, comprising cantilever trusses and a central suspended span built on footings sunk into the sandstone base.
Other big deviations were completed at Titiokura and Runanga, and the sealing of the entire road was completed by 1974.
In the Esk Valley a realignment took the carriageway back nearer the old coach road, and various other projects since have reduced the total distance to less than 150 kilometres, and travel times to around two hours.
The vehicle-straining hills have been flattened, the most tortuous stretches realigned, and the road’s military beginnings overshadowed by its reputation as one of the most beautiful drives in the North Island.
And Lord Burford, the god-child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who provided a footnote to the history of the Napier-Taupo road by covering it on horseback in a single working day?
He survived his sojourn in New Zealand and a lifelong battle with clinical depression to forge a solid military career in the British Army until his death in 1934 aged 64.
But perhaps the rigours of his great ride back in 1891 had taken something out of him: he died without issue.
Footnote: Despite all the work done on the Napier-Taupo Highway over the past 101 years since this journey, the distance of 99 miles (159 kms) has only reduced to 141 kms.