A highway taken out of obscurity

A lonely grave on a remote Taranaki hillside is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made to open up the precipitous North Island hill country. Hugh de Lacy pays it a visit.

WILLIAM LAING AND his companions walked, and in places ran, the 50 kilometres from the Tangarakau Gorge in north-eastern Taranaki to Tongaporutu, on the North Island’s west coast, to get medical help for Joshua Morgan, the dying surveyor of the Stratford-Taumarunui road that would come to be known as the Forgotten Highway.

Laing and his companions from the survey party didn’t know what was wrong with Morgan, who had taken ill after a feed of wild apples found growing near the entrance to the Tangarakau Gorge where he was working, but it looked like peritonitis, either from the apples or a burst appendix.

The year was 1893 and Morgan was the pivotal player in the ambitious plan to drive a railway line and accompanying road all the way from Stratford to link up with the Main Trunk at Taumarunui.

Joshua Morgan (centre) and two unidentified men.

Morgan was a colourful man of just 35, a fluent speaker of Maori, which was a vital attribute to a man surveying a road about which the King Country Maori were decidedly suspicious, the ‘treaty’ with Maori King Tawhiao allowing the construction being only 12 years old at the time.

Morgan had made a name for himself by venturing into another North Island Maori fastness where the Crown’s roads were not welcome – and living to tell the tale: he was a member of the first pakeha party to traverse the Urewera country from Rotorua to Waikaremoana, home of the similarly isolationist Tuhoe.

This was soon after the 1886 Tarawera eruption – which Morgan was on hand to witness – though the honour of being the first surveyors to penetrate Te Urewera had fallen to J Baber and M Compton-Smith in 1883.

Like his two predecessors, who had shown up at a Tuhoe meeting called specifically to discuss ways of keeping surveyors off their lands, Morgan spoke excellent Maori, and he too had an encounter with Tuhoe in which he displayed such skills as a peacemaker that, like Baber and Compton-Smith, he too lived to tell the tale.

Though only 35, Morgan had virtually retired from surveying and taken up land near Inglewood in Taranaki when the government called him back into service in 1892 to plan the Stratford-Tauamarunui road and rail routes.

William Laing’s mercy dash to the coast took him two days in each direction, but by the time he got back Morgan had died.

Morgan’s chainman, Fred Willason – later described by Morgan’s half-brother Arthur Morgan as, “a half-caste; a splendid fellow I’m told” – who had been caring for Morgan during Laing’s absence, then set off southwards to Stratford to break the news to Morgan’s family.

It had been a wet summer and the difficulties in bringing a body that far out of the bush were insurmountable, so it was decided to bury Joshua Morgan where he died, on a little promontory near the confluence of the Mangapapa and Tongarakau Rivers, a short distance from the precipitous papa and limestone gorge he had been surveying.

The grave was marked by a simple wooden cross and picket fence, neither of which would have long resisted the regenerating bush in the sultry damp of inland Taranaki, but a grateful Roads Department decided its former servant was worthy of a better memorial, so it installed a stone cross and fenced the grave with concrete posts and iron railings that remain to this day.

Someone planted a rose bush which survived for decades.

Later the Automobile Association added a sign, and today Morgan’s grave can be reached by following a 200-metre track off the road he helped build, now designated SH43.

Morgan’s death was not in vain, with both the road and rail line eventually being completed.

The road, these days sealed for all but about 15 kilometres, traverses no fewer than four mountain saddles – the Strathmore, Pohokura, Whangamomona and Tahora – and between it and its various side-roads features several road tunnels.

Tunnelling was an economic option for this sort of country where the hills are reputedly steep-to-overhanging, and it’s easier to get from one side to the other of a near-vertical range by going through rather than over it.

The most startling of these is the Moki tunnel on SH43 itself, though in these post-Lord of the Rings days it’s been dubbed the Hobbit Hole because its vaulted ceilings look like something out of a Peter Jackson movie.

Elsewhere along the road and its offshoots can be found the Mount Damper Falls, at 74 metres the highest in the North Island, and in other places there is the detritus of the coal-mines that used to operate in the area.

The rail line was known as the Stratford-Okahukura Line – SOL for short – with the Okahukura referring to the settlement north of Taumarunui where it joins the North Island Main Trunk.

The rail line was started at Stratford in 1901 and completed in 1937 at a cost in today’s money of $9 billion.

It was the last major secondary line to be built, and along its 144 kilometres there are no fewer than 24 tunnels, 91 bridges and several inclines exceeding a one-in-50 gradient.

It carried passengers as well as freight into the 1970s, and fitfully thereafter, but lack of maintenance forced its closure in 2007.

Since then a tourism venture has been given a 30-year lease on the line in the hopes that it will get sightseeing wagons rolling on it again.

The road and rail line part company about 17 kilometres north of Whangamomona, meeting again near Tokirima where the road has swung west to Taumarunui and the railway north of Okahukura.

The railway going into decline dragged SH43 into obscurity with it, though the road continued to be properly maintained by, among other bodies, the Whangamomona County Council, in whose name Joshua Morgan’s grave-site was vested.

Indeed, such was the obscurity of SH43 that the people living along its 148-kilometre length came to describe it as the Forgotten Highway, a moniker that led to its promotion as such to tourists.

The tiny one-pub town at its centre, Whangamomona, added mild notoriety to the attractions of the highway by declaring itself a republic in 1989.

Every two years it celebrates its notional independence, but so far it has not attracted the alarm that the Maori King Movement triggered in Wellington with similar ideas 150 years earlier.

SH43 was actually dubbed the Stratford to Taumarunui Heritage Trail way back in 1990, and it deserves its growing reputation as a tourist attraction in its own right, for the switch-back beauty of the country through which it passes as much as for its own compelling remoteness.

This article was first published in Contractor‘s April issue. 

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