Monday, January 25, 2010

New Zealand backroads - Kihikihi to Lake Taupo

X marks the spot on a pirate's map. Luckily Google maps have both X's and Y's, as it makes finding and navigating New Zealand's last remaining back-road treasures a lot easier. Here's one of my favourites to try the next time you have to get South from Auckland and want to avoid traffic, plus see some of the kiwi heartland.

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We traveled this route a few days into 2010, keen to avoid State Highway 1 on the well-worn track from Hamilton to Taupo. The road condition is brilliant, through the rolling hill country of the South Waikato region. State Highway 1 reported delays in some small towns of up to half an hour. Avoid!

Lots of personal memories for me motoring this way - starting with an early Split Enz concert at the Te Awamutu race-course, playing to a few hundred people in the sun on a Saturday afternoon.

A few kilometres South-east of Kihikihi keep an eye out for the ghost filled Orakau battle site, the scene of one of the last desperate battles in NZ's war for land and resources in the 1860s. From memory the road runs right through the middle of it. Hmmm.

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The drive also kindles memories of visiting farming family friends in the Owairaka Valley, hiking in the Pureora Forest, and learning of the destruction of lowland podocarp forests while on a University environmental geography camp to Barryville. Stopping to stand on top of the Waipapa hydro dam listening to the hum of the turbines, and laughing over what tourists (and now our 8 year old) think of a name like Whakamaru pronounced with an F.

But you don't need to have grown up in this area to enjoy the drive. The road is beautifully engineered, you'll need your wits about you if you're pushing on as the lanes are narrow. There's a seriously winding bit going down to river level at Waipapa and climbing out the other side. Brilliant on a motorcycle, likely to be spew inducing on a weak stomach in the back seat I'm afraid.

Watch out for cyclists - they're smart to take this route to Taupo if they can hack the climbs. Te Awamutu has bred some world class cyclists trained on this countryside. There's a store at Wharepapa South for a break.

The turnoff at Owairaka Valley Road 10km out from Kihikihi is going to give your GPS-brained TomTom sat nav device the heebies and you should steadfastly ignore its demand you stick to the main road, and turn right. It'll forgive your defiance when you rejoin the highway further along.

And of course, if you have the time, take a few side roads along the way.


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Hey, thanks for stopping by.