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Road Tunnels of Taranaki

by Rhonda Bartle  

The Kiore Tunnel as it looks today. Image: Ron Lambert, New Plymouth.
The Kiore Tunnel as it looks today. Image: Ron Lambert, New Plymouth.

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Taranaki, Tunnel

Tunnels come in all shapes and sizes and Taranaki has its fair share of them. Most were dug by hand and have their own personalities and style.

 
Since the first tunnel was built in Rome in 36BC, almost 2000 years ago, they have fascinated young and old alike.
 
And tunnels come with their own jargon - the roof is a crown, the entranceway a portal, the floor is an invert and the sides are sidewalls.
 
Modern tunnels are usually round because drills make round holes, but generally, those dug with spades have arched roofs because arches are strong and are better for holding up rock.
 
From the coastal Te Horo Stock Tunnel to the well-used Mount Messenger Tunnel, they tell the stories of industrious men - who took up picks and shovels to improve road conditions long before the invention of tunnel-boring machines.
 
Take a quick tour through these Taranaki tunnels and don't forget to toot!
  

Kiore Tunnel

Never has a hole in the ground had so many names - the Kiore tunnel is alternately known as the Mangaopapa Road or the Matau Valley Tunnel. 
 
Perhaps it depends on where you are from or from which direction you approach it.
 
Prior to the early 1900s, the main route into the Matau Valley area was via Purangi and Tarata.
 
But with the construction of the railway line from Stratford to Ongarue, which started in 1905, settlers of the Matua Matau Valley decided that the road over the saddle to Kiore needed to be completed.
 
By 1908, the railway had gone as far as Huiroa, but the road to Kiore still had not been finished.
 
The digging of the tunnel had only just commenced and would not be finished until 1910.
 
By 1950 the timber lining inside had begun to collapse.
 
A Feilding firm was called in to take the old timber out and replace it with reinforced concrete.
 
About three quarters of the tunnel was strengthened in this way, but timber still lined the rest.
 
In 1994, the lining was replaced with rock bolts, reinforcing mesh and shotcrete. 
 
The Kiore tunnel still stands proud and high, retaining its original cross section, and no widening or lowering has taken place.
  

The Kiwi Road Tunnels

In 1896, after two settlement blocks were opened up at Rerekapa, an access track called the Tooi was diverted from the Okau Road at Putiki.
 
Heading south-easterly, it traversed the Putiki Valley before following a ridge along the wall of the Tongaporutu Valley.
 
In 1900, the track was widened to 2m so Rerekapa settlers could carry in supplies but the make-do road was often impassable in winter.
 
It continued to be used until 1916, when a new road, the Kiwi, was put in to provide better access. After the Kiwi Road opened, the Tooi became redundant.
 
Whether tunnels were included in the original plans is not known, but tunnelling began on the Eastern Kiwi Tunnel in 1913 and took two years to complete.
 
When finally, the road opened again, it allowed wheeled traffic into the valley for the first time.
 
The Eastern Kiwi Road Tunnel is quite plain; just a half-round hole in a bank.
 
The Western Kiwi Rd Tunnel is a handsome structure by comparison, with a steeply pitched roof and rafters at each end that don't travel its whole length.
 
Today, both tunnels and road remain much as they did back in the days when they were built.
 
Surrounded by bush, the road from the Okau through to Rerekapa is still one of the most picturesque anywhere in Taranaki, though few people even know it exists.
  

Makahu Tunnel

Makahu, named after the white hawk, was settled in 1896.
 
The first road to Makahu, heading east from Stratford towards Strathmore, climbed over a huge hill.
 
Nothing more than a pack track, it was widened in 1902 to become a dray road and the Mangaehu River bridged.
 
When the Makahu Co-operative Dairy Factory began producing butter a few years later, it was time to make the access even better to carry the produce out.

In 1907, using pick, shovel and explosives, the Makahu Tunnel was opened.
 
Though people protested that it was too near the top of the hill to be worthwhile, most were pleased as the new chain-long cut (20m) shortened the road by more than 3km.
 
The tunnel was supported by an interesting construction of wood and lined with timber, which eventually rotted at the Makahu end and collapsed in 1919.
 
It was then lined with a more robust material – concrete - in the form of pillars.
 
Still in use today, strong-walled and perfectly shaped, the Makahu Tunnel is a great feature on the road from Stratford to Strathmore, and worth a detour to see.
 

Moki Tunnel

Whangamomona lies 63km in an easterly direction from Stratford, past Toko and Douglas on SH 43.
 
In the old days, it used to take a packhorse four days to reach the township.
 
With road access difficult and a railway not yet built, the opening of the 180m Moki Tunnel in 1935 made a huge difference to everyone in the district.

The tunnel was one of five proposed by surveyor Joshua Morgan in the early 1890s, prior to his untimely death in the Tangarakau Gorge.
 
Though it was the only one ever built, it improved transit over the Moki Saddle, providing an all-weather route that was previously almost impassable in winter.
 
Built by the Public Works Department, the Moki Tunnel was dug using two jack-hammers driven by a coal-fired steam compressor.
 
Coal was carted by Mr Ron McCartie of Tahora from a mine in the Tangarakau Gorge. Later, a diesel-powered compressor replaced the steam-powered one.
 
To widen the road on either side, the spoil was hauled out by horse and skip on railway tracks laid from the tunnel to the tip-face.
 
The road that emerges now from the gorge has broadened to a two-lane sealed road.
 
Long, dark and narrow, the Moki Tunnel stood five metres tall until it was heightened in 1985 to allow stock trucks and trailers through.
 
A sign nailed up by some witty traveller two decades ago has renamed it the ‘Hobbit's Hole’.
 
Drive through it today and it will take you into the bowels of the earth and out the other side.
 
There's a stock-tunnel on the Moki track, but it lies on a paper road and is a walking track only. 
 

Mount Messenger Tunnel

It's interesting that so little data is available on a tunnel that must be driven through on the main highway north, going to or from New Plymouth.
 
Mount Messenger was named after Captain Messenger, who was in charge of the survey party that put the first track over the mountain. His son, A.H.Messenger became a noted artist and storyteller.

The issue of maintenance to the existing Main North Road via Pukearuhe, and from the White Cliffs to Makahu, was hotly debated for many years, culminating in a decision made in 1890 to release the Clifton County of its responsibility to keep it in good order.
 
"The Council is not in a position to undertake to keep open communications through very rough country entirely in the hands of the New Zealand Government or of the native owners who contribute nothing to the funds at the disposal of the County."
 
In response, the Government ordered the Council to take responsibility, saying the Pukearuhe, Tongaporutu, Makahu roads maintenance was their problem.
 
The Council had no choice but to reluctantly follow instructions. The road fell further into disrepair, drawing many letters of complaint from unhappy travellers.
 
Often described as a 'bog-hole', not only the road but the state of the Te Horo Tunnel caused dismay.
 
When it was first proposed in 1887 to open up lands for settlement in the Uruti Valley and Mount Messenger Range, the Clifton Country's Chairman, Mr A.Halcombe, met Mr Ballance, Premier, at New Plymouth and declared that Government should do all it could to put a road through.
 
It was proposed that new settlers, as a condition to acquiring land, be asked to provide road-making labour when necessary.

Around 1890, the Government bought land north of Pukearuhe, opened it up for settlement and made a new, improved road, over Mount Messenger.
 
Though a line had been tentatively marked in 1883 by surveyor E.S.Brookes, through the Mimi Valley, Mount Messenger Range and down the Tongaporutu Valley, nothing more than a bridle track existed.
 
Eventually, this was widened to accommodate buggies and traps and, finally, four-wheeled vehicles. In 1896, a road was pushed over the Mount Messenger Range. Soon, settlers lobbied for a bridge across the Tongaporutu River.
 
A bridge was built in 1901, but the condition of the Mount Messenger Road fluctuated until more substantial sandstone retaining work was done.
 
A stormy season in 1915 saw it closed for a time. A tunnel to relieve some of the problems was planned.
 
By 1916, a single-laned tunnel had been dug on a tight right-hand bend on the northern side. With its sharp arch, it was admired by all and likened to ancient Gothic architecture.
 
It stood in its original form until 1990, when it was widened to two lanes and heightened to allow oversized trucks safe passage through.
 
The twisting, winding road over Mount Messenger has been fully metalled since 1923. Today, it is no longer a dangerous, slow climb, though tourists often complain of having to negotiate its bends.
 
To those from Taranaki, coming from the North, it is simply the way home.


Tangahoe Valley Tunnel

Designed to open up access to Lake Rotorangi picnic area and water ski course, the Tangahoe Valley Tunnel is the only one in South Taranaki.
 
Built in 1928, it stretches 160m long. When workers first started digging, beginning at both ends, they didn't quite meet in the middle.
 
The floor level was subsequently uneven. Though it's since been adjusted, a variation in the tunnel height in the centre can still be seen.
 
A fine gothic arch gave the tunnel stability, but no one realised the tunnel was built on earthquake fault line! A series of tremors shook a section of the roof down and it closed to the public in 1986.
 
A replacement channel through a papa bank - which was more often than not closed by wet-weather slips - caused endless transport problems for increasingly irate landowners.
 
In 1996, the South Taranaki District Council decided to reopen the tunnel and work began the following year.
 
But the $250,000 repair job turned out to be more difficult than expected, with 25,000 cubic metres of fill needing to be shifted just to get to the tunnel.
 
A further 10,000 cubic metres of soil was moved to find the portal. The most critical stage followed – that of drilling the tunnel and ramming home more than 1000 metres of rock-stabilising bolts.
 
Today, the well-preserved Tangahoe Tunnel serves South Taranaki not only as an old world attraction, but as an historic monument and a tribute to those men who built and restored it.


Tarata Tunnel

If you follow the Otaoroa Road north of Waitara deep into the hinterland to the once remote Tarata settlement east of Inglewood, you will find the Tarata tunnel.
 
Though a road once ran over the top of the hill, it was unstable, and tenders were called to build a tunnel through it instead.
 
Ennis and Knuckey won the tender, and a tunnel was dug by hand in the early 1900s, measuring 30m long by 1.5m wide by 1.75m deep.
 
Workers slogged with shovels and picks to hack out the hole and carted the debris away in creaking wheelbarrows to be dumped.
 
On either side of the entrance a row of hard, flint-like outcrops, which were probably too difficult to remove using a spade, help hold up the soft papa walls.
 
Continual slips and road works have changed the landscape over the years, but these days it still provides a point of interest to visitors new to the area.  
 
It's well worth stopping to investigate on a journey through Tarata, Pukeho, Purangi and beyond.
 
Interestingly, there is another tunnel at Tarata, though this one was never designed for traffic.
 
Grayling's Tunnel was built by one of the earliest settlers to the area, Mr Wilf Grayling, whose house was often used as a resting place for weary travellers until it burned to the ground.
 
Grayling farmed both sides of a sharp ridge near the top of the Tarata saddle. To get his cows from his home fields to the day paddocks, he dug a tunnel through it with the help of another settler, Mr Isaac Crowe.
 
Over time, Grayling's Tunnel has silted up and because of constant roadworks, the portal is now part way up a clay bank and almost covered by brush.


Te Horo Stock Tunnel

It's hard to believe that the Te Horo Tunnel once formed part of the main overland bush and beach route from New Plymouth to Auckland, or than an estimated 150,000 sheep and 80,000 cattle passed through it in the opposite direction, heading to the Waitara Freezing works.
 
The last bleats and moos echoed off the walls in 1960.
 
Since settler times, a tunnel through the precipitous Te Horo cliff had long been dreamed of by pioneers and stockmen.
 
The only access down it was by a precarious path, or by the steps and vine-ropes used for centuries by the Ngati Tama and Waikato people.
 
The job of digging the hole fell to Mr William Chadwick, who bid one shilling and four pence per cubic yard for the honour, beating five others for the work.
 
His successful tender was announced in an advertisement in the Taranaki Herald in May 1859.
 
With the outbreak of the first Taranaki war in 1860, work was abandoned and didn't start again until 1888. The tunnel opened a year later.
 
Though a bridle track, which would one day become the main route north, was opened over Mount Messenger, the 80m long Te Horo Stock Tunnel served as a mail route until 1909.
 
In 1995, in the wake of the Cave Creek disaster when 14 people died in the South Island after a viewing platform collapsed, the tunnel was declared unsafe and closed to the public.
 
Restoration work began in May 2000, but was made difficult by owner Russell Gibbs denying contractors access to the site. He declined to sell the land to the New Plymouth District Council, who had hoped to buy it in order to reinstate a paper road.
 
In 2004, the New Plymouth District Council lobbied to buy the land under the Public Works Act, and began court proceedings to compulsorily gain about half an hectare which would allow a legal road to the tunnel to be built.
 
Today, as part of the White Cliffs walkway, where the beach is safe for just two hours either side of low tide, the Te Horo Stock Tunnel doubles the popular walking track by providing safe coastal access from Pukearuhe to Tongaporutu and back.


Uruti  Tunnel

The Uruti tunnel is gorgeous, with it's sharply-angled roof, hanging chains to warn oversized trucks and unsealed floor that drops away at the far end.
 
It's a perfectly wonderful surprise on a little-used country road.
 
At one time, all Pehu residents going out for supplies had to cross the Waitara River into the Matau and travel through Kiore to Stratford, or use the bridle track to Uruti.
 
In 1916, to make road access easier, a tunnel was begun, though it wasn't completed until 1923, seven long years later.
 
Excavated entirely by pick, shovel and explosives, one child described it as ‘long, dark and scary, slippery and treacherous’.
 
Today, it's still the longest and most unstable of all Taranaki tunnels.
 
Over the years, the fate of the tunnel has caused serious debate, leaving it closed on several occasions.
 
In August 1959, three years after the Kaka Road extension into Pehu had begun, closure looked certain.
 
Though a route over the top was proposed, the tunnel remained opened after the National Roads Board saved it with a $100,000 cheque for repairs.
 
The tunnel still links Uruti Valley with the main road to either New Plymouth or Auckland. If you stand on the road and look up at the towering bluff it was cut through, it's easy to understand why it was made.
 
 

Old Whangamomona Road Tunnels

The old Whangamomona Road is not for the faint-hearted, but if you brave the unsealed papa on a four-wheeler or dirt bike, you might get to enjoy some of Taranaki's most rugged countryside.
 
Travel the 63km from Stratford to Whangamomona, turn off the Forgotten World Highway at the Whangamomona Hotel and head to Aotuhia, and providing you have the right vehicle, you can go all the way to the Bridge to Somewhere on little more than a mud track.
 
In the earliest settler days, there was no clay cutting wound through the steep, broken hills. People were hauled by boat up the Whanganui River and deposited on a riverbank in the middle of the wilderness.
 
The first sheep in the district, and the materials for the first house, were brought to Whangamomona this way.
 
But eventually, a pack track was dug so supplies could be hauled through the bush. It clung to the cliffs and bluffs and wound in and out of the scrub.
 
A decent pair of hand-hewn tunnels called Whangamomona No.1 and Whangamomona No.2 hacked through spurs that reached down to the river helped ease some of the roading woes.
 
In 1942, after a wild storm, the government closed the old Whangamomona Road. It's more than 60 years now since it saw a bulldozer - part of its rugged charm.
 
Today, the old Whangamomona Road is as notorious for slips and mud as it was then, and still contains ditches deep enough to drown bullocks in.




 
First published 17 February 2005
 

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RELATED STORIES

The Whangamomona Road: a trip to Somewhere

 
 
 
 
 

PLACES TO VISIT

Drive through the Mt Messenger Tunnel on the Main Highway north.
 
Spend a day on the White Cliffs walkway and follow the stock route from Pukearuhe to Tongaporutu through the Te Horo Tunnel
 
Drive 68km north of New Plymouth and find the Uruti/Moki/Kiwi Roads and see if you can find the tunnels.
 
Drive inland from the Otaoroa Rd, near Waitara, until you come to the Tarata Tunnel.
 
Explore the renovated Tangahoe Valley Tunnel on your way south to Lake Rotorangi.
 
 

 


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