Mountains to Sea (nearly) Cycle Trip – Turoa & The Old Coach Road

This year’s cycle trip was in the central North Island.  The trip over the Napier – Taihape Road was stunning with gorgeous views of Mt Ruapehu.  Neither Steve or I had driven over that road so we were exploring new territories.

We all met in Ohakune which is better known as a ski resort town in the winter although there are plenty of summer activities too.

We had engaged Ted from Tread Routes in Taupo as our guide, rental bike and luggage transport extraordinaire. He met us in Ohakune at 1pm on the Friday and sorted those that were renting bikes out. We then all jumped in the van for the trip up to the Turoa Skifield. Stage one of day one was a 17km descent down the mountain road. The weather was perfect and the mountain greeted us in all her glory.

The descent was fast with some of the guys getting up to 70km per hour on their bikes. I wasn’t that brave and had my back brake lever close at hand. It was a blast though and over all too quick.

Stage two of day one was the Old Coach Road.  Ted shuttled us to the Horopito end of the trail and we rode back to Ohakune.

The cycle trail, which uses most of the historic Ohakune Coach Road between Ohakune Station and Horopito, was opened by New Zealand Prime Minister Mr John Key in July 2010.  This part of the Ruapehu to Whanganui “Nga Ara Tuhono” cycle trail, also called “Nga Haerenga,” was the first of the national cycleway ‘quick start’ projects to be launched.

The northern end of the coach road at Horopito is the home of Smash Palace, the famous auto wreckers yard with hundreds of vehicles waiting to be restored and loved again. I think every Kiwi over the age of 40 has some memory of the movie Smash Palace.  The wreckers yard stretches some way and it is incredible how many cars are there.

The cycle trail is a mixture of new narrow track and the wide cobbled Coach Road.  The cobble stones certainly made for interesting riding, in fact it was rather uncomfortable in places!  8.5kms of the 17km’s was covered in cobblestones.

The Ohakune Old Coach Road formed an integral link between the two rail heads between 1906 and 1908, allowing through journeys by horse and coach before the rail was completed. The Hapuawhenua Viaduct was one of the final components of the North Island main trunk railway.

Along this road, drays and carts carried supplies and materials for railway construction and coaches ferried railway passengers between the steadily advancing railheads.  The first coaches ran between Raurimu and Waiouru. As the railway tracks were laid between the railheads the gap reduced, and by May 1908 the coaches were running between Ohakune and Makatote.  Once the railway tracks were connected and daily trains began running in November 1908, there was no need for the railway coach service along the Ohakune to Horopito Road.

The road was left unmaintained and became overgrown until work on the cycle trail began.  This trail is the start of the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail which goes all the way to the sea in Whanganui.

Day one over with we enjoyed some quiet refreshments back in Ohakune before enjoying some delicious pizzas from La Pizzeria.

Murder in slow motion….

Rata and rimu are two endemic New Zealand trees with a close relationship. Rata starts life as an epiphyte (a parasite growing in the branches of a tree) – and it often chooses rimu. The rata roots then reach down to the ground and the vine thickens, slowly encasing and choking the host tree until the rata can stand alone. That’s why mature rata trees always have a hollow core – it’s the imprint of the tree that provided all the support!

Rata love high rainfall areas. The bright red flowers (seen November to January) and berries provide food for tui, bellbirds and kaka. Humans reckon rata makes the best honey. An infusion of the inner bark was used by Maori to treat rheumatism.

Early Travel in New Zealand

Travelling throughout New Zealand in the early 1800’s was either overland on foot or horseback, or by ship from port to port. Overland was difficult and time consuming and the sea service was dangerous and unreliable.  In the 1880’s a bridle trail through the Ohakune area ran from the river port at Pipiriki via Raetihi to Ohakune, and from Ohakune the trail went north through the Horopito area to Taumarunui, and east from Ohakune to Waiouru and Taihape.

By 1882 the government had decided a railway link between Auckland and Wellington was necessary.  At that time the railheads were at Marton and Te Awamutu. Various rail routes were surveyed to find the best way to connect these railheads. The central route, surveyed by John Rochfort in 1883, was recommended by the Government in 1884.  The bridle trail was then upgraded to a four meter wide dray and cart road in readiness for the railway construction.

Coaching the Gap

There was only the volcanic plateau to cross once the railheads reached Ohakune and Raurimu. This difficult section required five viaducts and three tunnels.

Construction work would take considerable time, and railways wanted to ferry passengers across the gap to trains waiting at each railhead. By doing this, Railways could collect passenger revenue to help pay for the railway construction before the line was completed.  A new road was built from the highest point on the upgraded bridle trail, west to the Taonui Viaduct and on to Horopito.

The Ohakune-Taonui-Horopito section of the road was covered with cobblestones to provide a firm surface and good grip for horses pulling coaches and construction works’ carts up the steep grades.  The stones for the road were sourced locally.

The first railway passenger coaches ran between Raurimu, Raetihi and Waiouru on February 10th 1907. They did not use the Ohakune Coach Road. From Horopito, they used Middle Road, which has become the main highway to Raetihi.  On November 8th 1908 the railway line was finished and the first passenger train ran from Wellington and Auckland. Coaches carrying railway passengers were no longer needed.

The coach road had served its purpose.

The road can be considered a most significant example of roading engineering heritage and the finest rural road constructed in New Zealand up to that time. It has great historic significance for the period it was used as the link between the two end railheads. The end of the road’s useful life froze it in time and, other than the natural deterioration it has undergone since its use stopped, it is in remarkably good condition. It has a Category I Historic Places status from Historic Places Trust.

Hapuawhenua Viaduct

The Hapuawhenua Viaduct was built in 1907-1908 as part of the final works to finish the North Island main trunk railway.

It was designed by Peter Seton Hay, Superintending Engineer of the Public Works Department, recognised as one of the most influential engineers of the period. The viaduct has a Category I Historic Places status from Historic Places Trust.

The viaduct consists of 13 concrete piers and four 4-legged steel towers resting on concrete foundation blocks. There are four steel plate girder tower spans of 11 metres, five 20 metre lattice truss spans and thirteen 11 metre plate girders. In total the viaduct is 284 metres long and at its maximum it stands 45 metres high. It is unique in that it is built on a 10-chain radius curve, reflecting the difficult landscape through which it passes.

Workers lived on site during the two years it took to construct the viaduct, enduring harsh winters, primitive conditions and isolation to complete construction in time for the opening of the railway.

The Hapuawhenua Viaduct was in use until 1987 when the line was realigned and a new viaduct was built. It is mostly in original condition, and is currently being restored by DOC and Tongariro Natural History Society to allow visitors to again enjoy this spectacular piece of railway engineering heritage.

Taonui Viaduct

The Taonui Viaduct shares many of the features of the nearby Hapuawhenua Viaduct: it was also designed by Peter Seton Hay, shares the same construction methods, and unique curved style. It practically differs only in its smaller size (140m long and 35m high), aspect, and fact that it is built on a 1 in 60 gradient.

The viaduct has a Category I Historic Places status from Historic Places Trust.

At this time, the Taonui Viaduct will not be restored for visitor use. Access to view the viaduct is being restored as a side track of the Old Coach Road.


Ohakune township began as a small settlement at the junction of the roads from Raetihi, Waiouru and Taumarunui.

On an 1892 map of the town, there was a blacksmith shop, Public Works Department whare, convent house, Engineer’s residence, PWD cottage, PWD store, an office, PWD hospital, a stable, a whare by the Mangateitei Stream, and a school.  Ten buildings in all.

When the railway reached Ohakune, the station was about one and a half miles away from the town on what is now named Old Station Road and Marshall’s Road.

It was around September 1908 when vehicular traffic from the present station was able to get across the Mangawhero Stream bridge and connect to Old Station Road.

When the train journey between Auckland and Wellington was a two day trip, passengers stayed overnight in Ohakune. They had to get from the station to accommodation in the town, and back again the next morning to continue the journey.  In winter the road between the station and the town was very muddy, not too bad for those in coaches, but most uncomfortable for those walking.


This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
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