TAIHAPE – INLAND PATEA
The Inland Patea Road follows the route of an old Maori track from the Heretaunga Plains to Patea, a huge tract of high land stretching westward across the Hawkes Bay ranges to the gorges of the Wanganui River and from a line running roughly on the base of Mount Ruapehu to the south of the present town of Taihape. In early European times this became known as the Inland Patea to avoid confusion with the town of Patea in Taranaki.
According to Maori legend, Patea came by its name long before the coming of the European. Patea was a Maori living with his woman and kinsfolk at Waimarama, south-east of Hastings. It is told that Patea went on a hunting expedition and was away for a long time. He returned with a poor bag. To ﬁnd that his woman had ﬁlled the store house herself. She soon used her scolding tongue with incessant nagging, to let Patea know how bad a hunter he was, but this time he went too far. Patea took her for a walk and somehow she fell over a cliff to her death. Rather than face her relatives. Patea fled into the wild lonely country west of the ranges where he remained for the rest of his life.
This route was famously traversed by missionary William Colenso in 1845 when Taihape was merely a bush clearing called O Taihape, the Place of the Hunchback, and he took the word around the central North Island.
From the 1860’s until 1908 when the Main Trunk Railway was opened, the Inland Patea looked upon Napier as its town and port, with at first, pack horses and then wagon trains hauling supplies and produce over the ranges. Wool was the main commodity and by the 1870’s, when the huge sheep runs of the inland became fully stocked with immense flocks of Merino sheep, transport was an enormous undertaking.
To offer some idea the Birch brothers moved from Waimarama in 1867 to take up a 20-year lease on Erewhon Station which covered 48,563 hectares and the first sheep arrived and the farm carried 75,000 to 80,000 sheep. Once these sheep had been shorn, the wool was carried to Napier on strings of packhorses, hundreds strong with one man in charge of each team of ten. It took a staggering 10 days to make the journey.
Mules as well as horses were used with one animal in ﬁve carrying fodder for the team and supplies for the packmen. Each pack animal carried 91kg and riding ahead of the train was a hunter with his dogs who would try to shoot a wild pig or turkey to offer some food variety. Being a packman was a dangerous job and if, as occasionally happened, a beast missed its step negotiating the narrow rocky track over the precipitous Gentle Annie, it bounced to its end in the Ngaruroro Gorge at least a hundred meters below. All the packmen could do was to hurry the rest of his team along before they panicked and plunged over the edge.
It wasn’t until 1919 motor vehicles took over. It is, by reputation, a challenging route and what a nightmare journey it must have been in the old days when it was plagued by mud, frequent landslips and heavy winter snowfalls. Even in 1980 the AA itinerary cautioned, “Meeting another vehicle may involve backing up for as much as 1km to find a passing place.” Then it took 3 hours to make the trip and 30kms of gravel.
But the reality is very different today. The road is now safe for two-wheel-drive vehicles, he surprises me by saying that Taihape people regularly take their children over to Hawkes Bay boarding schools and think nothing of driving to the Rangitikei River for picnics. There is now only approximately 10kms left unsealed.