The Manawatu Gorge is special in that it is an unique geological formation, as it separates two mountain ranges, the Tararua and Ruahine Ranges. And secondly, it is the pathway for the only river in the world that has it’s source on one side of a mountain range and travels to the sea on the other side.
The road was built in the early 1870s and was little more than a bridle track for many years. Construction was extremely difficult with workmen often suspended by ropes to set charges to blast the solid rock away. In 1875 toll bridges were built at each end and the charges were:Rider on horseback – sixpence
Horse and trap – one shilling
Cattle – three pence a head
Sheep – halfpenny a head
With a toll bridge situated either end of the gorge road, customers no chance of sneaking through with their flock of sheep and not paying. The tolls were abolished in 1912.
The road was gradually widened in the 1920s to allow for motorised traffic. Since then, the widening and straightening process has ongoing. Slips have always been a problem on this road, but nothing compared to the massive slip which was to come in 2011.
Huge slip in Manawatu Gorge. MURRAY WILSON /FAIRFAX NZ
On 18 August 2011, a large landslip closed State Highway 3 through the Manawatu Gorge, New Zealand’s main East-West transport link for the lower half of North Island. After a two month cleanup, the road was about to be reopened when overnight, everything changed. A massive slip came crashing down in the same location - the largest road slip in New Zealand's history. Higgins was the company tasked to clear and repair this very important road link. To stabilise the slope, five massive benches were built from the top down, each longer than a rugby field. A track was built through bush at the top of the slope so equipment could be brought in. Staff began the work at a height of 155 metres above the road. A total of 370,000 cubic metres of soil, rock and debris was removed from the site. The road was entirely or partially closed for 13 long months.
The scar on the hill side is still clearly visible, as we looked over from the railway tracks during our Sunday walk.
Luckily, only a few vehicles have ended up in the river far below. This is a road I am always pleased to reach the end of, especially when we are towing the caravan, but Robin seems to take it all in his stride. And rail users will be pleased to know that since the railway line was completed in 1891, only two major accidents have happened with trains falling off the rails. Back in 1946 a train struck a 4 ton boulder on the line, and the engine and two wagons plummeted into the river, killing the driver and fireman. And then in 1998 a train carrying milk hit a slip and the engine was shunted over the bank. Luckily the crew were unhurt and all the wagons remained on the track.
So, love it or hate it, the Gorge is still a challenging place. Just goes to show that you can’t fully tame Mother Nature.