Top 10 NZ roads: Number 1

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: If you're up for a challenge, The Forgotten World Highway is a drive to remember.
Fairfax NZ
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: If you're up for a challenge, The Forgotten World Highway is a drive to remember.

1. Stratford - Taumarunui

Distance: 142km

Entering the Forgotten World Highway from the Taranaki end, you could be fooled into thinking the journey isn't much of an adventure.

At first, the route travels in straight lines through picturesque pastoral landscapes.

But by the time you pass the small town of Douglas and start encountering the first of many saddles and their tortuous corners, you'll know what you signed up for.

Any good sat-nav will tell you that there are much faster ways of driving between Stratford and Taumarunui, even though the alternative routes multiply the distance between the two towns by two or more.

But it's worth taking the Forgotten Highway if you can afford the extra travel time.

It offers glimpses into New Zealand's pioneering past, excellent views of the mountainous interior of the North Island, and a driving challenge to be savoured.

By the time you reach Whangamomona, located 64km from Stratford and boasting a famous historic hotel and colourful characters, you'll have driven over the most tortuous of the hills and seen the New Zealand that late novelist Barry Crump used to describe.

Northeast of Whangamomona, the road passes though the spectacular Moki tunnel, also known as the Hobbit's Hole.

Hand-carved by pickaxes, the tunnel is a 500 metre-long adventure that'll quickly make the kids forget their carsickness.

You emerge from the tunnel to the scenic delights of the Tangarakau Gorge, where the tarseal surface becomes gravel road for about 15 kilometres, encouraging you to slow down and enjoy the lush bush views and the spectacular rapids of the headwaters of the Tangarakau River.

Emerging from the gorge, the road climbs several more saddles that offer spectacular views of Mt Ruapehu at their highest points.

It then drops down to follow the upper sections of the Whanganui River, and several side-routes give access to some excellent swimming holes.

A swim in the Whanganui is a great way to celebrate the end of a journey over the Forgotten World Highway, especially if you've made this challenging drive on a hot summer's day.