Mt Messenger: A short history and future of the gatekeeper of Taranaki's northern route

GRANT MATTHEW

The SH3 section of road over Mt Messenger is winding and narrow.

The journey over Mt Messenger has been a challenge for travellers getting in and out of Taranaki for the past 100 years. But a new $135 million bypass project will soon remove whe worst of that challenge. Mike Watson looks back at a part of the highway Taranaki drivers love to hate. 

It is the scene of urban myths and legendary tales of broken axles, wartime tunnels, lost goods and forgotten wrecks.

The scenic route that State Highway 3 takes as it winds its way up and down Mt Messenger is part of a vital economic link for the region.

The section of windy, crash and slip prone State Highway 3 over Mt Messenger is due to be bypassed.
GRANT MATTHEW/STUFF

The section of windy, crash and slip prone State Highway 3 over Mt Messenger is due to be bypassed.

But the road has been a sticking point for transport operators and drivers alike since provincial government surveyor Edwin Brookes first charted an alternative access to Mokau along the Messenger Ranges in 1883.

Mokau Museum custodian Barbara O'Neill is a frequent traveller on the route from her Tongaporutu bach but remembers travelling the road was a child, when it much more of a "goat track" than it is now.

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Long haul truck driver Willie Reid heads over Mt Messenger up to five times a week.
GRANT MATTHEW/STUFF

Long haul truck driver Willie Reid heads over Mt Messenger up to five times a week.

"I always got car sick in our family's old Morris 12 when we went into town," O'Neill says.

"It was the backwards and forwards, everything was so windy as you went around all the gullies."

Brookes' road access was to replace the more commonly used White Cliffs trail used at the time by Maori.

The road used to be traversed by horse drawn coaches.
Mokau Museum

The road used to be traversed by horse drawn coaches.

Valuable land was being acquired and opened up north of Mokau, but lack of transport links hindered development.

Clifton County Council and the Government argued about who would take responsibility to build and maintain a better access north.

Eventually, in 1896, the Mimi to Mokau route was built to traverse Mt Messenger, named after Colonel William Messenger.

Mokau Museum historian
Ian Whittaker.
GRANT MATTHEW/STUFF

Mokau Museum historian Ian Whittaker.

It wasn't straightforward as travellers still had to cross three rivers, at Mohokatino​, Tongaporutu and Mokau, but it was a start.

The section carried a reputation as the most difficult road works undertaken between New Plymouth and Auckland.

The high rainfall didn't help.

Horses were often used to drag vehicles through the thick mud in winter.
Mokau Museum

Horses were often used to drag vehicles through the thick mud in winter.

The first cars drove over it in 1911, a single-laned tunnel was built in 1916, before the road was finally fully metalled in 1923 and sealed completely in the 1950's.

Vertical bluffs were blasted to build an accessible gradient, and much of the work was completed by manual labour with axes, picks and shovels.

During summer the road remained in good order, but in winter the burnt papa road surface became impassable as one intrepid horse and buggy traveller realised after taking four hours to reach Tongaporutu from Urenui. 

Robin Thomson's farm is at the foot of Mt Messenger, Taranaki.
GRANT MATTHEW/STUFF

Robin Thomson's farm is at the foot of Mt Messenger, Taranaki.

The current road enables significantly faster travel than that, with the drive time between the Tongaporutu and Urenui now just 30 minutes, about 10 of that spent on Mt Messenger.  

Now optimism is high that the drive will get even faster with a new $135 million bypass project, that includes the Awakino tunnel, on the drawing board and an announcement from New Zealand Transport Agency on which route it will take due soon.

The project would eliminate the numerous turns and climbs on the tortuous section used, on average, by up to 2300 vehicles a day, 20 per cent of which are trucks.

The road tunnel on the Mt Messenger road, Taranaki.
GRANT MATTHEW/STUFF

The road tunnel on the Mt Messenger road, Taranaki.

For the past 40 years Ahititi farmer Kevin Beard has helped rescue stranded motorists, and towed away wreckages from head on collisions on the isolated road.

Beard has seen all sorts of stuff go over the bank, from truckloads of frozen chickens, butter and molasses as well as abandoned chickens and pets left on the roadside.

People are scared to drive over the road in its current state, he says.

The Mt Messenger road has many corners.
GRANT MATTHEW/STUFF

The Mt Messenger road has many corners.

Truck driver Willie Reid knows the hilly and windy section of State Highway 3, 60 kilometres north of New Plymouth, better than most.

For much of his 37 years driving experience the JR Hickman Transport line haul operator has travelled the route north and south almost every day.

Summer or winter, the drive is no less relenting, he says.

"Quite often I'm driving over Mt Messenger, sometimes up to five times a week, sometimes once a week.

"It's not an easy one to do."

Relentless rain can help scour away the road surface in winter while in summer the hot temperatures melt the tar surface.

It takes total concentration by drivers to negotiate the 40 plus corners, dropping down gears to slowly wind the big 23 metre long rigs up the steep incline and down again, he says.

"It gets really rough on the cutting, that's a series of 25 kmh right handers where the traction breaks.

"You just hug the corners and the rails all the way."

Slips blocking the road, oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road, and inexperienced drivers are all part of the journey, he says.

He sat for hours in one spot on the road while torrential rain flooded the Uruti Valley, and slips closed the highway.

"It's one of the more difficult routes I've driven on in the country," he says.

"There's a lot of corners and hills to get around and over, there's twists and turns, backwards and forwards.

"It puts a lot of punishment on the chassis as it twisted and flexed."

The Mt Messenger route adds to maintenance and diesel costs, far more so than trucks plying routes on SH3 south of Taranaki, he says.

The low speeds and the heavy weights carried add to substantial fuel costs and a truck and trailer travelling over Mt Messenger can use as much as a litre of diesel every 300 metres.

Compare that to normal routes when the usage on average is one litre every two kilometres.

Mokau historian Ian Whittaker​, 84, once carted fertiliser back to Mokau from New Plymouth every day.

"I know every corner where you had to change into low gear and put your knee against the gear stick to stop it kicking out.

"But it's a damn good road now."

Motorists just have to treat the road with respect, he says.

A brand new 1938 Chevrolet, with less than 100 miles on the clock, lies buried under the papa and bush down one steep gully, he says.

"It belonged to Gilmore, the New Plymouth mayor, who took the car for a test drive to the summit and forgot to put the handbrake on when he got out.

"When he turned back the car was slowly edging its way over the cliff face.

"As far I know it is still there."

Whittaker remembers the thrice weekly bread and milk deliveries to his family's farm often delayed by road closures and floods.

Household supplies were parachuted in during one big flood event, he says.

There were always a lot of slips - some which Whittaker has helped to clear off the road himself.

"A roadman would live in a house at the top of the summit to be ready to clear the slips away."

In spite of the frequent disruptions, there was never a feeling of isolation, he says.

During World War Two US Marines built two tunnels under the road to prepare for an invasion by the Japanese, Whittaker says. 

The tunnels were set to be blown up, destroying the road and halting any advance into Taranaki if the Japanese had landed, he said.

The tunnels were covered over by subsequent road works after the war ended, he says.

At Robin Thomson's Uruti beef breeding farm, at the foot of the mountain crossing, the average annual rainfall is 2.4metres.

Thomson moved to the 80 hectare farm beside SH3 in 1998 to breed red poll cattle.

He can hear the trucks grind their way along the first hill from his living room.

"When the road is closed you wake up in the middle of night and wonder why there is no traffic noise."

He has a $1000 bet the new road won't be built before 2030.

"Most want the best economic option, we don't care where it goes.

"We need a decent access road to improve Taranaki's business links and economy."

 - Stuff

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