1 Rankers Review
3 Whanganui River
You can almost feel the pioneering spirit of New Zealand as you head along the track to the Bridge to Nowhere.
The concrete Bridge, built in 1936, is now abandoned - a fantastic site in amongst native forest. You can get access the bridge via a canoe or jetboat trip along the river, or hiking or mountain biking through the Whanganui National Park.
It's pretty impressive as you look around and see where the settlers all tried to establish houses - all that is left now is the odd hydrangea.
The start of this track is the Mangapurua Landing on the Whanganui River, accessible only by boat or kayak.
The journey is part of the destination on this walk. Brace yourself, this is quite a day. From Wanganui it’s a spectacular drive up the Whanganui River Road and a breathtaking jetboat ride up the Whanganui River.
Whanganui River Road is signposted on the left 11.5 km north of Dublin Street Bridge. This highly scenic drive weaves up the steep and spectacular Whanganui River valley. It’s an isolated land of proud Maori communities, whose histories date back forever. This is a mystical land, closely guarded in legend by generations of Maori. Quaint churches are dwarfed by the steep forested papa hills and the road undulates to some spectacular viewpoints. Pipiriki is 62 km from the turnoff with SH4, the last 23 km after Matahiwi being unsealed.
Bridge to Nowhere Jetboat Tours give an authentic experience on the journey up river. The 50-minute jet boat ride takes in 21 km of the wild and unspoiled scenery. Bookings are essential and can be organised by visiting http://www.bridgetonowhere.co.nz/index.html
As the jetboat hurtles through Whanganui National Park, the hills get higher and the river walls steeper. The lush lowland forest cannot find purchase on the gorge the Whanganui River has created. The green hues of the flax and ferns are the only vegetation to clothe the grey papa rock. Occasional clefts, so narrow they could have been cut with a knife, spew water from small streams. Ducks and shags take flight at the passing of river traffic. Jetboat have replaced paddle steamers and kayaks are the modern day waka.
The jetboat slides between gravel bars, deftly avoiding driftwood, the water glistening on the smooth surface. On other sections the water bubbles over gentle rapids. This is a paddlers paradise, testified by the flotillas of kayaks leisurely messing about on the river. The commentary highlights easy-to-miss features such as pegs anchored into the rock walls, used to winch old paddle steamers through a sections of rapids. Sulphur springs emanate from tiny grottos in the bank.
After disembarking on the au naturel jetty, there’s a short climb before the track plateaus. The forest is lush with tree ferns and hung with supplejack. Occasional glimpses peek at precipitous valleys below. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, the concrete span of the Bridge to Nowhere appears.
A short climb to a lookout just before the bridge gives the best views of the bridge in its setting.
There is little evidence of Maori occupation in the Mangapura Valley, probably because there were no suitable places to land waka and it was said to be the haunt of Oku aurei, a fearsome taniwha.
The history of settlement in the Mangapura Valley and the construction of The Bridge to Nowhere are ably described in Arthur P Bates’s Book The Bridge to Nowhere. He labels the area as a “valley of abandoned dreams”, the pioneer settlers forlornly chasing a “rainbow of illusion”.
Following World War 1, the Government gave 40 returned servicemen the opportunity to purchase land through the 1916 Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement Act. First surveys were undertaken in 1914, the survey routes following the same track used today. Early surveyors however, were not thorough in their work and didn’t realise that some blocks spanned streams with gorge walls 200 feet deep.
After the first settlers and their wives arrived in 1919-21, the Government gave grants for clearing land and constructing the necessary roading to make the land accessible by vehicle. Early signs were positive as the gung-ho enthusiasm was fuelled by the camaraderie of the returned servicemen. But this early optimism quickly degenerated as the realities of the harsh country became tiresomely apparent.
The steep land was erosion prone and farm prices slumped late in the 1920s. This left the farmers devoid of an income, many resorting to working on the never ending task of maintaining the roads.
In 1919 a 114 foot rimu supported suspension bridge was constructed over the gorge. This was designed with a 10 year life span, but after only 5 years the supports were found to be rotten. In 1928 the assistant road engineer warned the bridge only had 2 years of life left, before it would be deemed too unsafe to cross.
Design criteria for a new bridge did not favour steel and wood, as these were prone to decay in the misty and rainy environment. In 1933 the Public Works Department enlisted a Wellington based chief engineer, who decided concrete would be the most suitable material. The Raetihi firm Sandford and Brown won the tender for £806.42.
PJ Matthews won the separate contract amounting to £839.40 for cartage of the 15 tons of reinforcing steel and 17,000 superfeet of timber needed.
Work started in January 1935, but was suspended in March because the access road used to cart materials became impassable. On July 21st there were massive floods and over 100 men were sent to work in an effort to reopen the road.
In 1935 the first Labour Government’s Minister of Lands, Frank Langstone, was vociferous in his disapproval of the settlement scheme, a prophecy which eventuated correctly.
The bridge’s early name was Morgan’s Bridge relating to the Morgan Brothers farming on the far side of the valley. However they had already left before work started. The bridge was eventually opened on 5th June 1936 with an informal ceremony involving Mr Sandford, the main contractor, who cut the ribbon. At the time, the road on the far side was not wide enough to take a vehicle, so the ceremony guests drove a car over the bridge and turned around. Only later was the track to Whanganui River widened, which now forms the walking track.
Before work started on the bridge, settlers were loosing interest in the district, especially on the far side of the valley. Indeed many had already left. From 1932, the Depression had caused a dramatic slump in the prices of wool and meat and settlers found the land was only good for 3 or 4 years before it reverted back to scrub The efforts needed to keep clearing it were daunting and uneconomic. Wild pigs were rooting up the land, destabilising the soil further. They also contributed to stock losses and numbers reached plague proportions. In one 1923 hunt, a settler killed over 300 animals.
The isolation of the area also meant labour costs were high to keep the access road open. When the Second World War broke out, it became too difficult to find the men to keep the perpetually degrading road open.
The 1930s were also a decade of floods for the area. Devastating rains in 31, 33, 35, 36, 39 and 1940 caused the Whanganui River to become so choked with logs, settlers joked they could walk down the river to Pipiriki on them!
In 1942 came the final stroke of oblivion for the valley and bridge. 150 mm of rain fell in a three hour period between 9 am and 12 noon. 16 miles of road were washed away, the repair costs estimated at £10,385. Over the period from 1921 to 1942, the total expenditure on maintaining the road had amounted to £298,436. This was just one flood too many and the Government decided not to repair the road again. The remaining three families left the valley.
The only other major floods since have been in 1981 and 2004.
North Island ▷ Manawatu - Wanganui ▷ Whanganui River
A pretty random structure seemingly in the middle of nowhere - good information boards explain what it is all about. Great scenery - watch out for mountain bikers flying towards you as you walk up the track from the river.
If you walk up the track a few extra minutes there is a crystal clear spring flowing out of the rocks to top up your drink bottles.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍