Something for those planning a motoring excursion this summer. Earlier this year came news that the notorious “Gentle Annie” road between Taihape and Napier would finally be sealed. In some ways this is a shame, though it has been a torturous, narrow, winding road since pioneering days, with 60km in gravel that doesn't make it any easier. But you are rewarded with wonderful views of the backblocks, where high country stations run to the tens of thousands of acres. And driving west to east - the best way to go - a panoramic vista of Hawke Bay opens up in front of you. Unfortunately some of the “tiger country” aspect of the trip has lost its adventurous feel, as bends get straightened out and plantations of pines at the Hawke's Bay end have covered the rugged, rocky ground where no sheep could ever get a feed. I just came across this account of a road trip from Auckland to Napier over the Gentle Annie in the week of the 1931 Napier earthquake; it's a shame the author is anonymous, and the make of motor vehicle.
A Trip to the ’Quake Area
When news of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake was received in Auckland last Tuesday, a friend of mine who has relatives in Napier telephoned me to say that he was setting out for the devastated area at once. Would I come? There was but one reply. I hurriedly packed a suit of pyjamas, a toothbrush, a bottle of whisky and a loaf of bread into my oldest suitcase, bundled a travelling rug under my arm, for we realised that we might have to sleep out, and off we went.
The whisky, I might explain, was not for the driver’s consumption. It was intended for sufferers in the earthquake area, as was the bread. None we found in Napier was in urgent need of either whisky or bread, but they were not wasted.
We left Auckland on Tuesday afternoon, making for Taupo. At that time no definite news had come through as to the state of the roads, and we hoped to get through the shortest way, by the direct route from Taupo.
The powerful car left mile after mile behind her. We maintained a high average speed, as was necessary if, as we proposed, we were to go right through that night. To Taupo in six hours was good going, especially as the Atiamuri road, which we took, is not in the best order. The inevitable stoppages for benzene, oil, and one stop for puncture near Tirau, slowed the rate of speed.
At Taupo the only news from outside regarding the earthquake was coming over the air. We encountered one distracted woman who, while going to dinner at her hotel in Rotorua, had heard the radio announcement of the death of her daughter, a nurse in the Napier hospital. She, like ourselves, was making for Napier but there was no telephone communication beyond Tarawera and advices at Taupo were strongly against attempting the road. As we were debating whether or not to “give it a go,” a Baby Austin pulled into the hotel. Its driver had turned back from Te Pohue. Beyond that point, he said, was chaos. As it happened, he could, as we later found, have got through by way of Rissington side road, but had not known of its existence. We assumed that this, too, was blocked, and decided to attempt the little known Taihape-Napier road, one of the steepest and most picturesque motor runs in the country.
ROUND THE LAKE
After supper and a cup of stimulating tea, we pushed on from Taupo. The change in the route was to add many miles to our journey. From Taupo, the way led round the lake to Tokaanu, across to Waiouru by way of the lonely back road, and on past Hihitahi to the Moawhango turnoff.
A bright moon made driving easier, but it was nevertheless a great strain, as we were making all possible speed. Some parts of the Taupo-Tokaanu road are difficult. Notably the winding descent of the steep-sided fissure known at Earthquake Gully. Owing to the fords at the southern end of the lake, we decided to wait till daylight, and pulled into the scrub for three hours of fitful sleep (interspersed with vicious slaps at mosquitoes).
In the daylight the driving was easier, but we were a a crumpled and dishevelled looking band when we alighted from the car at Tokaanu. The road on to Waiouru has been much improved of recent years, but here again there are several river crossings, and for several miles out from Tokaanu the roads wind continuously. Near Waiouru some long flat stretches across the lonely, arid countryside allowed us to make up time. On the main road from Waiouru we could at times touch 60 miles an hour, but the turn off to Moawhango, where a heavily-laden signpost showed us the direction to be taken, took us again into the hills.
TOWARD THE EAST
We were now heading eastward for Napier. The country was fairly lofty, but good sheep land. The road continuously twisted and turned. On our left was the 10,000 acre sheep run of TC Lowry, the New Zealand cricket captain. AT length we reached Erewhon station, a very pretty place, and began the descent into the deep valley of the Rangitikei, which is crossed by a modern concrete suspension bridge. We had been rather worried about the bridge, as we feared the earthquake might have brought it down. From the river the road ascends on to the lonely Otupae plateau, consisting of very elevated tussock country. Looking back from one of the many gates, there was a glorious view of Mount Ruapehu, a long line of peaks. The sides of the undulating plateau, several miles away, fell into dark valleys, whence rose steeply-scarped peaks.
Coming off the plateau, the road runs on top of a high saddle, sloping to a river one each side. This river, the Taruarau, joins the Ngaruroro lower down. Winding down the spur, we at length crossed a crazy old bridge, followed grass tracks across a paddock, and immediately rose into the hills again. All this is great deer-stalking country, steep, lonely, and bleak.
Through a pretty glen we reached a dangerous looking ford, with a terrific gradient on the other side. A few more miles of this brought us to the crest of Gentle Annie, commanding a wonderful view over the upper Ngaruroro, with the hamlet of Kuripapango down below us. The descent of Gentle Annie, by a corkscrew road round slopes hundreds of feet in depth, was a hair-raising experience. Crossing the Ngaruroro on a bridge high above the water, we stopped for a few minutes at Snelling’s accommodation house, with its wonderful collection of deer heads, and then pushed on over the last of the main ranges.
In the old days Studholme, GP Donnelly, Birch brothers, and others of the old-time squatters packed their wool out by this route. Now it is becoming a passable road for motorists, though not commended for nervous people. After descending the Blowhard, the last big hill, another hour or so took us into Napier. Careful driving was necessary, as the roads were cracked and fissured.
In Napier were many Auckland motorists. We formed a camp with some others in a swaying garage at what had once been one of Napier’s finest private residences. The whisky came in useful, for whenever a marine or other sentry stopped us from traversing a road along which we wanted to go, we simply produced the whisky bottle and it acted as a talisman.
– NZ Observer, 12 February 1931
(Maps from the top: Philips' New Comparative Dominion Atlas, 1932; Atlantic Union Oil map, 1932; AARD Motor Services Association, 1932 - the latter two are details from Map New Zealand: 100 Magnificent Maps from the Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library (Godwit, Auckland: 2006) which is indeed magnificent.)