The Story of the Manawatu Gorge in New Zealand

The Manawatu Gorge in the North Island of New Zealand provides an important link between the east and west. This story tells of Maori legend, early Maori canoe transport and the development of road and rail transport through the Manawatu Gorge.

The Manawatu Gorge, in the North Island of New Zealand, is an important road and rail link. It connects the Manawatu region in the west with the Hawkes Bay region in the east. This is an unusual gorge because it’s the only one in the southern hemisphere that starts on one side of the ranges, flowing through to the other. The gorge and the Manawatu River flowing through it pass through the gap between the Tararua Ranges to the south and the Ruahine ranges to the north.

Maori legends of Manawatu Gorge

The Maori name for the gorge, Te Apiti, means ‘The Narrow Passage.’ A Maori legend tells the story of the spirit, Okatia, trapped inside a totara tree determined to make his way from the east to the west to reach the sea. On being hindered by the ranges he crashed his way through the rocky, mountainous ranges, thus forming the gorge.

Another legend of the gorge tells of how a large reddish rock in the Manawatu River near the center of the gorge is said to be a guardian spirit of the gorge. Maoris travelling by canoe would stop at the rock and recite a karakia or prayer to ensure their safe passage through the gorge.

The Gorge and Pre-European Settlement

In pre-European times the gorge and river were an important means of access from one side of the North Island to the other. In places, where the river was too narrow or the rapids too swift, the Maori people had to drag their canoes by foot.

The first European to have contact with the gorge is believed to be a pig and flax trader called Jack Duff, when he was guided through the gap in the hills by Maoris in about 1830.

Road and Rail Transport

As settlements grew, the Manawatu Gorge began to be opened up, enabling travellers to move between the Hawkes Bay and Manawatu. The road, on the southern side of the gorge, was initially a winding one way route, cut and blasted out of the solid rock cliffs. Opened in 1870, at first it was only suitable for foot and horse traffic. Improvements were made enabling coach transport to travel through after a bridge over the Manawatu River was built at the eastern end in 1875. Now the road is a busy highway, with an estimated 6,000 vehicles travelling through it daily.

The railway line was constructed on the northern side. Planning for the line started in 1870, but it was to be another 21 years before the line was completed and opened in 1891.

The Manawatu Gorge Today

The city of Palmerston North in the west and the township of Woodville in the east are the two main settlements linked by the gorge.

As well as being an important highway today, linking the east of the North Island to the west, the Manawatu Gorge is also a popular recreational area. The river’s rapids provide challenges for those who enjoy jet boating and kayaking. From time to time vintage steam trains make the trip through the gorge and once a year the railway track, with all its tunnels, is opened for a popular walk through the gorge. There is also the popular Manawatu Gorge Walking Track, talking trampers through native bush on the southern side.

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Johnny Dod
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Posted on May 2, 2010