Riding the Gentle Annie from Napier to River Valley

Sometimes shortcuts don’t work out as planned. A new pathway transforms itself into an epic journey through a scenic wonderland of interesting diversions … and in short, there’ll be nothing short about it.

And so it was with the Gentle Annie, mere centimetres of meandering yellow line on the map leading from the summery brown and windswept plains of Hawke’s Bay through to the Central Plateau. Of course, there was the option of the Napier-Taupo Highway, but the prospect of accompanying Gentle Annie on an adventurous scenic spin through the Kaweka Ranges proved irresistible.

A senior basking in the sun outside Omahu’s dairy as we filled up our picnic basket wasn’t so sure. “I dunno,” he said, shaking his grizzled head. “Last time I was up that way we got stuck for three days.”

Like many of New Zealand’s not-so-beaten tracks, Gentle Annie has a reputation for being anything but a lady, with devilish curves and a penchant for tortuously rough play against dramatic backdrops. But brave adventurers are not daunted by such hearsay, and in good touring form we dived into Annie’s embrace.

It all begins calmly enough as we glide smoothly past the Mangawhare Homestead, surrounded by the ghosts of passengers who waited with bated breath in bygone days as rival coaches charged along the straights, swaying madly as they battled it out on the bumps to be the first on the scene. This area has been farmed since the 1860s, and although it's now a forgotten byway, it was once one of the busiest pack trails in New Zealand. By the 1870s, wool was a coveted commodity, and its vast inland sheep runs like Erewhon Station were fully stocked with huge flocks of merino sheep. Long trains of packhorses bound for Napier were split into teams of 10 beasts to one packman, each team ferrying 900kg of wool as well as fodder for the perilous journey.

Many a beast would miss its step and plummet to its death in the Ngaruroro Gorge, while the packman hurried the rest of his horses through before they too panicked and plunged over the edge. It was only when rumours of gold began to circulate that a more accessible wagon trail was forged towards the mountains, though promises of the Pioneer Gold Mine never amounted to much more than words.

We pass the site of the old Willowford Accommodation House, where a waterwheel-powered pump and forge once repaired wagons. It was a resting place for travellers to gather their strength, before crossing the Kaweka Ranges, towering above the Heretaunga Plains and offering panoramic views of Hawke’s Bay the whole way.

At Blowhard Bush we make a stop to stretch our legs, and wander through a strange limestone landscape, where the rock has been fractured into blocks by active fault lines, then eroded to look like stacks of carefully arranged chocolate chips. Between these tall pillars, climbing plants and vines form hanging gardens as they scramble to be the first to reach the light, and cabbage trees contort their slender trunks to join the heavenward race.

Further on the journey is dominated by views of Mount Miroroa’s rugged cliffs. These shelter a deep valley where the Fern Bird Bush Scenic Reserve is situated, a haven for this elusive creature. Then our path crosses the Waikarokaro Stream. A short side trip up Kuripapango Road leads to a walking track to twin lakes that were formed by a slip thousands of years ago and are reputed by locals to be stocked with the descendants of Scottish trout brought here from Loch Leven in the 1860s.

Tempting though it is to make a stop to try our luck, we press on to the village of Kuripapango, gateway to the Gentle Annie, and a legendary spot in the challenging sport of dog trials, for it was here that the North Island competitions originated nearly 100 years ago and it still sets the benchmark. The town was once home to a pair of hotels, one on each side of the Ngaruroro River, and connected in 1899 by the John Griffin Bridge. With a maximum load-bearing capacity of 6.5 tons, the structure could handle the weight of a truck only, without its load. With farming in full swing, this inconvenient issue was resolved with some Kiwi ingenuity by the building of platforms on each bank; here, stock could be off-loaded and held until it could be walked across the bridge to the other platform, where it would await reloading onto the truck again, once it too had crossed. It wasn’t until 1961 that a functional Callender and Hamilton bridge, replaced this eccentric set-up.

Crossing the river without event, we drive into the convoluted heart of Gentle Annie – truly a rollercoaster of hairpin bends and mind-spinning vertiginous drops – through to a gentler landscape of grassy plateaux, where large fenced stations unfold one after the other.

Just before the road meets with the Rangitikei River, we turn off and drive through green and rolling countryside to Pukeokahu, and from there a short drive leads to River Valley, a peaceful retreat on the banks of the fast-flowing Rangitikei River.

We're in perfect time to stroll towards the heavenly aromas wafting on the breeze from the lodge kitchen. Minutes later, we’re tucking into a hearty roast beef dinner in the Great Room, where there's an impressive central fireplace, and a series of stepped courtyards lead out to gardens of rhododendrons, hebes, kowhai, and moss-covered ponga, sprout between enormous river stones.

Tomorrow we’re back on the road again, but with memories of the mesmerising waters of the Rangitikei, spellbinding pools and deep gorges of the Ngaruroro – not to mention the twin lakes filled with Scottish trout – we’re considering taking a shortcut, if there is such a thing...