The Manawatu Gorge is a much-traveled highway between Woodville, in the Manawatu, and Ashhurst, in the Hawkes Bay region.
On dark nights, as we traveled through the winding Gorge, we always kept a sharp lookout for Barney’s ghost. Barney was a road-man who worked on the Gorge in the early days. Every part of the road had a resident road-man back then. They took care of the slips and culverts, filled potholes, and generally kept the road open. There was no helpful machinery for them. All of their work was done with shovels and wheelbarrows. Barney had a hut up on a bluff overlooking what came to be known as Barney’s corner. A rumor went around that he had gold buried under his hut. One night he was murdered – probably for his non-existent gold – and his ghost is rumored to haunt the Woodville Road. There were also reported sightings of a coach and four galloping through the Gorge on wild nights.
The road through the Gorge is rough and dangerous enough without the numerous legends that have grown up around it. Even the Maori found it daunting and had their own explanation of how it was formed. The legend tells of a giant Totara tree that grew in the Puketoi Range of Southern Hawkes Bay. The tree became restless and began to move to the northwest, gouging a channel as it went. When its path was blocked by the high hills it bored through the rock to make a passage. This is how Te Apiti (the Manawatu Gorge) was formed.
Geologists believe that the Gorge was caused by the ranges moving upwards at the same time as the rock was being eroded by the Manawatu River. The Gorge is unique as the only place in New Zealand where a river starts on the opposite side of the main divide to where it joins the sea.
A road was completed along the south side of the Gorge in 1872, and in 1891 a railway line was finally established on the north side. Both of these routes were laboriously blasted and hewn out of the solid rock of the cliffs. An enthusiastic writer to the Manawatu Herald in 1879 described the road as ‘one of the most dangerous in the colony’ and as ‘a great bridge that joined the two sides of the country’. This last description was an attempt to argue that, as all bridges of over 30 feet span were maintained by the Government, the Gorge also should be treated in this way. The Government however saw things differently.
There have been many accidents in the Gorge over the years. In 1884 there was a report in the Manawatu Times of a female coach passenger being thrown out onto the cliff side as the coach swung around a tight corner. She had unwisely hung out over the seat to obtain a better view. Luckily she was picked up intact except for a few bruises.
Nor’west gales funnel through the narrow pass. In 1889 a picnic party traveling to the Woodville side of the Gorge had their buggy shifted bodily from a safe position on the road to within a few inches of the precipitous banks. The ladies of the party declined to travel back on the road, and returned to town by train instead.
I doubt that the train was always safer, as there have been a number of derailments in the Gorge. One in particular, in 1946, was seen by my husband when he was a little boy. Sadly, the train driver and fireman were killed.
There are always slips in the Gorge, right up to the present day, and it is unusual to travel through it without encountering road-works somewhere along its length.