Reader’s Ride

Is there gravel on The Forgotten World Highway?

It’s like a right of passage for motorcyclists, tackling the infamous SH 43 to get to the Republic of Whangamomona. But is there still a gravel section on this stunning road? Jo went to find out…

Forgotten Highway motorcycle ride

Here to set the record straight as of mid-April 2022: is there still gravel on SH 43, the Forgotten World Highway? Yes. Despite the rumours that it’s all been sealed, I can confirm that there is still 11.5km of unsealed metal road. A group of us were travelling from Wellington to New Plymouth the weekend before Easter, and I found myself peeling off to take the long way to find out the truth.

Google says that this is the only state highway in NZ to be not yet completely sealed, but not for long. The NZTA website states that work is underway to seal the remaining gravel, and to expect road closures. I knew nothing of this heading in, and luckily, the whole road was open when I went through on Saturday afternoon.

I could not have chosen a more perfect autumn day. Due to my late departure, the sun was low by the time I left Taumaranui at 3.30 pm. The Forgotten World Highway extends 151km from Taumaranui through to Stratford. The road starts as pretty, rolling farmland with panoramic views behind you of Ruapehu. It’s worth pulling over for a look instead of trying to see in your mirrors (unless you’re heading west to east, in which case it’s all laid out in front of you). About 60km in, the road turns sharply southeast and heads into the Tangarakau Gorge. Farmland changes to grand bluffs and bush. This is where the gravel starts.

The first time I did this, years ago, dusk was falling when I got to the dirt part. The walls of the Gorge loomed up in the settling darkness, and goats bounced out of the bush in front of me. I remember the gravel being about 40km, but that might have been because it was my first time, and dark. Even so, it wasn’t bad at all. 

This time the sun hit the bluffs, and the bush glowed green. Like much other North Island riding, there were still plenty of goats. As soon as the road turned to shingle, I set the trip meter to get the accurate truth. We’ve all seen the question that pops up all the time on every riding Facebook page: “Is there gravel on SH 43 out Whangamomona?” Yes, there is, and it’s not bad. I stand as an eyewitness that the sealing work remains incomplete. The metal is flat and easy. There’s no tricky high crown to slide down on your road tyres; no drifts of gravel in the middle with fist-sized stones; no slippery mud and clay. It’s good, honest dirt, lightly shingled, nicely compacted and pretty much flat.

I found myself cruising easily on the Gixxer 1000, even with tired road tyres, doing a chill 40-60km/h. It could have been quicker, but fairings are too costly to scratch up on this old girl, and I mean the bike, too. This slowed to 30km/hr when I encountered the one oncoming vehicle between Taumarunui and The Republic, and only because I was being considerate of their windscreen. The road was plenty wide enough for two vehicles the whole way through the gravel section. At about the 10km mark, there are some road cones and 30km/h signs. This might be evidence of the work in hand.

There are some ups and downs, all at a very gentle, easy gradient. It’s not really a factor. Some of you might go a bit faster than me, as I might on an adventure bike too. As I said, the biggest issue is probably goats. There’s a small patch of seal in the middle where the bridge is, and then back to dirt, 11.5km in total. No dramas, no worries.

tunnel NZ

Soon after the gravel ends, you come to the famous Moki Tunnel. It’s compulsory to stop for a photo here to stick on your socials later. Everyone loves a good Moki Tunnel pic. The bottom of the tunnel can get dusty with a build-up of dry silt, so stay in a tyre track unless you like a nice surprise slide. Nothing scary. Take it easy and enjoy. On the other side of the tunnel, you’ll pass through Tahora. Kindly locals have put up a helpful sign, “You’re Lost”. Nice try, locals, but it’s not true. Stay on the road and you’ll be entering the border of the mighty Republic of Whangamomona within minutes. It’s also compulsory to stop here and get another photo of your bike and the iconic Whagamomona Hotel. 

Whangamomona Hotel ride

My advice to those gravel questions would be that if you’re capable of happily cruising the Forgotten World Highway, then you’re definitely going to handle the gravel section without any difficulty, sports, cruiser or adventure. I’d take a belt-driven cruiser without any concern about getting a stone in the belt. It’s seriously well-behaved dirt.

And the rest of the road? It’s fine. It’s a beautiful, typical, not flash/not awful New Zealand Aotearoa country road. And it’s true – there’s very little cell phone reception. It’s like riding back in the day: if something goes wrong, you’d flag down a friendly local. They’re also more than happy for a chat and to take a picture of you on your bike with a nice view in the background. 

Once you’re at the top of the Whangamomona saddle, it’s pretty much downhill. I was treated to a spectacular vision of the sun setting beside Mt Taranaki in front of me.

My great grandfather was the local stationmaster here in the 1920s, so it has never felt like a strange land to me. The timing estimate of about three hours, with photo stops, was accurate. I rolled into Stratford on dusk, and the stars were out hanging in a flawless black sky by the time I arrived in New Plymouth at 6.45 pm. Welcome to the end of daylight saving. At least it wasn’t cold. It was a delight to be out in the perfection of a Taranaki twilight. The pink, blue and gold sky of a Te Ika a Maui West Coast sunset is like nowhere else. We’re pretty lucky to be here to see our beautiful country, no roof above us as we ride, aye, people.

Happy travels, friends. 

Aroha, Jo

Words & pics: Jo Baxter