Camping and exploring in the Rangitikei
Rangitikei encompasses a large area (4483km2 ) that is generally well-serviced by secondary roading, a multitude of one-way bridges (some say the most in New Zealand), dirt roads and the most beautiful and varied scenery you will ever come across in a single regional council district.
The region is directly bordered by Whanganui, Manawatu and Ruapehu District Councils, and is mostly contained within Horizons Regional Council with a small remote area encompassed by the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.
The land spreads from the western white sand beaches through river escarpment up to the Central Plateau. It is fed by two major State Highways, SH1 and SH3, three major river systems and part of Te Araroa — New Zealand’s Trail.
From SH1 (Bulls to Waiouru) and SH3 (to Whanganui) secondary roads snake off from these arteries, while tertiary roads (mostly unpaved, dirt roads) are like a spider web connecting all the farms and stations together. The southern boundary is girt by the Rangitikei River up to Mangaweka, where it heads east, following the Kawhatau River into the hills. Then it follows the hills north into vast, empty, native forest land until crossed by the Taihape–Napier Road (aka The Gentle Annie).
Other than the state highways and The Gentle Annie, there are few roads suitable for larger vehicles such as campers, but where you can access the back roads, do so, for the magnificent scenery. The locals are friendly and may direct you to camping sites, if you stop for a chat and ask nicely. The northern boundary is through the Kaimanawa Forest Park, south of Waiouru, then west towards Rangiwaea (literally, in the middle of nowhere on dirt roads) and south to Papanui Junction on the Turakina Valley Road.
The western route, from Taihape through Papanui Junction is a most scenic route, suitable for all vehicles in the dry weather. There is a point where views to the sea can be enjoyed, remarkable, from so far inland— a lot of sites along this route boast good views. Park well off the road as farmers use this road and are ruthless in their driving abilities.
The wee, unfortunate Whangaehu forms the Northern limit on SH3, which follows Whangaehu River to the sea. The site is unfortunate as it is on a floodplain and due to regular river overspills, renders most housing uninsurable.
The Rangitikei District Council prides itself to offer freedom camping throughout it’s boundaries and is ‘Motor Home/Caravan Friendly’. “We offer clean, clear night skies for star gazing in rural areas.”
Visit this site for a wide range of activities: rangitikei.com
Most early access was via the river, leaving the roads undeveloped. With an historically low population (just over 1 household per km2), the large nature of farm stations, the coastal steamer routes that bypassed Rangitikei (in favour of Foxton/Palmerston North and the Wanganui ports), this situation has, arguably, barely improved. But this lack of development is a benefit to sightseeing.
Here are a few tips
Park in designated areas, not just on the side of roads, as farmers use these roads with large machinery at all hours and large cattle trucks are plentiful.
Be aware of your own security, and ensure you have cell coverage (even if your own provider has no signal, emergency calls can be made on any provider’s network from any phone).
Leave no trace, and do help clean up whenever stopping, to keep the place pretty for the next visitor.
Drive to the conditions, respect locals and give way to other vehicles (and animals) on the road, as their livelihoods depend on access; you are a visitor to their domain.
Read more, with camping sites, interesting routes and local attractions on our website.: ckw.nz/rangatikei
There will be locations and attractions I have missed. Some deliberately as this is about camping, but I do recommend that wherever you go, stop and talk to the locals: they have endless knowledge and are usually very willing to offer their suggestions.
Home to the Taihape-Napier Road (the Gentle Annie). Magnificent views, but put aside a whole day, or two to traverse its twisting hilly course into the Rangitikei from the Hawke’s Bay. Camping at the halfway point just inside the boundary cannot be beat. North east of Taihape, off Hautapu Street in Papakai Park, is a nice stream and picnic area (mozzies permitting).
Overnight camping is allowed, but gates are shut at dusk. Start of the Hautapu River walk (4 km; risk of flooding). Huge number of fast food outlets in town. Give cooking a break and also shop the second hand stores. Check out the gumboot throwing arena near the railway station and test your arm (gumboots are usually in attendance). River Anduin from Lord of the Rings is inland from Taihape but inaccessible.
Best views are from Mokai River Bridge, access from the Gravity Canyon road (Gorge Road) just before you get to Utiku. Well worth a few days to explore this forgotten area and arguably the best river views in New Zealand.
Utiku and south
Stop and enjoy the history of wool as Utiki was the hub of wool spinning. Families would stop from miles around to buy their next years’ worth of wool. There may be parking at the old petrol station on SH1 as the owner has a second hand shop in Taihape and can be asked. Otherwise there is a rest area with tables just south of the town.
If you’ve taken the inland route from Gravity Canyon, you’ll come out just before the Mangaweka climb. I suggest you avoid the hill and head South to McKinnon’s Bush Reserve on Potaka Road. Great camping to be had on the banks of the Kawhatau River. Then head left on Kawhatau Road for a scenic route to Mangaweka (dirt roads).
Stop at Ruahine Dress Circle Reserve for a dip in the most scenic swimming hole in New Zealand. I challenge you.
Then stop at the lookout back on Manawatu Scenic Route towards Mangaweka. (I cheated, this is in the Manawatu, but so close to Rangitikei)
Mangaweka and Rangitikei River access
Coming in from the east you’ll cross our newest bridge (still one lane) and find Rangitikei Camping Grounds. One of the most scenic places you’ll stay. Pay for your spot at Awastone (back over the river) or in the kiosk (if manned).
Do the walk to the old Mangaweka Power House and Dam. Some good footwear is advised (numerous dead jandals seen beside track).
A short drive traversing part of the old Mangaweka Track can be accessed via Te Kapua Road, just south of the Mangaweka township. It loops back to SH1, north of the town.
Overnight parking is available at the Mangaweka Hall car park near the public toilets. Visit the Museum on Sundays. It is a fantastic collection, lovingly curated and cared for by locals. Art is the thing in Mangaweka. EV Charging is available in the township. ChargeNet and Tesla Supercharger. Look out for the Mangaweka Scenic Reserve Track (1.4 km) Stop on the climb south for more fantastic views of the Rangitikei River white stone cliffs.
The Ohingaiti Tavern offers truck stop accommodation and meals. Over the main highway in the old school grounds is Ako Retreat and the host is now offering powered sites for self-contained vehicles, in addition to a 3 brm home for stays.
Just to the north is Flat Hills Café and Tourist Park (https://www.flathills.co.nz). An awful lot of effort has gone into creating a one stop facility and it offers everything you’ll need to stay.
Otara Road takes you to Whitecliffs Boulders where a day can easily be lost in the wonderland. Whitecliffs Boulders Track (3.9 km) (closed for lambing Aug-Oct).
Vinegar Hill Campground, not exactly in Rangitikei as you cross the river to access, but this campground is very scenic. Just avoid New Years period as it hosts a large contingent of campers.
An alternative scenic route (dirt) is to take Ongo Road to the west of Hunterville, and then north via Turakina Valley Road where a lot of camping opportunities beside the river can be found. You can get lost in these dirt roads, so be sure of your route. Final destination is back to Taihape.
Or turn south off Ongo road onto Mangahoe Road then take Turakina Valley Road South to Turakina. If you like, turn left before Turakina on Makuhao Road and head towards the Tutaenui Reservoir where a walk around the lake can be enjoyed as well as a car park for an overnight stay (be prepared to be woken early by dog walkers and MTBs using the track).
Just South of Hunterville is the Bruce Park area on the right (the old SH1 route), Aldworth Road, which boasts 1 hour bush walk, and a limited car park with toilet facilities.
Site of Camp Fest 2023. There is a motel/camp site to the South of the town. Freedom camping can be had nearby. Southbound, cross SH1 at the Rest Area just before the bridge and traverse the dirt road towards the river under the bridge to an open area.
Freedom camping can also be obtained at the Domain (during Camp Fest) on the carpark in front of the rugby clubrooms. Just be sure you want to stay all night as the gates are locked at dusk.
EV Charging is available at the Bulls Community Centre.
There is a small campsite at the entrance to town. Toilets and the site features a “weather rock”.
Access to the river stopbank behind affords nice walk to the river mouth. Walk through town to the beach. Avoid whitebaiting season and stormy weather as it is busy with regulars and the site is prone to flooding.
The old Coach Road crossed Rangitikei River at this point, forcing a significant diversion for travellers. Later on, another ferry crossing at Ferry Road, Bulls, provided a shorter route until the Bulls bridge was built. The old ferry was restored and is a feature at the entrance to the township.
A small road towards the sea is probably the shortest route to the Tasman Sea from any state highway in Rangitikei. However, there is cross country required over farmlands (close gates that are closed, leave open gates that are open) to a camping site which is favoured by whitebaiters.
This area is subject to flooding and soft soils, therefore should be avoided in rain and non-4wd vehicles.
The seat of the Ratana religion where government meets on TW Ratana’s birthday to hand over the fiscal envelope and assure the continuation of government. It is accessed by a dead-end road that is well signposted.
No formal campsite, but the locals are friendly and may direct you to a suitable site if you ask nicely.
The town no longer has a tavern and only boasts a petrol station and 2 cemeteries.
The café at the antiques shop is no longer operating, but the shop is worth a stroll through.
This is the beach west from Turakina and has a lovely campsite near the shore. Overruns from the camp are contained in a area on the other side of the road. It may appear to be free camping, but it is reserved for paying campers.
There is limited space on the side of the road, or if 4wd capable, towards the beach down a sandy track.
Site of the annual Country Music Festival which hosts over 400 campers at Sir James Wilson Memorial Park to the east of the town.
Located off Marton's Wellington Rd behind Marton Memorial Park is a lovely short walk. The loop path is of exceptional quality and takes about 20 minutes to walk around. Lots of mature trees and tranquil spots to sit and gaze at the trees, right in the heart of Marton township.
There is an NZMCA park behind Marton Park, but as RDC allows freedom camping, you can take advantage of some lovely overnight spots around town, especially Totara Street and Marton Park where public toilets are located (avoid Saturday morning sports though).
Head North up Tutaenui Road to the reservoir for a good walk and more camping sites.
Ten minutes drive north of Bulls is a sensational recreational facility. The lake is great for swimming, boating, jet-skiing and water skiing. Fishing is permitted as the lake is stocked with trout and has a good population of perch.
The campground is located next to the lake and has powered and non-powered sites for tents, campervans, caravans, and hall for rent.
There is a 2km walkway around the lake planted with native trees and great views of birdlife at the upper end. https://duddinglake.nz/
3 Autumn 2023
©2023 M Richardson
©2023 M Richardson