Out of the mist on Motu Trails

The bridges of Eastland’s Motu Falls span 140 years of ambition and challenge. Motu Trails advocate Jim Robinson explores their history in a two-part series.

The bridges of Eastland’s Motu Falls span 140 years of ambition and challenge. Motu Trails advocate Jim Robinson explores their history in a two-part series.

Jim Robinson on today’s bridge which crosses the Motu at the same point as past bridges. Picture New Roads Home
The building of the current suspension bridge was led by the community. New Roads Home picture
The first three bridges were all truss design. This painting shows the third bridge.
The 1893 call for tenders for the second Motu Falls bridge. Papers past picture

MISTY is the only way to describe the history of bridges at Motu Falls, between Opotiki and Gisborne. As misty as the air when the mighty Motu river is full and you walk out on the wire cable footbridge that spans the high banks — and spray drifts cool over your face.

It’s well known there have been earlier bridges here. Look down onto the hard rock below the falls and you can even spot remnants of an old concrete foundation. But how many bridges and when they stood has long blurred. Common knowledge is there have been three bridges, the first erected in 1885. Having trawled through decades of old newspaper articles — I’ve found sure proof of four.

What elevates this misty bridge history beyond backcountry curiosity is that, from the late-1870s into the early-1900s, the only formed route from the Bay of Plenty to Poverty Bay went via the falls. So, for a generation of early Eastland travellers, the falls crossing was nothing less than critical.

The route was the Opotiki and Ormond (or Ormond and Opotiki) road — ‘road’ being an optimistic term. It was cut through by armed constabulary and other works teams from 1872-1877. Over the years, there were route shifts but, essentially, it went from east of Opotiki up to the Whitikau and Marumoko valleys and what is now Whinray Scenic Reserve. It crossed the Motu river at the falls, before carrying on to Motu settlement and Ormond near Gisborne.

In the early-1900s, the Motu road forged a new route, crossing the river at Motu settlement. Even so, the falls remained a popular side trip. From 1914, Motu had a 100-room hotel and the area was promoted as an escape in the mountain air.

Only when the present-day Waioeka gorge road opened from 1929 did the mists come down. Motu hotel was cut up in 1934 and rebuilt in Matawai and Ormond. Slips and windfalls covered the Whinray section of road and, in 1954, the demolition of the third Motu Falls bridge cut off through-access. Time passed and memory faded.

Twenty-five years ago, when planning for the present-day footbridge began, local community hopes were to revive Motu tourism. Indeed, with the bridge open, the Whinray Scenic Reserve track was quickly restored. Competitors in the popular Motu Challenge multisport race have used both bridge and track every year since.

Encouraging more to come

The work of the Whinray Ecological Charitable Trust and Motu School children, the popularity of the Motu Trails Cycleway and, more recently, the opening of Motu-vation Café are all encouraging more people to venture to Motu, and on to the falls. And so, 140 years after the first Motu Falls bridge enabled a connection from bay to bay, the time seems right for the mists to lift.

Bridge 1: 1877-1892

No wonder it took the works teams five years: cutting the first crossing of the Eastland interior by hand must have been a mammoth task. The hills around Motu aren’t especially high, but the forest is dense, the weather is rigorous, and the terrain is often precipitous.

The first mention I’ve found of the falls bridge is in The Bay of Plenty Times in 1876, when the road is reported as reaching “from Opotiki to within one mile and a half of the Motu River . . . The timber for the Motu bridge is cut, below the falls, but that, and the necessary iron &c., for the erection of the bridge cannot be transported to the bridge site, till the road up to it is completed.”

Six months on, the same paper presents a remarkably clear description. “The truss bridge crossing the Motu river on the Opotiki and Ormond road, commenced over eighteen months ago is now completed; its erection having been attended with innumerable hardships and difficulties. The bridge . . . is sixty-eight feet long and fourteen feet wide, with three rows of piles morticed on to blocks of timber embedded in the rock foundation. It has two spans, one forty-five and the other twenty-three feet long. The matai timber of which it is built was cut on the spot . . . up the river, about sixty feet distant from the bridge, a waterfall comes tumbling down.”

“Great difficulty was experienced in packing up the iron work . . . some of the pieces being 120lbs weight, and of a very awkward shape for pack horses to carry.” Truss bridge design features diagonally-crossed timber framing, with vertical rods to hold tension. So “a very awkward shape” was likely lengths of iron several metres long.

The writer describes the road between Opotiki and Motu as cut to a width of eight feet and “passable for travellers on horseback in fine weather.” Within months, however, a weary traveller reports it has “wasted to a width of six feet, thus being too constricted for the purposes of dray traffic, or for cattle driving.”

Soon, the dire state of the Opotiki and Ormond road was to be its hallmark. In 1881, a letter to the Poverty Bay Herald reads, “we took four days from Gisborne to Opotiki, the pace of our horses being in general less than a man could walk, owing to the state of the road . . . it has been neglected ever since its formation, and all the works, except Motu bridge itself . . . are in a state of decay.”

An 1882 traveller shares the frustration. “There are some thirty or forty miles to the substantial bridge which crosses the Motu River, at the highly picturesque falls and rapids. To this part of the road nothing has been done in the way of maintenance for several years, and its neglected condition limits the class of travellers and their horses to those only whose powers of endurance, fortitude, health, and training will stand the severest ordeal.”

This road, remember, was the only formed crossing of Eastland.

Maybe the authorities were prodded by the continued complaint. An 1884 article proclaims, “All the slips have been cleared away, the trees removed, the bridges thoroughly repaired and the holes filled.” Not altogether reassuringly, the article goes on to declare the road is “now very passable indeed to about ten miles the [Opotiki] side of Motu, beyond which work is now in progress to form a deviation to avoid the terrible Whitikau swamp.”

The falls bridge appears on an 1885 survey plan. Then, in 1887, government journals state, “The Motu bridge [was] re-decked, and all other bridges made good.”

The next significant mention is in an early-1889 article on the pursuit of Te Kooti, when an armed constabulary force of 150 rode on horseback, with little rest, from Gisborne to Opotiki. “The route thence to the Motu is a very circuitous one, the bridle track winding round the sides of hills of fantastic shapes, and through gullies and streams, bush, and fern of all sizes. Very little talking was allowed in the ranks, in fact, most were striving to keep awake and guide their horses safely over the holes and round the curves in the path . . . Without any stoppages of duration the Motu bridge was crossed and another clearing reached at three in the afternoon.” On the return trip, the riders camped at the bridge.

Another three years on, winter 1892, comes an epic flood.

“Advices have reached us that the bridge over the Motu river on the Opotiki-Ormond road has been washed away,” The Bay of Plenty Times reports. “This is another serious loss to the district, as the river is a very awkward one to cross.”

Bridge 2: 1893-1910

Eight months on, there was no sign of a replacement: just discontent.

An article in the Poverty Bay Herald grumbles, “The Motu road is practically blocked for traffic, owing to the bridge being carried away last winter. Although the Government sent a surveyor up to examine the place, and although frequent requests have been made to them to erect the bridge, there is no indication that they intend to take any steps in the matter.” The writer points out, “The ford across the river is a very dangerous one”.

By March, however, things were underway. An ad from the Lands and Survey Office, Napier reads, “Tenders will be received . . . for the construction of a bridge, of a span of 70 feet.” In September, the Poverty Bay Herald reports a government grant of £750.

Just two months later, December 1893, the bridge was up. There’s no sign in the newspapers of an official opening, but the Herald fleetingly notes, “The Motu bridge has been finished, and we understand the Government inspector is thoroughly satisfied with the manner in which the contractor has carried out the work.”

Around this time, articles start to extol the beauty of the Motu area, not merely the challenge and hardship of breaking in the land. A trip diary of 1895 reports: “Three miles more of Motu slush, and the bridge was reached. From this structure the wayfarer gets a lovely view. Above and below the bridge are handsome falls . . . the bush hereabouts is beyond compare. Magnificent pungas, stately pois, great and lofty forest giants, and a dazzling variety of ferns and other verdure.”

Similar enthusiasm for the forest’s glory is expressed in 1903.

“We explored the Motu Falls and the scenic reserve with much interest. There is no doubt but this park will be a scenic reserve with much interest . . . a source of pride and gratification to the Gisborne people for all time . . . Here is the wild and awe-inspiring forest, the grandeur of the waterfall, and the picturesque charm of the fern-fringed river in all its moods. Below the Motu Falls bridge, where the foam of the falls floats in white flecks as it cataracts through the rocks, sits my friend, soliloquising and communing with Nature.”

A couple of years after that gilded prose, thanks largely to the tireless campaigning of cabinet maker-councillor-conservationist James Whinray, the government would officially set aside a tract of forest for scenic purposes, named Whinray Park. “He took a keen interest in having breathing spaces reserved for the people,” read Whinray’s obituary in 1912. We should all be grateful.

Photos of the second bridge show another truss structure. The type of timber is unclear — but it wasn’t robust. As soon as 1902: “It has been found that the bridge over the Motu Falls is unsound and requires a good deal of repairs. The road overseer and his men are now engaged on the task. The bridge has not been up more than eight years, and would have lasted much better had it received more frequent coats of paint. It is a case of ‘spoiling the ship for want of a ha’p’orth of tar.’”

In 1904, there’s again news of a heavy flood with recollection of the first bridge’s demise. “All the flats are covered, and the hotel is surrounded . . . the flood is within 2ft in height of the big flood of 1892, which carried away the Motu bridge.”

Road repair must have followed that deluge because, by 1905, the 5km stretch between Motu settlement and the falls was in good enough condition to carry horse drawn vehicles. “The Motu Falls were inspected by many visitors on Saturday. Most of the sightseers rode or left their vehicles within a mile of the bridge . . . The honour of being the first lady to drive over the falls bridge belongs to Mrs Atkins of Patutahi, a daughter of [original settler] Mr C Hansen. She undertook the trip in a two-wheeler on Saturday.”

Another milestone came in 1906 when, after much campaigning, a bridge was erected at Motu settlement — facilitating development of the more direct Motu road. An article on the opening celebrations contains an aside, “The old bridge by the falls on the Opotiki road is to be repaired and strengthened.” The same year — feel their anguish — yet another flood. Water levels are reported as “Within eighteen inches of the big flood which occurred about thirteen years ago when the bridge over the Motu River on the Gisborne-Opotiki bridle track was carried away.”

While the Opotiki and Ormond road is now typically described as a “bridle track” or “horse track”, the falls continued to attract interest. On New Year’s Day 1908, “The settlers in the Motu District had a united picnic just beyond the celebrated Motu Falls in Whinray Park . . . There was a cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen on horseback, besides a number of carriages, a famous spread ad libitum.”

There’s no mention of the bridge in that account, perhaps because it was now in such a bad state it needed not merely a fix-up, but replacement. One 1909 report sharply observes on “The necessity that exists for the urgent construction of the Motu Falls bridge.” Another, “The other two most important works in the county are the erection of new bridges at the Motu Falls and across the Motu River.” The latter reference may well be the truss-design rail bridge that still stands at Moutohora near Motu, a quiet monument to the concurrent ambition of connecting Poverty Bay and the Bay of Plenty by rail.

The claims of decrepitude were correct. In early-1910, the second Motu Falls bridge simply fell down.

MISTY is the only way to describe the history of bridges at Motu Falls, between Opotiki and Gisborne. As misty as the air when the mighty Motu river is full and you walk out on the wire cable footbridge that spans the high banks — and spray drifts cool over your face.

It’s well known there have been earlier bridges here. Look down onto the hard rock below the falls and you can even spot remnants of an old concrete foundation. But how many bridges and when they stood has long blurred. Common knowledge is there have been three bridges, the first erected in 1885. Having trawled through decades of old newspaper articles — I’ve found sure proof of four.

What elevates this misty bridge history beyond backcountry curiosity is that, from the late-1870s into the early-1900s, the only formed route from the Bay of Plenty to Poverty Bay went via the falls. So, for a generation of early Eastland travellers, the falls crossing was nothing less than critical.

The route was the Opotiki and Ormond (or Ormond and Opotiki) road — ‘road’ being an optimistic term. It was cut through by armed constabulary and other works teams from 1872-1877. Over the years, there were route shifts but, essentially, it went from east of Opotiki up to the Whitikau and Marumoko valleys and what is now Whinray Scenic Reserve. It crossed the Motu river at the falls, before carrying on to Motu settlement and Ormond near Gisborne.

In the early-1900s, the Motu road forged a new route, crossing the river at Motu settlement. Even so, the falls remained a popular side trip. From 1914, Motu had a 100-room hotel and the area was promoted as an escape in the mountain air.

Only when the present-day Waioeka gorge road opened from 1929 did the mists come down. Motu hotel was cut up in 1934 and rebuilt in Matawai and Ormond. Slips and windfalls covered the Whinray section of road and, in 1954, the demolition of the third Motu Falls bridge cut off through-access. Time passed and memory faded.

Twenty-five years ago, when planning for the present-day footbridge began, local community hopes were to revive Motu tourism. Indeed, with the bridge open, the Whinray Scenic Reserve track was quickly restored. Competitors in the popular Motu Challenge multisport race have used both bridge and track every year since.

Encouraging more to come

The work of the Whinray Ecological Charitable Trust and Motu School children, the popularity of the Motu Trails Cycleway and, more recently, the opening of Motu-vation Café are all encouraging more people to venture to Motu, and on to the falls. And so, 140 years after the first Motu Falls bridge enabled a connection from bay to bay, the time seems right for the mists to lift.

Bridge 1: 1877-1892

No wonder it took the works teams five years: cutting the first crossing of the Eastland interior by hand must have been a mammoth task. The hills around Motu aren’t especially high, but the forest is dense, the weather is rigorous, and the terrain is often precipitous.

The first mention I’ve found of the falls bridge is in The Bay of Plenty Times in 1876, when the road is reported as reaching “from Opotiki to within one mile and a half of the Motu River . . . The timber for the Motu bridge is cut, below the falls, but that, and the necessary iron &c., for the erection of the bridge cannot be transported to the bridge site, till the road up to it is completed.”

Six months on, the same paper presents a remarkably clear description. “The truss bridge crossing the Motu river on the Opotiki and Ormond road, commenced over eighteen months ago is now completed; its erection having been attended with innumerable hardships and difficulties. The bridge . . . is sixty-eight feet long and fourteen feet wide, with three rows of piles morticed on to blocks of timber embedded in the rock foundation. It has two spans, one forty-five and the other twenty-three feet long. The matai timber of which it is built was cut on the spot . . . up the river, about sixty feet distant from the bridge, a waterfall comes tumbling down.”

“Great difficulty was experienced in packing up the iron work . . . some of the pieces being 120lbs weight, and of a very awkward shape for pack horses to carry.” Truss bridge design features diagonally-crossed timber framing, with vertical rods to hold tension. So “a very awkward shape” was likely lengths of iron several metres long.

The writer describes the road between Opotiki and Motu as cut to a width of eight feet and “passable for travellers on horseback in fine weather.” Within months, however, a weary traveller reports it has “wasted to a width of six feet, thus being too constricted for the purposes of dray traffic, or for cattle driving.”

Soon, the dire state of the Opotiki and Ormond road was to be its hallmark. In 1881, a letter to the Poverty Bay Herald reads, “we took four days from Gisborne to Opotiki, the pace of our horses being in general less than a man could walk, owing to the state of the road . . . it has been neglected ever since its formation, and all the works, except Motu bridge itself . . . are in a state of decay.”

An 1882 traveller shares the frustration. “There are some thirty or forty miles to the substantial bridge which crosses the Motu River, at the highly picturesque falls and rapids. To this part of the road nothing has been done in the way of maintenance for several years, and its neglected condition limits the class of travellers and their horses to those only whose powers of endurance, fortitude, health, and training will stand the severest ordeal.”

This road, remember, was the only formed crossing of Eastland.

Maybe the authorities were prodded by the continued complaint. An 1884 article proclaims, “All the slips have been cleared away, the trees removed, the bridges thoroughly repaired and the holes filled.” Not altogether reassuringly, the article goes on to declare the road is “now very passable indeed to about ten miles the [Opotiki] side of Motu, beyond which work is now in progress to form a deviation to avoid the terrible Whitikau swamp.”

The falls bridge appears on an 1885 survey plan. Then, in 1887, government journals state, “The Motu bridge [was] re-decked, and all other bridges made good.”

The next significant mention is in an early-1889 article on the pursuit of Te Kooti, when an armed constabulary force of 150 rode on horseback, with little rest, from Gisborne to Opotiki. “The route thence to the Motu is a very circuitous one, the bridle track winding round the sides of hills of fantastic shapes, and through gullies and streams, bush, and fern of all sizes. Very little talking was allowed in the ranks, in fact, most were striving to keep awake and guide their horses safely over the holes and round the curves in the path . . . Without any stoppages of duration the Motu bridge was crossed and another clearing reached at three in the afternoon.” On the return trip, the riders camped at the bridge.

Another three years on, winter 1892, comes an epic flood.

“Advices have reached us that the bridge over the Motu river on the Opotiki-Ormond road has been washed away,” The Bay of Plenty Times reports. “This is another serious loss to the district, as the river is a very awkward one to cross.”

Bridge 2: 1893-1910

Eight months on, there was no sign of a replacement: just discontent.

An article in the Poverty Bay Herald grumbles, “The Motu road is practically blocked for traffic, owing to the bridge being carried away last winter. Although the Government sent a surveyor up to examine the place, and although frequent requests have been made to them to erect the bridge, there is no indication that they intend to take any steps in the matter.” The writer points out, “The ford across the river is a very dangerous one”.

By March, however, things were underway. An ad from the Lands and Survey Office, Napier reads, “Tenders will be received . . . for the construction of a bridge, of a span of 70 feet.” In September, the Poverty Bay Herald reports a government grant of £750.

Just two months later, December 1893, the bridge was up. There’s no sign in the newspapers of an official opening, but the Herald fleetingly notes, “The Motu bridge has been finished, and we understand the Government inspector is thoroughly satisfied with the manner in which the contractor has carried out the work.”

Around this time, articles start to extol the beauty of the Motu area, not merely the challenge and hardship of breaking in the land. A trip diary of 1895 reports: “Three miles more of Motu slush, and the bridge was reached. From this structure the wayfarer gets a lovely view. Above and below the bridge are handsome falls . . . the bush hereabouts is beyond compare. Magnificent pungas, stately pois, great and lofty forest giants, and a dazzling variety of ferns and other verdure.”

Similar enthusiasm for the forest’s glory is expressed in 1903.

“We explored the Motu Falls and the scenic reserve with much interest. There is no doubt but this park will be a scenic reserve with much interest . . . a source of pride and gratification to the Gisborne people for all time . . . Here is the wild and awe-inspiring forest, the grandeur of the waterfall, and the picturesque charm of the fern-fringed river in all its moods. Below the Motu Falls bridge, where the foam of the falls floats in white flecks as it cataracts through the rocks, sits my friend, soliloquising and communing with Nature.”

A couple of years after that gilded prose, thanks largely to the tireless campaigning of cabinet maker-councillor-conservationist James Whinray, the government would officially set aside a tract of forest for scenic purposes, named Whinray Park. “He took a keen interest in having breathing spaces reserved for the people,” read Whinray’s obituary in 1912. We should all be grateful.

Photos of the second bridge show another truss structure. The type of timber is unclear — but it wasn’t robust. As soon as 1902: “It has been found that the bridge over the Motu Falls is unsound and requires a good deal of repairs. The road overseer and his men are now engaged on the task. The bridge has not been up more than eight years, and would have lasted much better had it received more frequent coats of paint. It is a case of ‘spoiling the ship for want of a ha’p’orth of tar.’”

In 1904, there’s again news of a heavy flood with recollection of the first bridge’s demise. “All the flats are covered, and the hotel is surrounded . . . the flood is within 2ft in height of the big flood of 1892, which carried away the Motu bridge.”

Road repair must have followed that deluge because, by 1905, the 5km stretch between Motu settlement and the falls was in good enough condition to carry horse drawn vehicles. “The Motu Falls were inspected by many visitors on Saturday. Most of the sightseers rode or left their vehicles within a mile of the bridge . . . The honour of being the first lady to drive over the falls bridge belongs to Mrs Atkins of Patutahi, a daughter of [original settler] Mr C Hansen. She undertook the trip in a two-wheeler on Saturday.”

Another milestone came in 1906 when, after much campaigning, a bridge was erected at Motu settlement — facilitating development of the more direct Motu road. An article on the opening celebrations contains an aside, “The old bridge by the falls on the Opotiki road is to be repaired and strengthened.” The same year — feel their anguish — yet another flood. Water levels are reported as “Within eighteen inches of the big flood which occurred about thirteen years ago when the bridge over the Motu River on the Gisborne-Opotiki bridle track was carried away.”

While the Opotiki and Ormond road is now typically described as a “bridle track” or “horse track”, the falls continued to attract interest. On New Year’s Day 1908, “The settlers in the Motu District had a united picnic just beyond the celebrated Motu Falls in Whinray Park . . . There was a cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen on horseback, besides a number of carriages, a famous spread ad libitum.”

There’s no mention of the bridge in that account, perhaps because it was now in such a bad state it needed not merely a fix-up, but replacement. One 1909 report sharply observes on “The necessity that exists for the urgent construction of the Motu Falls bridge.” Another, “The other two most important works in the county are the erection of new bridges at the Motu Falls and across the Motu River.” The latter reference may well be the truss-design rail bridge that still stands at Moutohora near Motu, a quiet monument to the concurrent ambition of connecting Poverty Bay and the Bay of Plenty by rail.

The claims of decrepitude were correct. In early-1910, the second Motu Falls bridge simply fell down.

FACTBOX

Motu Trails

Whinray Track

Whinray Eco Trust

• This article is based on one that first appeared in NZ Today.

• Thanks to paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

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