The Gorge & Manawatu River

“Well may New Zealand be named wonderland, and this most glorious gorge is aptly designated one of its chiefest wonders.”

So spoke traveller James Inglis in 1885. Ten years later Mark Twain, with his beloved Mississippi in mind described the Manawatu as ‘a romantic brook.’


The Manawatu Gorge is a unique landform because its river flows from one side of a mountain range to the other rather than from a divide, as do most rivers.

This is a gap river, and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. A gap river forms on one side of the range and travels through the range to the other side. The only other known gap river is the Delaware River, New Jersey, USA. Does anyone know of any other?

Initially the river flowed westwards across a landscape that had no surface expression of the present mountain ranges. Over the last million years, a wedge of basement greywacke rock has been slowly thrust upwards between two major faults. During this period, the Manawatu River has continually cut down through the rising mountain range to create the present day gorge.


Uplift of the mountain range has probably been increasing at a faster rate because the bottom walls of the gorge are vertical compared with the upper walls and slopes, which are progressively less steep. State Highway 3 and the railway cling precariously either side to the top of the vertical walls.

Movement of the eastern (Wellington) fault is lateral as well as vertical. The eastern entrance of the gorge has been displaced southwards by 1.5kilometres. This has forced the Manawatu River to flow towards northwards along the line of the fault before flowing westwards again.

An indication of the time taken for the gorge to become the feature it is today are the marine sediments found on the Saddle Road (1300feet above sea level). These were deposited within the past million years when the sea extended through the gorge area to the east coast basins.

The rugged landform was clothed in pristine bush which on the Woodville side formed the densest podocarp rainforest ecosystem in the world, once called the 70 Mile Bush, a bush dominated by birds, the most royal of which was the Huia.

The region stretching from the Gorge, east to Akitio, had the most concentrated numbers of Huia ever recorded. Hunters obtained 646 huia from this area. Huia were sighted by workmen in the Gorge over 30 years after they were declared extinct in 1909.


Local Maori legend of the Rangitane tribe has it that on the Puketoi Range of Tamaki nui a Rua (Tararua) grew a giant totara tree. Okatia, a spirit which desired to reach the sea, stirred the tree to restlessness. It began to move to the northwest, gouging out a channel. Soon the totara found its way blocked by a range of high hills. Tumbling about in a frenzy, the tree bored the rock to make a way through, thus the Manawatu Gorge was formed.

Local Maori have a number of names for the Gorge area. One of these names, Te Apiti, ( the narrow passage or cleft) refers to its physicality and Te Au-Rere-a-Te Tonga (the rushing current of the south)

The large reddish-coloured rock that stands in the Manawatu River near the centre of the gorge was named ‘Hinepotae’ and a rock up on the Ruahine range just above the river ‘Te Ahu A Turanga (imua)’ meaning the sacred place of Turanga – an ancient ancestor of the Rangitane people both east and west of the Gorge.

The reddish rock was considered the guardian spirit of the gorge - a place where Maori travelling by canoe would recite karakia to ensure their safety. Legend has it that the rock always remains above water even when the river experiences its highest floods. Its pinky colour is said to change in intensity if a prominent member of the local Rangitane tribe dies or blood is shed.
Today, State Highway 3 forms a vital road link between Palmerston North, Hawkes Bay and East Coast. Current traffic counts amount to an average of over 6000 vehicles per day.

Visitors can explore this unique and dynamic example of geomorphology that forms the western entrance to Woodville, by jet boat, kayak ( a grade 2-3 river), vintage steam train, or by experiencing the 4 hour Manawatu Gorge track along the ridges high above the road level.