The turn-off to Pilot Road at Tongapōrutu appears on the left as State Highway 3 veers away from the estuary, with its views toward the iconic Tongapōrutu baches and Three Sisters Beach.

The curious name reflects an earlier age when a ship’s pilot was stationed at the small settlement. The role of the maritime pilot is to guide vessels through dangerous or congested waters, usually at river mouths or busy harbours. In this case it was the entrance to Tongapōrutu River, which is still described as very sandy with an ever-changing channel.

In the days before a suitable road north was constructed, coastal traders were an important feature of the small community, supplying essential goods and transporting farm produce up and down the coast. Eventually a wharf and a goods shed were erected on the southern side of the estuary and the port was served by the regular arrival of trading vessels.

Before a pilot was appointed, just before the turn of the 20th century, it is said that local Māori used signal flags to alert trading vessels as to the safety (or otherwise) of the river mouth. Eventually, the postmaster Richard O’Donnell was appointed pilot – despite being fined for selling sly grog at the occasional regatta – and in 1909 was rewarded for his hard work with an increase to his small salary and a boat equipped with 14 lanterns, enabling him to guide other vessels at night.

However, by the 1920s the roads had improved and smaller ports like Tongapōrutu were seeing less and less trade, so a pilot was no longer deemed necessary.

Pilot Road itself was completed in 1911. Near the end of the road lies Tongapōrutu cemetery, sitting within the boundaries of the once-planned Tongapōrutu Village. The first recorded burial is that of Robert Virtue Saunders who drowned in the Tongapōrutu River on 27 April 1896.

The very end of Pilot Road offers spectacular views down the coastline toward Taranaki Maunga.

This story was originally published in the Taranaki Daily News.

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