The only way to appreciate the Western Uplands is from the air; on the ground the view is restricted to one isolated and confined valley. An observer on a flight from Wellington to Auckland can judge the extent, remoteness, and limited degree to which settlement has penetrated the area. From the coastal area between Wanganui and Patea, clay and metal roads strike inland like the fingers of a splayed hand. Along them the green of exotic pastures contrasts with the denser colours of the bush and the regenerated bush areas which cover the ridges separating the valleys. Eventually the roads come to an end and virgin forest prevails, until further north the same pattern is repeated by the roads reaching down towards the southern extremities of the Waikato. The bush hides the heavily dissected nature of the terrain which has made settlement so costly and often a failure. The region is underlain largely by the same Tertiary deposits which are found in the Wanganui-Rangitikei region, but the more westerly location is associated with a very high rainfall of 60–80 in. and in the higher parts of 80–100 in. High rainfall, combined with inaccessibility and infertile soils, has provided the greatest barrier to successful human occupancy.
It is impossible to cross the region from north to south, even though the Wanganui River flows through the greater part of the district, since the road which follows it ends at Pipiriki. One must traverse the region from Stratford in the west, following the railway line (completed in 1932) as far as Ohura, and then proceed to Taumarunui, where nearby the Stratford line joins the Main Trunk. The only major settlements along this section are Whangamomona, accounting in 1961 for 186 persons, and Ohura (654), whose development is linked with a number of small coalfields. The total output of lignite and sub-bituminous coal is negligible: 130,810 tons, or 4·34 per cent of the national output in 1960. A better route runs from Ahititi on the New Plymouth – Hamilton State Highway (Number 3) eastward to Ohura and then via Tokirima to Taumarunui. Except for tourists, who use the Whangamomona Road, this is the preferred route. The New Plymouth – Hamilton highway stays close to the coast until it crosses the mouth of the Mokau River (bridged only in 1927). It then turns inland along the valley of the Awakino and Mahoenui, where some of the better class farming land of the region is to be seen. The valleys are deep and broad, but large areas of scrub and regeneration create an impression of untidiness. Before reaching Piopio (population, 457) quite good views are obtained across the region. The accordance of summits at about 1,000 ft is very apparent; the only break in the level surface is created by Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.
A little to the north of Piopio, at Eight-mile Junction, the New Plymouth – Hamilton highway is joined by Highway Number 4, connecting the Waikato with Taumarunui and National Park. Taumarunui is the only settlement of any size in the district, owing its importance to its function as a centre for the local farming and timber-milling populations and to its location upon the railroad. Highway 4 follows a course determined by the ridge and valley pattern so characteristic of the region, the landscape being composed of store-sheep farms, timber-milling settlements, and areas of bush and reversion. The overwhelming impression is of an environment disrupted by human occupancy, but never mastered. To the north of Piopio and a little beyond Te Kuiti lies the southern Waikato dairying district, with a landscape that seems in contrast to be all man-made.