Waiouru is the centre of everything or the middle of nowhere, depending on your outlook. It’s a welcome sight on the Desert Road section of State Highway 1 if you are cold, hungry or running low on fuel. For the 700-plus big-rig drivers who pass through each day, the township is a great place for food and fellowship. For travellers, the main drawcard is the military museum (see page 8). Everything centres on the military base, where young army recruits undertake their basic training. At its peak in the 50s, when military training was compulsory, to the late 70s, the population was 6000. There were 100 recreation clubs and the local ski club had 300 members. Today, the population has halved as army units have moved to other centres. Along the approach to the town there are billboards warning of military activity and there is every chance you will see tanks on the move. The wild Kaimanawa horses call these parts home. The descendants of domestic horses from the
18th and 19th centuries, they are one of the few animals tough enough to survive the inhospitable terrain. Waiouru’s other claim to fame is that it has the highest railway station in New Zealand (814 metres). Ohakune lies on the southwestern slopes of Mt Ruapehu. Volcanologists watch the mountain carefully for any sign it will erupt. Locals watch it for a different reason: the first signs of snow, which herald the start of the ski season. In winter, the permanent population of
1000 quadruples as skiers and snowboarders from Auckland and Wellington (Ohakune is halfway between the two major cities) head for the slopes. The town has 52 bars to quench their thirst. Today, Ohakune is most famous as an outdoor playground. In earlier times it was famous for timber and market gardening. Chinese market gardeners settled here in the 1920s, recognizing the calibre of the volcanic loam soil. The town’s most famous landmark is a giant carrot – reputedly the largest in the world – erected in 1984 to recognize the importance of the vegetable to the economy (see Things to do page 13). Ngãti Rangi are the original people of the land. The chief, Paerangi, is believed to have arrived in New Zealand a century before the great fleet. Ohakune is a great place to spot famous faces as there is always a movie being filmed close by.
Sir Peter Jackson was based here during The Lord of the Rings.