Spin­ning your wheels on the North Is­land

Tour takes pas­sen­gers down an aban­doned New Zealand rail line in gas-pow­ered carts


TAU­MARUNUI, N.Z.— It’s not of­ten that you get the chance to ride a mod­i­fied golf cart down an aban­doned rail­way line that runs past more ghosts than towns. But hop­ping off the cart in the mid­dle of rolling farm­land and be­ing mobbed by a herd of Hol­steins is even more sur­real.

What seemed like a photo-op on an 83-kilo­me­tre trip across New Zealand’s North Is­land turned into a close en­counter of the bovine kind thanks to our guide, Ma­ree Matena. All it took was a few shouts from her of “come here, ladies,” and they came run­ning, first a cu­ri­ous few and then a black-and-white horde.

The rail line and the cows — plus a few thou­sand sheep and a hand­ful of goats and wild pigs — are part of For­got­ten World Ad­ven­tures, a way for tourists to see this re­mote part of the North Is­land and re­live its trou­bled his­tory.

The Strat­ford to Okahukura rail­way line was meant to be a vi­tal link be­tween the farms, sawmills and coal mines of the Taranaki and Ruapehu re­gions to mar­kets in the rest of the coun­try. It took more than 30 years to build and cost £2.5 mil­lion (then the coun­try’s le­gal ten­der) — a for­tune in to­day’s dol­lars.

Com­pleted in 1932, the line was de­com­mis­sioned in 2009 af­ter a string of costly de­rail­ments, never hav­ing made a profit. It grew weeds and rust for two years un­til Ian Balme had a crazy idea.

Balme, a farmer and en­tre­pre­neur, used to hunt in the area and heard about the aban­doned rail line. A friend was im­port­ing used golf carts from the U.S. and a light bulb went off — why not lease the line, retro­fit golf carts with rail wheels and turn it into a tourist at­trac­tion?

The na­tional Kiwi Rail was more than happy to make a deal, Balme says. “They were pretty re­lieved, I think, to find some­one stupid enough to take it on.”

But Balme has had the last laugh. For­got­ten World, which be­gan in 2012, now draws about 7,500 vis­i­tors a year. Balme added self-pro­pelled, two-per­son rail bikes in 2015 to broaden the at­trac­tion’s ap­peal.

My group hit the rails in Okahukura, a short bus ride away from the town of Tau­marunui. The gas-pow­ered golf carts seat be­tween two and six peo­ple and are sim­ple to op­er­ate.

There isn’t much left of the towns and in­dus­try that once made the line seem like a wise in­vest­ment. All 30 coal mines are closed, as are the sawmills and brick­works. Most of the towns along the line, with ethe­real names such as Ni­honiho and Ko­hu­ratahi, are ei­ther down to a hand­ful of in­hab­i­tants or have van­ished en­tirely.

But that’s part of the at­trac­tion’s charm. Glid­ing through val­leys and pas­tures, his­toric sign­posts with pho­tos of once-bustling vil­lages and the oc­ca­sional crum­bling rem­nant of a train plat­form are all that re­main of the string of com­mu­ni­ties that once de­pended on the rail­way.

“When I started this, I thought we were go­ing to be sell­ing a ride along a rail­way line,” said Balme. “But what we are re­ally sell­ing is the For­got­ten World ex­pe­ri­ence.”

One of the high­lights is go­ing through the tun­nels along the route. Our 10-hour trip took us through 20 tun­nels be­tween Okahukura and Whanamomg­ona, the first of which was the long­est at 1.5 kilo­me­tres. We stopped the carts mid­way through and turned off the head­lights to ex­pe­ri­ence the ut­ter dark­ness — you can’t see a hand held inches from your nose. And the tun- nels are chilly, even on a hot day.

Each tun­nel is dif­fer­ent, but they all show how dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive the line was to build, start­ing in 1902 when work­ers had only hand tools and dy­na­mite. In all, there are 24 tun­nels and 91 bridges on the line; the long­est tun­nel alone took 10 years to com­plete.

It’s only fit­ting that my trip ended in Whang­amomona, which felt so ig­nored by the rest of New Zealand that it de­clared it­self an in­de­pen­dent repub­lic in 1989. At the 105-year-old Whang­amomona Ho­tel, whose sign de­clares it the “home of the repub­lic,” I got a stamp in my pass­port at the down­stairs pub, a tan­gi­ble re­minder of my trip through a for­got­ten world. Joanne Blain was hosted by Tourism New Zealand, which did not re­view or ap­prove this story.


Trav­el­ling through the tun­nels is one of the real thrills of the For­got­ten World tour. In all, there are 24 tun­nels and 91 bridges on the rail line.

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