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.