Forgotten towns see new life

Rural adventures are reviving small-town New Zealand, writes Elisabeth Easther.

The Forgotten World rail journey runs through hidden valleys from Stratford to Taumarunui.
The Forgotten World rail journey runs through hidden valleys from Stratford to Taumarunui.

Little pockets of small-town New Zealand have experienced a much-needed boost in recent years thanks to new businesses taking the place of dwindling industries.

The Otago Rail Trail has increased incomes from Clyde to Dunedin; in the North Island, the Hauraki Rail Trail is creating similar growth in its path, ditto Northland's Twin Coast Cycle Trail.

One of the newest ventures to emerge in an area on the decline, which is also taking advantage of disused rail lines, is Forgotten World Adventures (FWA). Passing through hidden valleys between Stratford in Taranaki and Taumarunui in the King Country, passengers trundle through tunnels, over bridges and rivers, to townships that time has forgotten. Until now.

Ian Balme, the man behind FWA, was inspired by the decommissioned rail lines.

"I'd recently completed the Otago Rail Trail and my eyes were opened to the sense of adventure travelling down a railway line can offer. The scenery here is beautiful, really raw, but the challenge was to find a solution that was safe, easy to operate and offered the adventure of a scenic train ride."

The answer turned out to be a golf cart.

Wakelin Engineering has been serving the district for more than a century, and has been in Sharon and Bill Goodwin's hands since 1996. Engineering has seen a lot of change in that time, but this was one change the Goodwins didn't see coming.

"We do light engineering, mainly for farmers and the general public too. Business was all right but, like most of us these days, we were struggling. One day Ian came by and said he had these carts and could we maintain them," Sharon says.

"It's great for us and brings good business to petrol stations, food places and motels, too."

Josie and Ray, who manage Kelly's Motel in the heart of Taumarunui, say the venture has been great for them.

"They came along and said they were going to set this thing up. It happened at the same time we were upgrading this place and things just fell into place.

"We mainly get an older crowd and a lot of them have a connection to the line. One man just called and made a booking (his dad worked on the tunnels); another who came through was a surveyor. We get some wonderful people staying with us."

For a more rural experience, visitors at Bushlands Holiday Park at Tangarakau can choose cabins, cottages or camping, and a co-owner, Rae, will be going down the line to sell honey and quince jelly.

Clint and Rebecca Hutchinson offer another rural retreat, having converted the shearers' quarters at Marco Station to accommodation for rail riders who are passing through. Just minutes from Whangamomona, visitors love spending time on their fully operational 3000ha farm and, at just $45 a night including breakfast, it's no wonder.

Or for something more novel, why not bunk down in a former prison? The Ohura State Prison backpackers and B&B (plus eating house) is a genuine former prison and, if you play your cards right, you could be the next inmate.

Ohura itself is filled with surprises from the 9-hole golf course to the bric-a-brac stores. There are even donkeys, mules and assorted other animals.

Owner Trudy says business has noticeably increased: "The biggest benefit has been the lifting of the area's profile, we expect to pick up more travellers in the new season. The new bike trail is also a blessing for us, as we are in the perfect location for the overnight stop."

When asked what other businesses he'd like to see spring up, Ian reckons they're mostly all in place but he'd like to see more promotion of what's available.

"The area is already filled with activities - The World Fly Fishing Champs were held here three years ago, the cycle trail which DoC put $4.5 million into is potentially one of the North Island's best. There's jet boating, kayaking and, for a lot of locals, it's something new to get their teeth into compared to dry stock farming which is so up and down.

"Some rural communities have been downtrodden for so long, it takes new businesses to give life a noticeable lift. I reckon this area is on the cusp of a tourism boom."

- NZ Herald

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