Danielle Wright takes time out on the newest Rotorua tourist attraction — self-drive RailCruising through the Dansey Forest Reserve.
Rotorua is famous for its action-packed, adrenaline-soaked tourism — you can Bungy, Zorb, Swoop and even Schweeb. But, head about 15 minutes out of town and you'll find a new attraction, RailCruising, offering something a little bit quieter.
I'm not really a rail enthusiast, but the novelty factor of the RailCruisers capture our attention right away. My husband and our kids (three and six), both keen on trains, join me inside a comfortable car fitted with horns — in case cattle cross the line, so you know you're in the country — heaters in case it's chilly, and all the latest technology in what is a world-first for the railways.
It's taken Bryan Zajonskowski and his cousin Neil Oppatt many years to get to this stage after securing a long lease of the track from the Rotorua Ngongotaha Rail Trust.
After much planning, they built the world's first fully automated, state of the art, petrol-electric hybrid RailCruiser — no mean feat.
The station that is base to the operations is at Mamaku, the highest point of the Rotorua Branch Railway, and once home to five timber mills. It's said that Mamaku once rivalled Rotorua for size, but now well under 1000 people live here.
After a safety briefing, we set off down the 120-year-old track at 20km/h. The last train on this track was the Farewell Express, a passenger train filled with rail enthusiasts, of which Bryan, who has travelled the world extensively by rail, is a fully fledged member.
"I always said I would build myself a railway, but I never thought I would have my own track," he says.
He has worked hard to clear the once-mothballed track. He had to replace 530 sleepers that had been stolen over the years, most likely for people's gardens or to sell for a quick buck.
Although the RailCruisers are self-drive, you only need to pull the brake in an emergency; you don't actually stop and start the carriage at your leisure, so it's a bit like sitting in a cable-car watching the scenery, though closer to the ground.
Soon, commentary on the track by a local history buff will make it appeal even more to its market. We thought a cup of tea and a snack, or wine and cheese for an evening journey, might also be a good addition.
The speed of the cruiser is controlled by magnets on the track and we slow down at Jack's Crossing, named after a local farmer, as well as near a small duck pond where views over Lake Rotorua show off the pretty landscape.
After the initial excitement, I notice the whole family is quiet, taking it all in — it's very restful after a hectic holiday — and because the cruiser moves so slowly, we can see right into remote bush we would otherwise speed past. I half imagine a bandit jumping out of the bush to hold us up!
The sound of steel wheels on the steel track clicks and clacks as a soundtrack to our thoughts and we're given a rare driver's-eye-view of the track ahead, rather than watching the track from the observation deck, not knowing where we are headed. It creates an entirely different experience.
Fantails and finches follow us in the hope the wheels will rustle up some insects and a group of deer keep a watchful eye from a high field as a rabbit hops away from the track right in front of us.
We also pass sheep and a very messy pig farm.
On a 1:35 gradient, the track is the steepest in New Zealand, though you would never think so, as the RailCruiser moves so gently along it. The track was originally built to bring tourists to Rotorua, but was later abandoned.
After about an hour, we reach the end of the line where the RailCruiser is rotated by Bryan and sent back up the track. On the return trip, we notice the deer have come as close as they can to the fence to sneak a peek, but run off as we inch closer. The attraction is still new for them: one day soon they won't be so curious.
It is uneventful, but gloriously so. It makes a change to take the "slow down" rather than "full speed-thrill ahead" route, and, for us, trundling along a railway line in the middle of the countryside in our own private RailCruiser — with a driver's-eye view — was something that stayed in our minds longer than any of the adrenaline rides we tried later.
What to do:
The Mamaku Express runs from the impressive log cabin station at Mamaku and goes to Turekenga on a 20km return trip, taking around 2 hours.
Further information: See railcruising.com and watch this space — plans to extend the trip, expand to other lines and to introduce rail-biking between Rotorua and Ngongotaha early next year are already under way.