Grand old ride on rails

By Rogel Hall

Roger Hall climbs aboard a golf buggy to see some isolated, but beautiful, scenery.
The tunnels, ranging in length from 150m to 1.5km, are a highlight of the Forgotten World Adventures trip. Photo / Supplied
The tunnels, ranging in length from 150m to 1.5km, are a highlight of the Forgotten World Adventures trip. Photo / Supplied

Now here's a cracker of a day out: a jetboat ride on the Whanganui River in the morning; three hours on a golf buggy on a disused railway line in the afternoon.

This, and variations, is offered by Forgotten World Adventures, based in Taumarunui.

Some years ago KiwiRail closed the line between Stratford and Taumarunui, and businessman Ian Balme had a light-bulb moment when he saw the abandoned track.

He thought why not adapt golf carts for people to ride on the rails, which pass through some of the country's most isolated but beautiful scenery.

Having an idea is one thing; seeing it through is quite another. His accountant wife, Rachel, helped with a business plan and three years ago Forgotten World Adventures opened for business.

The carts' motors were changed from battery to petrol-driven; blinds on the side to keep out the weather when necessary; lights front and back plus a flashing light on the top.

And recently the metal wheels have been changed to plastic to reduce the noise. Staff are on hand to provide all the services, and now the company is helping to attract more tourists to the region.

We drove from Auckland to Taumarunui, stopping en route at Hamilton Gardens, which was a revelation and a delight.

We had booked into a motel for a couple of nights, and crossed over the road to eat at the RSA, which served big helpings of no-nonsense food, cheap drinks and free snooker if that's what you like. As they say, "Why would you eat anywhere else?"

Next morning we were driven to the river where our jetboat was waiting.

We spent the best part of an hour on the river. We passed a couple of canoeists who were going gently downstream - in January there would be dozens of them.

Ron, our driver stopped several times, usually after we'd been spun around 360 degrees, to tell us of the local history.

It was a place of heartbreak for many returned servicemen. One of our fellow passengers said his grandfather had been balloted land in the area but, along with many others, had to walk off come the Depression.

Above us the actual Forgotten Highway clung to the cliff edge, hidden by the rapid growth of willows on the bank.

We were driven to Tokirima for lunch (make your own sandwiches from a range of healthy ingredients, plus home-made cake and scones).

Ian Balme thought why not adapt golf carts for people to ride on the rails, which pass through some of the country's most isolated but beautiful scenery. Photo / Supplied
Ian Balme thought why not adapt golf carts for people to ride on the rails, which pass through some of the country's most isolated but beautiful scenery. Photo / Supplied

Before setting off on our rail trip we were given a set of safety rules by our guide, Maree, who then taught us how to drive the carts.

This was easy, the hardest part was not putting your hands on the steering wheel which was only there for decoration. Off we went. A convoy of four vehicles, plus Maree in her cart at the front.

It's rugged hill country, with few residences. We stopped several times at disused stations, now little more than crumbling platforms.

Hard to imagine the thriving communities and coal mines, agriculture and forestry industries they had once served 80 or 90 years ago.

Between Stratford and Okahukura (just outside Taumarunui) there are 91 bridges and 24 tunnels, indicative of the rugged terrain the track passes through.

The tunnels were one of the main attractions of the trip, ranging in length from 150m to 1.5km.

They were dug and built by hand, men slaving with pick and shovel, enduring considerable hardships.

Some tunnels took many years to build, not helped by some (unsurprising) strikes against the working conditions.

In the longest tunnel, 500m in, all five carts stopped and turned out their lights. We were in pitch dark, something few of us experience these days and it was pleasant, or spooky, depending on your point of view.

After the trip, we were driven back to Taumarunui. A grand day.

Checklist: Taumarunui

Details: $325 per person for this particular trip (and worth every cent). Forgotten World Adventures offer a variety of trips, ranging from one to four days, with or without a jetboat.

- NZ Herald

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