The time has come to uncover these hidden travel secrets, writes Maggie Wicks
It's 7.30am and Taumarunui is dense with cold and fog. A group of bleary-eyed travellers stomp their feet, rub their arms and climb aboard the bus.
Taumarunui sits in a basin, one that can hold heat - or fog - all day long. On some winter days, the fog can sit heavy until the afternoon, lift briefly and then come down to envelope everything again. Today, the fog is putting on a show - atmospheric, clinging to the hillsides, before burning off to reveal the beautiful valleys and views of King Country.
We're on our way to the Forgotten World rail journey. The carts are actually repurposed golf buggies, adapted with runners to fit the tracks, and the steering wheel, although comforting to hold on to, is just for looks. We wrap up warm, drape a blanket over our knees, and with the promise of a cup of tea in an hour or so, we're off through the fog, at 20kph.
This cheery little journey is just one stage of Intrepid Travels' Forgotten World Adventure, a trip released this year aimed at New Zealanders.
As the crow flies, this five-day trip only covers around 200km. It's hard to imagine an international visitor being interested in spending so much time covering so little of the country. But for Kiwis who know their backyards well, these bucket list trips aim to uncover the hidden secrets of the place you call home.
The journey begins on the shores of Lake Taupō, winds its way through King Country to Taumarunui, down the Whanganui River and then back up to Taranaki. On the way there are rail journeys, canoe trips, jet boats and cable cars - and plenty of little-known side trips to waterfalls and canyons and forests.
But for now, there's a blanket across my lap and I'm chugging through King Country.
The Forgotten World Adventure
The Forgotten World Rail Journey takes passengers (around 9000 every year, and mostly New Zealanders) down dozens of kilometres of abandoned railway, through hand-cut tunnels and past farmland, under disused bridges and through towns you've never heard of: Matiere, Tokirima and Whangamomona - tiny rural towns that most New Zealanders have never heard of. Forgotten highways, forgotten towns, forgotten communities.
What's special about the Intrepid itinerary is the glimpses at parts of New Zealand you've never seen before. I've road-tripped pretty extensively in New Zealand but in these five days I take in roads I've never travelled. Far from being in a rush to reach each destination, on this trip, we can pull over and see whatever we like. We slow down to chase off the young hawks from their carrion in the middle of the road. We take detours to waterfalls, we pull over to take in views.
Our host is Si, an experienced tour guide who serves as driver, porter, nature guide, drinking buddy and NZ enthusiast. He's here to lead us on a holiday that strikes a balance between active adventure and delightful mollycoddling. We're exploring hidden parts of the country, but without ever having to think about which road to take, or what's coming next. It is a unique way to travel, in a unique part of New Zealand. And we can just sit back, and enjoy the ride.
Travelling from Taumarunui to National Park
After disembarking from our golf carts and taking the back road from Tokirima, we leave the grassy hills of Taumarunui and cruise to the wide-open plains of National Park. Pulling off State Highway 47, Si parks up and leads us on the short walk to Tawhai Falls on the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu.
Lord of the Rings buffs will be aware that this pretty spot is also known as Gollum's Pool and is where Gollum knelt down to fish in the forbidden waters. It's here, as we pick our way around the rock pools and paths, that we learn how fun it is to do so with someone who can identify the plants and tell us why the rocks look a certain way, why the trees are shorter here and why the water churns in that pattern - and what that means. Si is a true New Zealand bush aficionado and he waxes lyrical about water churn and buoyancy and sub-alpine vegetation, while we snap our pictures and drink in the scene and the geology lesson.
Long and winding roads from Ohakune to the Whanganui
The road to Pipiriki is winding and thin, a series of bends and turns that would challenge the most cast-iron of stomachs. As the forest grows more and more dense, the old "keep your eye on the horizon" trick becomes meaningless. There is simply no horizon to focus on. Just endless green hairpins and switchbacks, and a plummeting cliff to worry about in that way that only a passenger can.
Moss hangs from the branches in a way that makes this valley feel like a forgotten, untouched place. Huge punga battle it out for space next to the huge pines, and perching lilies - otherwise known as widow-makers, the hanging plants that grow in the tops of the trees, ready to fall on unsuspecting passersby, cloud the canopy.
In Pipiriki (the locals call it "Pip") we are to start our next journey - a jet boat ride up the Whanganui River, on our way to the Bridge to Nowhere.
The Whanganui is regarded as a living entity, an ancestor with its own life force. In 2017, the river - otherwise known as Te Awa Tupua - was recognised through the courts as having legal status and rights of a person.
People have travelled down the Whanganui for almost 1000 years. Tamatea, captain of the Takitimu waka, is credited as being the first explorer here but it's believed that this sheltered and fertile valley may have been occupied from as early as 1100.
Before the river road was completed in 1934, the river was the main drag between Whanganui and Taumarunui, and paddle steamers, canoes and riverboats shunted travellers between the towns, the larger vessels being winched up over every rapid. These days most of the traffic is gone, as are most of the marae that were dotted along its banks. Evidence of the missionaries who arrived in the 1840s remains - in the Sisters of Compassion convent and the beautiful St Joseph's church in Hiruhārama (Jerusalem), and in the place names that run their way from mountain to sea - Ātene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Rānana (London), Rōma (Rome) and Peterehema (Bethlehem) all remain.
After the jet boat blast up the river, we disembark to follow a bush-clad path to the eerily beautiful Bridge to Nowhere. This impressive and eerily remote structure was built in the 1930s, but abandoned little more than a decade later, after years of efforts by local farmers - young returnees from World War I - to settle in the area.
At one point the Mangapurua Valley Soldiers Settlement numbered 40 families, but none could make a success of this rugged place, and gradually they gave up and moved out, until 1943, when the government decided they would no longer maintain the roads in, and the remaining three were forced to leave.
It is now quietly beautiful here. When the rain finally stops, and the sun comes out, you can hear nothing but the dripping forest, the calls of the tūī and the river running beneath you. The eels are fat enough that when the sun hits the black water you can see them from 38m above.
The Whanganui River by Canadian canoe
Another day, another adventure: riding the river in a Canadian canoe.
When I was younger, I threw myself out of planes, hitchhiked around New Zealand, backpacked alone, and generally felt untouchable. These days, rapids and adrenalin rushes are not for me. And so the stretch of the Whanganui River that Kelly Stephens, from the Flying Fox, guided us down, was just right.
A river guide for more than 12 years, Kelly assured us beforehand that this journey was not for the thrillseekers (although that can certainly be arranged). He led us on a trip in which we paddled gently, often simply floating and correcting as the current carried us. Along the way we spotted deer and stags, goats and peacocks. We crossed a rapid or two, and at one point came closer to the bank than desirable, but other than a decent splash into our canoe (which required some bailing afterwards), the ride was as gentle as the rail carts just days before. It was the perfect river journey for a tired group of travellers who have been on the road for four days.
The best time to go?
"I've always wanted to do that." It's a line I heard over and over when I mentioned this trip to people. To canoe on the Whanganui, or ride the rail carts, or walk the slopes of Taranaki are bucket list activities for many Kiwis. Then why haven't they done them? It's so close to home, maybe other adventures have got in the way. Maybe researching how to get there, what to see and where to stay is a level of admin no one wants when taking their annual leave. Maybe we think there'll always be another time to do it. Maybe the time is now.
CHECKLIST: FORGOTTEN WORLD
Intrepid has launched nine new trips aimed directly at Kiwis keen to explore their own country. The next five-day Forgotten World Adventure from Taupō to New Plymouth departs on October 10 and is priced from $2810pp. For more dates and information, see intrepidtravel.com/nz