Michael Burgess is stunned by what he discovers on a visit to a district he thought he knew so well: Ruapehu.

Like most Kiwis, I thought I knew the Ruapehu region. I knew about the skifields at Turoa and Whakapapa, especially the beginners' slopes where speeding 5-year-olds can take you out at the knees. And I knew about the Tongariro Crossing, that rite of passage for many New Zealanders, with Mt Ngauruhoe, the Emerald Lakes and the Red Crater.

But who knew you could jet boat down a deep river gorge that might resemble a South American waterway? Who could have imagined a walk on the foreboding "Bridge to Nowhere", while listening to the story of heroic pioneer Frederick Bettjeman? Who knew about the journey into the "Forgotten World", driving yourself along a railway line and through some of the longest tunnels in the Southern hemisphere?

Or that you could have cocktails served while you swam in a hotel hot pool near the slopes of Mt Ruapehu?

This region - so close to home - is full of surprises. Our adventure began on a Whanganui River Adventures jet boat, launching from the small village of Pipiriki. The group on board included some Bay of Plenty farmers - with plenty of banter - and some slightly odd Germans, who sat in the back row buttering their toast as we zipped along.


The Whanganui river is the longest navigable waterway in New Zealand and mysteriously beautiful. The cliffs rose sharply above us, and at times, the scenery was reminiscent of vistas from Romancing the Stone or The Mission. As we admired the sights - and canoe trips heading the other way - our guide Ken Haworth told us about local history. We saw the misty streams where the River Queen was filmed, the holes carved in solid rock by Maori vessels centuries ago, and the remains of a former river tycoon's grand station, burned down twice in the early 20th century.

We enjoyed lunch on the Bridge to Nowhere, an engineering marvel of its day that epitomised the ambitious vision for the Mangapurua valley. The dense bush was meant to be settled into farm land, and returning soldiers were offered holdings at the end of World War I.

The 40m bridge - which towers above the river - was supposed to connect to the mainland but was never really used, as the access road on the other side was too narrow for vehicles.

While one of the Germans was catching wasps with their jar of jam, we heard about the incredible tale of Bettjeman. Injured at Gallipoli, he married one of his nurses and they took up the offer of a Mangapurua valley holding. Through the Great Depression, erosion and floods he stuck it out, and was the last to leave when the Government closed access to the area in 1942.

There was adrenalin on the return journey, with some 360-degree spins at high speed, though thankfully the Germans and their portable kitchen had departed, returning to Pipiriki by canoe.

The next day brought a different pace, but a similar combination of history, unique experiences and wonderful scenery. We headed into the Forgotten World, travelling along the decommissioned Okahukura-Stratford railway line in converted golf carts. It was the brainchild of local farmer Ian Balme, and business has boomed since the first journey in 2012.

The self-drive aspect was the most enjoyable, across swathes of countryside not accessible by road. There were curious sheep on the tracks and imposing tunnels - one more than 1.5km long - where we paused to take in the darkness.

The railway was a massive project - it took 32 years to complete and cost more than £2 million ($9.4 billion today) - and several towns sprouted along its network.

Each had its own story, and probably the most poignant sight was Ohura; the main street was full of abandoned buildings, including a general store with unpaid invoices still stacked on a desk inside. As we lunched inside the town hall, local octogenarian Charlie told us some history, as well as positive news about the school roll (recently increased from seven to nine), before a guided tour of the quirky town museum, once featured in The New York Times.

Our stay also included a guided walk over the Tongariro Crossing. The weather unfortunately turned sour - with constant rain and gale force wind - but our guide kept spirits up with interesting anecdotes, and a stock of extra layers.

The luxurious accommodation at the Powderhorn Chateau was a trip highlight. It's worth a visit to the Powderkeg restaurant just to read the unlikely story of how it was built, but the 'grotto' style hot pool - with bar service - was outstanding.

Refreshed and revived by cocktails in a hot pool. Another perfect surprise.



Mt Ruapehu is about a five-hour drive south of Auckland.