A trip through the Taranaki heartland is full of romance and nostalgia — and a hospitable return for Eli Orzessek.
There's something magical about rail travel. Maybe it's the slow pace, those hypnotic rhythms of engineering, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it sights to take in along the way. It's the romance and the nostalgia that makes me ride those railroad tracks whenever I get the chance.
I may be the youngest by far on Pukekohe Travel's Forgotten World Highway tour, but I certainly don't object to stepping back in time with everyone for six days.
While the crown jewel of this tour is the journey from New Plymouth to Whanganui on a vintage charter train, our trip starts with a drive down the aforementioned Forgotten World highway, from Taumarunui to Taranaki.
We drive along this scenic rollercoaster of a road through sunburnt rolling hills, thick bush, gorges and a slightly creepy one-lane tunnel, as our driver Clark plays the music of yesteryear and entertains the passengers with his personal anecdotes and stories about the area.
Our first stop is a sleepy country town with no cellphone reception that declared itself a republic back in 1989, after redrawn council boundaries made Whangamomona part of the Manawatu-Wanganui region instead of Taranaki. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Republic of Whangamomona is all about the hotel and pub — you can even get a special passport issued here.
They're ready for our two busloads to arrive and a table is piled high with gigantic date scones and cream — the first of many scones I will eat on the trip. Of course, you can't visit this famous hotel without having a beer, so I offset those scones with a pint of their refreshing low-carb lager. Refuelled, we pile back on to the buses and head back along the highway.
Driving into New Plymouth, a storm rages and rain pelts the bus dramatically — with dark clouds dominating the skies, you wouldn't even know there was a mountain to see. Our first glimpse of the Taranaki coast is a wild one, as massive waves crash up against the structures of the oil and gas industry.
Fortunately, everything clears up in time for our day trip around Mt Taranaki — an elusive sight at the best of times. My 89-year-old seatmate is on her first visit to the area since 1958 and is carrying a photograph she took of the mountain back then — an image she is hoping to recreate 60 years later in 2018. With her camera at the ready, we keep an eye out the window of the coach for a peek of that perfect peak.
It's not until later that afternoon that we finally get the opportunity. After visits to a couple of beautiful gardens and a possum fur factory, any remaining clouds have moved away and that spectacular fairytale-esque mountain appears. It never fails to take my breath away.
Our final stop on this drive is the first taste of vintage railways — a mini steam train ride around the Stratford Pioneer Village. Everyone loves it and it's proof that you're never too old to ride a little train.
But everyone is still eagerly awaiting the main event — the chartered train trip to the Chateau Tongariro, with a quick stopover along the way. When that morning arrives, our bright red 1940s train awaits us by New Plymouth's coastal walkway, as Len Lye's famous wind wand sways gently in the breeze behind it. We board two carriages, with help from a friendly and enthusiastic group of volunteers.
Despite our stormy arrival into New Plymouth, our departure couldn't be more different.
There's barely a cloud in the sky and Mt Taranaki looms on the horizon as clear as day. As we make our way along the track towards Whanganui, there's lots to observe along the way — peeks into the backyards of small-town New Zealand, farmland and forest. I spend my time gazing out the window and listening to a playlist I've made of songs about trains.
I spot rail geeks waiting to take photographs of our special train — it's enough to make you feel like a celebrity.
After an afternoon stop at the always enjoyable and eccentric Tawhiti Museum in Hawera, we pull in to Whanganui for the night. The next morning, the remainder of the journey to National Park proves even more scenic. From the observation car, I'm treated to views of dramatic ravines and rivers, piles of classic car wrecks at Smash Palace and the volcanic peaks of the Central Plateau. A sign in Mangaweka asks, "Heaven or hell, which train are you on?" — and I think the answer is fairly obvious.
If there's one hotel with nostalgic appeal for generations of New Zealanders, it's the Chateau Tongariro — so it's appropriate our group spends the final night of the tour here. Walking into its beautiful lobby, complete with a piano player tinkling away, is like stepping into a postcard from the past. I take a bush walk to the Taranaki Falls and have time for a quick paddle in the Chateau's unique, but slightly creepy, underground swimming pool.
Before the tour, I'd told my dad how much I'd always wanted to stay here — only to be told I already had, as a baby. When I enter my room, a card awaits me. "Dear Mr Eli Orzessek," it reads. "We would like to take this opportunity to welcome you back to the Chateau Tongariro".
Who says you don't get service like that anymore?
is from September 13-18.