"I just think ... how can anybody not know that place."

Those are the words of Merrilyn George when told Horopito would be in a Whanganui Chronicle series about unknown places. She lives in Ohakune now but grew up in Horopito. That Horopito goes unnoticed by most drivers on their way through the Ruapehu area is absurd to Merrilyn.

But it does. Horopito is on State Highway 4 between Raetihi and National Park. On a clear day most people passing through the area are too distracted ogling at Mt Ruapehu looming over the area.

The settlement is named after the Horopito tree, which grows in the area. The tree is also known as the mountain pepper tree because of its spicy leaves.

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"We don't have a town," says Julie Bezett. She's something of an unofficial ambassador for Horopito. There isn't even a shop or a cafe. The best place to get coffee would be Julie's if she's offering. If you're looking for groceries the nearest place is Ohakune.

Julie Bezett says Horopito is growing ... with people who want to relocate there from the big cities permanently.
Julie Bezett says Horopito is growing ... with people who want to relocate there from the big cities permanently.

Julie and her husband Wayne Bezett host Airbnb guests at their home, which was built three years ago. It's modern and warm, with big windows facing the mountain.

Wayne Bezett bought a house in Horopito in 1974 when he heard Turoa skifield was opening. Back then he was what Julie describes as a 'ski-bum'.

If Horopito is known, it's usually because of the vintage car dismantlers, Horopito Motors, also known as 'Smash Palace'.

It's named after the 1981 feature film Smash Palace that was set in Horopito. The car yard is packed with what must be thousands of cars dating back to the 1920s.

The cars are one of the key features of Horopito. People come from near and far to walk through and look at the endless remnants.

Some are completely rusted, some are fairly new. Horopito Motors was established by Bill Cole in the 1940s and his philosophy was for cars to remain at the site and not be scrapped.

Horopito Motors/Smash Palace is now managed by his daughter Barbara Fredricksen and her husband, Colin.

The vintage car dismantlers, Horopito Motors, more commonly known as 'Smash Palace'.
The vintage car dismantlers, Horopito Motors, more commonly known as 'Smash Palace'.

"Unless you've seen Smash Palace and know that it was set there ... you wouldn't even know what all those old cars were," says Merrilyn George, who's also the author of Ohakune - Opening to a New World, which includes a history of Horopito.

"I love those old cars," she says. "I go up there quite often too. I've got hundred's of photos of them. When Bill Cole was alive I would go up there and visit him because they were friends of my parents.

"He would take me out and in his beautiful, slow brogue he would tell me about the cars, who they belonged to. He showed me my father's cars, what happened to them and he knew exactly what happened to every car before it came into his yard. He was an amazing man."

Her memories of growing up as a kid in the 'bush' - as she refers to Horopito - go against how many children are brought up today, Merrilyn says.

It's not simple bush either. The terrain is quite difficult to manage in places with a thick density of trees and big rocks scattered everywhere as well as sudden high drops into ravines.

Horopito is a hotspot for 'ski-bums' like Wayne Bezett was when he bought a bach there in 1974.
Horopito is a hotspot for 'ski-bums' like Wayne Bezett was when he bought a bach there in 1974.

"We were allowed to be out in that bush there ... we had the free run of [it]. We were able to go and get the ducks' eggs, go and milk the cow. We were able to do any of those things and our house was the bush."

She remembers cray fishing in the river every day and that would be afternoon tea sorted.

Merrilyn George describes her dad as a bushman who could "build anything out of number 8 wire and brown paper".

Back then they didn't have baths - the only water available was the rain water collected in tanks. A lot of the food came off the land.

"My dad and I had a bond from that time that could not be broken even now. My nickname from him was 'mate'. I was his mate.

Merrilyn George (next to husband, Ken) has fond memories growing up in Horopito.
Merrilyn George (next to husband, Ken) has fond memories growing up in Horopito.

"I don't wish to have such meagre services anymore," she says. "But we managed, because you do. When you don't have so much you learn to be creative."

Merrilyn's father was the bushman who led rescuers to the site of the Kaka plane crash on Mt Ruapehu.

She has tossed up moving back to Horopito but she says Ohakune is close enough to allow her to regularly visit.

"Things aren't ever the same if you try to go back to where it was, you have to enjoy those memories."

Horopito is on the move, it's changing. Despite being touted to become the a major town of the region (sections were auctioned off in 1907), it is largely made up of a few residential homes and some baches - both wealthy and modest types.

Julie Bezett knows who lives in every property and she can stand on her paddock and point to almost every one reeling off where the person comes from as well as something interesting about them.

She is pleased by a boost in the number of recent land buyers who plan to live there permanently.

Horopito: it's a brief corner on State Highway 4 between Raetihi and National Park.
Horopito: it's a brief corner on State Highway 4 between Raetihi and National Park.

"We thought it was a hide out but it is growing. So there are 11 sections in here," Bezett points to paddock land to the side of her house.

"They're all sold. What's quite lovely though is of the 11 sections, this year four houses are going to be built and they're all going to be permanent people.

"That's pretty special because a lot of these pieces of land are being bought by wealthy Aucklanders and Wellingtonians and they're just going to put a holiday house on it and not be a part of the community."

A centrepiece for the settlement and something most permanent residents are supremely proud of is the old school building. A decision had to be made about it after the Government handed it to the council and so members of the community took it on.

They fundraised and got together to repair and rejuvenate it into a community hall It's now being used for events - including and upcoming wedding.

There's no place like Horopito for Merrilyn George, but what does she think it will become.

"My vision of the future ... I just imagine it to be a smaller settlement but an important small settlement off the main trunk line for this area."