Unforgettable world

GLENN MCLEAN
Last updated 10:45 26/01/2013
ANDY JACKSON

Taranaki Daily News reporter Glen McLean hits the rails for an adventure.

tdn whanga stand
ANDY JACKSON
One of the 20 tunnels between Whangamamona and Okahukura.
Clickety clack
ANDY JACKSON Zoom
Out on the rails

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The weathered tables outside the Whangamomona Hotel were getting their daily wipedown. A hunched local collected his morning paper from the village's mailbox. Everything looked normal.

Across the road, the garage was the busiest spot as a handful of visitors waited for the arrival of our guide from Forgotten World Adventures.

We'd been told to be at the railway crossing "around" 9.30am but only one in the group is miffed the big hand has moved past six.

The silence is suddenly broken by what locals describe as a convoy - two utes and two motorbikes arrive in a cloud of dust.

With his genuine greeting completed, Forgotten World Adventures operations manager Van Watson snaps to it as he drives the first of the converted golf cart rail cars out of their storage shed and on to the line.

"Tea's up," shouts Maree Matena, our guide for the next six hours, before she lets me in on the news I've been waiting to hear.

"The toilet's just behind those bushes over there," she says, pointing to the pine box hidden away under the tree.

After scribbling our way through the disclaimer, photographer Andy Jackson and I are given a light but serious rundown by Watson on the business of safety. One message really sinks in.

"Maree will be in the lead cart and the idea is to keep her in sight, because she has the lunch," he says, as he starts a quick demo on how to use the carts.

Put simply - you jump in, put a seatbelt on, put it into gear, turn the key and push down on the accelerator.

The whirr of the cart's petrol- driven engine is as relaxing as its top speed - 20kmh.

While that might seem timid, the sight of Matena loading up a chainsaw, a pick axe and a spade onto the back of her four-seater cart does raise a few eyebrows.

"It's just in case I need to clear anything off the track," she says, as we are encouraged to get a wriggle on.

We're on the 20-tunnel tour from Whangamomona to Okahukura and the republic is soon in the distance as we clickety-clack our way northeast.

It's not long before we are forced to slow as the cart in front encounters a couple of rogue sheep which seem intent on a bit of exercise down the trunk line. They eventually scuttle off to find a gap in the fence.

Matena suddenly sticks her arm out in that universal gesture designed to get you to stop. We're past Kohuratahi, about to travel through our first tunnel and it's time for a bit of education.

She points out the date stamp, as she calls it, above the tunnel, which signifies when its construction was completed. She tells her crew it is cold within the darkness "but there is nothing to worry about - no lurking possums or massive spiders likely to drop down at the first sign of life".

She was right on all counts as we moved through the bowels of the 488-metre tunnel, which we soon find out is just a pup along this line.

While the rolling hills and steep gorges provide their own pleasure on the trip, it's the work that went on by many pioneering railway workers that really churns the grey matter.

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Just how these men slogged their way through so many hillsides, built bridges over some of the most treacherous terrain in the country and managed to stay alive is beyond comprehension.

As Matena shows us, through a limited collection of photographs, the long-forgotten places we pass through - the likes of Kohuratahi, Tahora, Heao, Tokirima and Mangaparo - were all bustling little settlements as the hundreds of railway men worked their way up the line.

There is little evidence left - just the odd concrete platform here, a railway spike there.

As our thoughts continue to wander like the sheep around us, we pull alongside an old wooden shed for lunch on the platform at Tokirima, where we are met by Forgotten World Adventures founder Ian Balme, whose smile is as warm as the January sun.

He is rightfully proud of his venture, which is drawing customers from around the country on a daily basis. For him, the painfully slow process of beating the bureaucrats to gain fulltime access to the line, finding the right carts from the United States to convert on to the track and gathering the right team of staff around him has already been worth it.

"We've taken more than 1000 people over here since the middle of October," he says. "We've basically been fully booked since Boxing Day, so we can't believe it. We seemed to have hit a niche tourism market."

Balme acknowledges the trip is not for everyone, but it's not meant to be.

"We always aimed for the 45-plus demographic but we've found there is no upper limit, really. You are sort of adventurous but you're safe, and we've had a couple of 92-year-old ladies who came through the other day and they just loved it."

Getting a handle on just a few chapters of the area's history has been a challenge for Balme and his workers.

"We're getting told a different story just about every day," he says. "The amazing thing is, all these places were really big communities in their day. Now there is nothing, but the descendants of those people are right around New Zealand. We get people through just about every day with some sort of connection."

While the ongoing maintenance of the line continues to be an issue, Balme has more plans up his sleeve to expand the business, including introducing a rail-bike option down the line.

Lunch over, we leave the boss to do the dishes and head further north, eventually stopping at Ohura, where the Daily News team disembarks to be shuttled back to Whangamomona, where the pace hasn't changed since we left. Check out more information about the trips on offer at forgottenworldadventures.co.nz

TRAILS AND TRIALS

Stratford to Okahukura Line: A brief history

1900: Authorised for construction.

1932: Prime Minister Gordon Coates drives in the last spike to signify the finished line.

1933: Line opens.

1983: Scheduled passenger trains cease but chartered trains are able to continue.

2007: Line closed to all passenger trains because of safety concerns.

2009: Freight train derailment closes line. It is later mothballed.

2011: Forgotten World Adventures proposes running rail carts on line.

2012: In May, Forgotten World Adventures secures 30-year lease on line to run rail carts.

2012: In October, first carts use line.

- Taranaki Daily News

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