I recently ventured to the eye-catching King Country to sample the much-buzzed about offerings of Forgotten World Adventures.
Based in Taumarunui, this incredibly enterprising tourism venture boasts a platter of soft adventure excursions, prising open the stories, legends and unspoilt scenery of the hinterland.
The pioneering founder of Forgotten World Adventures, Ian Balme, was a Waikato farmer who dared to dream big, turning a mothballed rusting eyesore into a visionary business.
In 2012, he secured a 30-year lease from KiwiRail to operate semi-guided tours along the 142km decommissioned line between Okahukura and Stratford, studded with 24 tunnels and 92 bridges.
I joined the 5 Tunnel RailCart Tour, a four-hour return romp from Taumarunui. I was struck by the mounds of pumice and mud that had been painstakingly dug off the tracks, after ploughing down hillsides in the April rainstorms.
Our guide remarked that the prohibitive costs of constant track maintenance underpinned KiwiRail’s decision to pull the plug on the line’s operation in 2010.
The safety briefing included a beginner’s guide on how to “drive” the railcarts – converted golf carts, petrol-powered and limited to a top speed of 22km/h.
The commercial glory of the Forgotten World region may have long faded but the wrap-around scenery is deliriously good.
Animals vastly outnumber people in these parts, as we tootled by goats, deer, alpacas and happy herds of cows on elevated pastures, while flocks of sheep were crowd-wrangled by sheepdogs.
But the undeniable highlight of riding these storied rails are the tunnels, including the 1500m tunnel.
Boring through these tunnels and admiring their damp, jet black walls, illuminated by the headlights on our carts was absolutely thrilling. Wrap up warm – they can be bone-chillingly cold.
Clattering along the tracks in our carts, curling through valleys and creased hills, the countryside is sprinkled with clutches of ramshackle houses and dilapidated farm buildings.
They are vestiges of the boom times, when primary industries like timber-milling and coal-mining thrived. It’s sobering to reflect on the dramatic population changes in some of these settlements.
We stopped for scrumptious home-made snacks in the sleepy village of Matiere. When the line opened 80 years ago, it was home to 750 residents. Now, there’s only a couple of dozen locals and housing is dirt cheap. A rating valuation of $15,000 is not uncommon.
Information posts along the route, complete with historical photographs, illustrate how bustling many of these lineside communities used to be. Rail travel has always exuded romanticism.
The supreme sense of scenic intimacy is not matched by road travel and the novelty of piloting your own passage along the tracks is an undeniable winner with the Kiwi love affair with anything DIY.
Forgotten World Adventures offers a variety of touring options. The 20 Tunnel Tour is a 10-hour affair reaching Whangamomona.
“The Ultimate” is a two-day tour spanning the full 142km length of the line, all the way to Stratford, after sleeping overnight in Whangamomona.
In addition to the railcarts, you can also try your hand at the New Zealand-made RailBikes, with side by side seating, on the 5 Tunnel and 10 Tunnel tours.
Only a moderate level of fitness is needed. I also took a ride on the Forgotten World Jet for a flavour of the beauty, reverence and heritage of the Wanganui River.
My driver/guide was Robert Carter, a local legend who has been guiding visitors along the river for 35 years. He pointed out to me the astonishing amount of volcanic material, discharged by Taupo and Ruapehu, that has stamped its presence on the landscape.
Forgotten World’s new custom-built 15-seater jetboat operates various excursions including a 232km return journey to the Bridge to Nowhere, and on the multi-day excursions, she’ll zip you all the way down to Wanganui city.
In fact, Forgotten World Adventures operate the longest commercial jetboat rides in the Southern Hemisphere. If you’re taking an overnight excursion, be sure to spend a night in the self-proclaimed Republic of Whangamomona and get your passport stamped at the Whangamomona Hotel. It’s truly one of New Zealand’s legendary watering holes.
While in Taumarunui, my head hit the pillow at the Forgotten World Motel (formerly known as the Hilton.) My well-appointed unit was clean, quiet and toasty, the beds are cloud-comfortable and there’s free
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