It's early morning and the sun is already out in Taumaranui. We are about to embark on the Twenty Tunnel Forgotten World Adventures Rail tour to ride the rails with 22 others. There are 9 double carts and two that can carry 4 people. It's a diverse group from as far away as British Columbia, Australia, Christchurch and Auckland and a sprinkling of locals.
After the safety briefing we hop into our converted golf carts which will be our transport for the day and practice our Mexican wave: arms up and down for slowing down and making the stop sign. Driving is child's play. The carts are self-steering and only need a foot on the accelerator or brake. At a maximum speed of 20 km we can feel the country air on our faces and take a close look at our surroundings.
The first part of the journey includes 5 tunnels, including the longest one. We chug along through traditional hill country farming land with Romney-cross sheep and Angus cattle. At Matiere the dairy factory, brick works and a large general store are still visible but now lie abandoned. We make a stop for a morning cuppa, muffins and shortbread.
From Matiere to Ohura the line cuts through a valley and crosses a number of bridges. Here there are stands of kahikatea and cabbage tree as well as exotic willows and poplars which were planted by farmers to stabilise the banks of waterways and hillsides. We stop close to the Old Ohura prison for another "comfort" stop.
Occasionally our guide, who is travelling in the first rail cart, snips away weeds growing alongside the track with a gigantic pair of shears. At one point there is a brief stop while she clears a small rock fall. Sometimes a sheep slows us down as it ambles across the rail way track.
We stop for lunch at Tokirima and make ourselves ham and fresh salad sandwiches. This is an old coal mining area. From Tokirima to Tangarakau we travel along a stretch of native bush, mainly podocarp forest with silver beech along the ridges. This is ancient land. Between Heao and Tangarakau fossils of crabs and shellfish can still be found which have been dated as long as 70 million years ago.
A little pile of fossil fragments has been assembled for us to hold. It is a really awesome experience to see and touch something so archaic.
Once we have crossed the Tangarakau river we enter the site of what was once Tangarakau township, a lively construction town which at its peak was home to 1200 people. Their lives are commemorated by a plaque which we stand and read. It feels strange and a little sad to think that a place where so many people once lived is now but a ghost town.
Shortly before we reach the end of our line we ride through the last of the 20 tunnels and reach Whangamomona. Once a small frontier town it was settled in 1895 but gradually declined. The old hotel is still standing and is now an iconic stopping point on the Forgotten World Highway heritage trail. Here we enjoy a cold beer.
The journey back by bus is much faster. We drive past the Lavender farm with its fields full of misty blue-purple flowers in full bloom. The bus is held up by a large flock of sheep, and further on by a herd of cows. For the overseas tourists especially this is an exciting experience.
It has been a most enjoyable and relaxing journey, a chance to slow down and enjoy the changing landscape and to discover part of the local history. Find out more about this and other journeys offered by Forgotten World Adventures here.