Monday, 16 December 2013

Mamaku: New Zealand railway ingenuity

In 1881 it took the Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Company 12 months to find a suitable passage over the Mamaku Ranges. When the New Zealand Public Works Department took over and finally completed the line to Rotorua in 1893, Mamaku Railway Station became the highest point on the Rotorua Main Line as it was known at the time. There was however, a very good reason for taking a railway line to a height of 560 metres or 1,840 feet above sea level, on a 1 in 35 gradient. Timber.

Timber was something that Mamaku had plenty of at the turn of the 20th Century. At one point there were five sawmills operating in a town that was rivaling Rotorua for size. Over the course of the town's history there were 15 sawmills built around Mamaku, and all were connected to the New Zealand Government Railway line by private bush tramways that were built to haul the timber from the forest. As the steam engines that hauled these heavy log loads began to wear out and were banned from operating within the forests for fear of a fire risk, new methods were needed to haul the logs to the main line. It took a bit of Kiwi ingenuity from a bloke by the name of Oliver (Olly) Wallace Smith to design and build a rail tractor (above) that could haul 70 tonne loads up gradients as steep as 1 in 10. So it seemed fitting that his 6 cylinder Bedford Truck fitted with 12 driving wheels has found a special resting place in front of King Hill Reserve.

The Rotorua Branchline passed by the Mamaku Sawmilling Co, the only remaining still operating in Mamaku, 2013.

History however has a unique way of reminding us that not everything lasts forever. Gradually the tramways disappeared along with Mamaku's unique little logging tractors, and a decade after its designer Olly Smith passed on in 1993, even the Rotorua railway line itself had become history. Today there is only one surviving sawmill in operation, the Mamaku Sawmilling Co., which still stands on the original site of the New Zealand Railways Mill. A little up the road however near the Kaponga Street level crossing (Kaponga incidentally was the original name for the town up until 1890), you'll find another example of some Kiwi-inspired ingenuity, where a newly constructed log station signals the beginning of an extraordinary tourist attraction.

This, (in my opinion), is the future of railway tourism. Safe, fun and without the price tag of a volunteer railway preservation group spending millions of dollars to restore and operate a tourist train.

Started by Neil and Jane Oppatt in 2009, railcruising has quickly become one of Rotorua's must-do attractions. The idea is simple, self-drive rail cars spaced 250 metres apart travel as a vitual train at 20 km/h along one of New Zealand's most picturesque railway lines. As trains have not used this line in more than a decade, this is a unique way to sit back, relax and enjoy a driver's eye view of the clear line ahead. I was hooked before even climbing on board one of the railcruisers. So, with my family in tow there was only one thing left for me to do. Climb on board and retrace the last 19 km of railway track into Rotorua. Mamaku and Rotorua's Railcruising experience are just one of the many locations featured in my book 30 Years Chasing Trains, available exclusively through the links below.

100 pages. Full colour print & eBook version available exclusively through

See also; Rotorua: Railcruising in New Zealand and Ngongotaha: New Zealand's Rotorua Branchline

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