Monday, 23 December 2013

Rotorua: Railcruising in New Zealand

As a railway enthusiast, I've been fortunate to have traveled on plenty of trains in Australia. But when I heard about Rotorua's Railcruising experience when planning our first family holiday to New Zealand, I was hooked. I simply had to sample this novel way to ride along the rails for myself.

There are a lot of things that we Aussies have in common with our Kiwi cousins from across the Tasman. Just think of the rivalry we have built between us in cricket and rugby. So maybe this is just another thing that the Kiwis can say they've beaten us at, building the world's first self-drive railcruisers. So what is a railcruiser? A railcruiser is the world's first fully automated, petrol-electric, self-drive hybrid rail vehicle. It can seat 4 people and even comes with clear drop-down waterproof sides and onboard heating if the weather should turn nasty, as New Zealand is known to do. With onboard commentary and an anti-collision system overseen by GPS tracking from a central control point, each railcruiser travels along the tracks of the former Rotorua railway line at a speed of 20 km/h. They are fast, safe and a whole lot of fun!

Arriving at the railcruising headquarters at Mamaku, (20 minutes north of downtown Rotorua), the first thing you'll notice is the rather impressive log cabin station. Neil Oppatt (General Manager and brainchild of the Rotorua Railpark), explains that over the years leading up to the closure of the Rotorua railway line, all the railway stations, buildings and platforms had gradually been removed. So when the idea of railcruising was first floated as a tourist attraction, they needed a building that would welcome tourists to the little town of Mamaku. Fortunately Neil was able to purchase the large log cabin from a film set once the movie studio had finished filming. So Ranger Smith's cabin from the movie Yogi Bear is now the departure point for our railcruising experience.

A driver's eye view of the clear line ahead gives riders a reason to smile as they swoosh through the cutting heading out of Mamaku.

Leaving Mamaku Station (pronounced Mama-Cow), the line descends on a 1 in 35 gradient towards Rotorua. Mamaku was the highest point on the Rotorua line when it opened in 1893, and being a 3'6" gauge railway line (as all mainline New Zealand railway lines were), there are plenty of twists, turns and cuttings as the line descends towards the picturesque Dansey Scenic Reserve. The onboard commentary draws your attention to points of interest along the way, and at 20 km/h there's enough time to spot each one, while still being fast enough for the wind to blow through your hair from the open sides of the railcruiser.

Descending the 1 in 35 grade through Dansey Scenic Reserve.

Dansey Scenic Reserve is easily the most picturesque part of our journey. The railway line disappears into this 500 hectare reserve of native forest and even treats riders to some amazing tree top views as it spans the gully on a high embankment. Dansey Scenic Reserve is also home to Rotorua Canopy Tours, a ziplining, tree-top tour for the young and young at heart that also borders the Rotorua Railpark. When fully complete, the Rotorua Railpark will be a 300km circuit of bike paths, railcruising and rail biking that will include the majority of the 50km former branch line into Rotorua.

D'Oh! A deer. A female deer? I'm not sure, but there were plenty of these beautiful creatures taking a curious look at us as we raced by in our railcruisers.

Keep your eyes peeled to the left as you exit the Dansey Scenic Reserve. There is a large deer farm, and you're certain to see a few of these four legged friends staring back curiously at you as you swoosh past. As the railcruiser nears our destination and turning point for the journey back to Mamaku, riders are treated to a postcard view of Lake Rotorua from the top of the rolling countryside. The view gives you and an idea of how difficult it must have been for railway engineers to find a suitable way down from the top of the Mamaku Ranges.

Looking over Lake Rotorua from the railway line between Dansey Scenic Reserve and Tarukenga Railway Station.

After passing beneath the Thermal Explorer Highway, the railway line winds its way to a halt at the newly constructed Tarukenga Railway Station, (you would have passed the site of the original Tarukenga Railway Station just before passing under the highway). Here there is a chance to get out, stretch your legs and take a photo of the view and the Toi Tu Whenua sculpture that stands 5 metres high between the station and the adjoining highway rest stop.

The 5 metre high brushed aluminium sculpture of Toi Tu Whenua stands in the carpark of the highway rest stop that adjoins Tarukenga Railway Station. Although I only learnt when I was back in Australia that I'd photographed the rear of it. The sculpture faces the highway not the railway station. D'Oh!

Railcruising is for people of all ages. My teenagers were grinning from ear to ear when they arrived at Tarukenga Railway Station, as were the 70 year old couple that arrived shortly after in the next railcruiser.

Returning to your railcruiser, you'll notice that they have all been turned around and are facing back up hill in the direction of travel. The return journey is a chance to see the same scenery from a different direction. The cuttings, embankments and every twist and turn all have a different feel as the little railcruiser hums its way back up hill. With the wind rushing by and the constant clack of the rails beneath you, this is as close as you will come to feeling that you are in control of your own train. There is even an electronic push button diesel horn in case a sheep should wander onto the tracks. Although it was too hard to resist the young boy that is still in me, I had to give it a blast just for the thrill of it. Railcruising is certainly fun for all ages. The return trip on the Mamaku Express takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours and considering it is a 19 km return journey it is quite reasonably priced. I only wish there was something like this back in Australia.

Rotorua's Railcruising experience was just one of the many interesting locations that feature in my book 30 Years Chasing Trains, and is available exclusively through the links below.

Available now through my Books page

See also; Ngongotaha: New Zealand's Rotorua Branchline

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