Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Ngongotaha: New Zealand's Rotorua Branchline

Sometimes as a railway enthusiast you just get lucky, being in the right place at the right time to snap an amazing photo of a train, or stumbling across some rusting railway relic from a bygone era. On my visit to Rotorua in New Zealand however, I was more than just lucky to experience a railway adventure like no other.

I've already covered my Railcruising adventure from Mamaku to Tarukenga from a tourist's perspective in my Railcruising in New Zealand post, but when owner and rail guide Neil Oppatt heard that an Aussie Railway Adventurer was headed his way, he had something extra in mind for me. That involved travelling the remaining portion of the former Rotorua Branchline, that is as yet unopened to the public, down through Ngongotaha to where the line ends at Lake Road. So after the rest of our virtual train, including my own family, are safely on their way back to Mamaku Station, Neil and I begin the downhill run to Ngongotaha.

Ngongotaha Railway Station with the Rotorua Rail Trust Park in the background.

Ngongotaha, on the shores of Lake Rotorua, is located 5 km's north of downtown Rotorua and is our first stop after we complete the descent down the Mamaku Range. A former railway town, it now boasts a 10 acre Rail Park that is home to the Ngongotaha Rotorua Rail Trust Miniature Railway. The Park is located on the former site of the Ngongotaha Railway Station, and is also the home of a growing collection of historic rollingstock awaiting restoration. Like any volunteer efforts, the sidings in the rail park appear to be nothing more than a graveyard for obsolete rollingstock in various states of distress, but once restored it will be home to an impressive slice of New Zealand railway history. For now, visitors are treated to miniature trains rides and a small railway museum and model railroad display. Fortunately, the facilities at the Ngongotaha Rail Park also provide a welcome toilet stop, and when I return, Neil instructs me to hold RC10 just shy of the Taui Street level crossing while he goes to get us some 'smoko' (that's morning tea for anyone outside of Australia and New Zealand), from the nearby bakery.

Crossing the Ngongotaha Stream, we follow the former Rotorua Branchline south.

After crossing Taui Street, the line passes one of the highlights of the final stretch of track into Rotorua, the Ngongotaha Stream, and we are whisked across the spindly steel and timber bridge at a height of above 5 metres or 15 feet. The line in this section is flanked on either side by trees and lush green bushes and we soon pass the Ngongotaha Domain, a open grassy area consisting of junior rugby fields. A short while later, we jolt across the Beaumont Road grade crossing and find ourselves perched high on a classic railway embankment that runs parallel between Caledonia and Parawai Roads. The sight of the little railcruiser trundling past suburban houses draws a procession of friendly waves from residents and passing cyclists, and soon it is just Parawai Road to our left. There isn't a bend in the line between Ngongotaha Stream and the outskirts of the suburb of Koutu and the line is also relatively flat. It is something that Neil explains above the clickety-clacking of our railcruiser that lends itself well to his next project, rail biking, where tourists will soon get the opportunity to pedal their own rail bike from Rotorua to Ngongotaha and return.

Nearing Kawaha Point, the line reaches what in my opinion is the most scenic part of the Ngongotaha-Rotorua section of the line. The roads and houses disappear, and suddenly we cross a small stream, just as the railcruiser is about to venture into the bushland that skirts the shores of Lake Rotorua. Sensing a photo opportunity, Neil brings the railcruiser to a halt and we pose RC10 on the small bridge.

That's me at the helm of RC10, as Neil had to trudge his way through the overgrowth to take this photo.

As we prepare to continue down the line, Neil gets a call over his two way radio. It appears we are holding up the track repair gang that have been waiting for their 'smoko'. It was time to highball it into Rotorua. We quickly reach Koutu, a suburb on the shores of Te Ruapeka Bay and the end of the Rotorua Branchline. The line once ran 2 km's further into the heart of Rotorua, but in 1989 the central city station and railway yard were closed and the line was removed. A temporary station operated out of the Koutu freight yard on the opposite side of Lake Road until 1995 when a new station was built at the site where the railway line now ends. The Rotorua Branchline was closed in 2001 when the Geyserland Express was withdrawn. Today the rails end abruptly where a new four lane section of road replaced the Lake Road over bridge. The former Koutu freight yard is now a business selling firewood, and all that remains of the 1995 railway station is the concrete foundations of the former platform. And two very hungry railway gangers!

This ripper contraption is actually a trackside weed sprayer. I met up with Collette and Neil's son Jessie who were waiting for us to reach Rotorua before continuing their work between Rotorua and Ngongotaha.

After turning RC10 for the 19 km journey back to Mamaku, we take a moment to enjoy a ganger's 'smoko' break and swap some trans-Tasman train stories over muffins and a thermos of coffee. I hear about their grand plans to eventually relocate their Railcruising headquarters to the Lake Road site in Rotorua. Neil explains the huge amount of work required in constructing parking for the many cars and buses that will bring future visitors back to Rotorua's rails once more. Although, from what I've sampled on my journey to New Zealand, I'm certain he is already onto a winner with the Railcruising venture he has running between Mamaku and Tarukenga. Moments later it is time to say goodbye to the track crew and retrace our steps back up the Mamaku Ranges. As we reach the Dansey Scenic Reserve however, Neil once more brings RC10 to a stop on the line. It seems he has one more surprise in store for me.

Deep beneath the embankment that spans the Dansey Scenic Reserve, Neil leads me on a walk through a hidden culvert he re-discovered when preparing to re-open the Rotorua Railway line as a tourist venture.

After almost sliding more than 40 feet down the side of a railway embankment through dense rainforest, Neil leads me to a secret location that only Railcruising employees are aware of. While clearing the line ahead of reopening it to the public as a tourist venture, Neil and his crew stumbled upon this hidden culvert one day after heavy rainfalls. Thinking they might have discovered a waterfall that could be incorporated as part of their Railcruising experience, they found that the water was actually being funneled through this 5 foot high culvert. Returning when it was dry, they discovered you could actually walk through the 80 metre long 'tunnel'. When it exits, there is a 15 metre drop into the valley below. There are obvious safety concerns about the idea of leading tour groups through such a dangerous place. So the crew has decided to keep it's location a secret and leave the culvert to do what it was intended to do, which is keep the embankment from being washed out.

Bidding farewell to a new friend, and one absolutely amazing railway adventure, it is time for me to say goodbye to Neil Oppatt and head off looking for a new adventure somewhere down the line.

After the steep climb back to where we'd left RC10 parked on the mainline, we make the short run into Mamaku Station in plenty of time before the next Railcruising tour is expected. With my wife and kids waiting in the car after their excursion to a nearby blueberry farm, it was time to leave Rotorua behind. With a promise to come and work for Neil if his plans to open a similar venture in Australia come to fruition, I have a good feeling that Neil and I will cross paths again someday. Somewhere down the line. Ngongotaha 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.

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

See also; Rotorua: Railcruising in New Zealand

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