Old Coach Road: Explore the Forgotten North Island Rail Trail
In the heart of the North Central Island you will find one of the most mysteriously beautiful places in the country. It is a cycle and walking trail through the Jurassic rainforest with an incredible history. This is a special slice of New Zealand that has been brewing for over a century, with a story that involves massive deaths, snowstorms, guns, and remarkable Kiwi ingenuity. Let me take you back to the early 1900s when the story of the Old Coach Road began.
We are in 1907 in the brutal bush of the Central Plateau. Here, a large group of men are busy joining the main line. This connection means that a train can go from Wellington to Auckland and vice versa.
Until now, getting from the capital to Auckland has involved an arduous three-day journey. And there was a 39 kilometer problem in the middle.
The train line stopped and was replaced by a bush road. Up to 100 passengers would get off at Ohakune, then hop on a horse-drawn coach to join the northern section of the line. It was difficult terrain and the road was often wet and dirty.
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But hundreds of men are working day and night to solve the problem, on a route planned by John Rochfort. The Pioneer Planeswalker used an ax to fight his way through the thick bush of the Central Plateau to find the best path. But the task was arduous; Aside from the rugged terrain, it encountered fierce resistance from the local Maori. He was arrested at gunpoint three times, and one of them was held for three days. But he persisted, and hundreds of men are now busy finishing the road he has mapped out.
Much of the workforce comes directly from England and faces brutal integration into the central plateau hinterland. Locals greet fresh imports with the “welcome to the front” line. The battle is against the elements.
The conditions are often atrocious; the workers sleep in tents with bunk beds made of bush lianas. One snowstorm in particular was so severe that several tents collapsed, killing 20 men. Additionally, much of their work is done with pickaxes and shovels, with wheelbarrows to move soil and rocks.
One newspaper describes how workers feel: “By the time we have eaten and cleaned up, we are usually on the verge of passing out.”
But times are about to get a little more difficult. The last part of the trail is a big valley – and the only way to cross it is to build a huge viaduct, which some think (at the time) would be the largest curved wooden bridge in the world.
Late and on schedule, the team has just a few months – with primitive machinery – to pull off one of the country’s greatest engineering feats and complete the bridge, known as the Hāpuawhenua Viaduct.
The materials, including 688 tons of steel, arrive by pack horse and are transported to a specially constructed tramway to be then lifted precariously by a steam engine or even by hand.
Parliament’s time is running out, so the men have started working nights to complete the bridge, which they do just before the first train full of parliamentarians used it in 1908.
Fast forwarding 114 years to the present day, as I stand on the viaduct, it’s amazing to think that part of this was created under a headlamp at night.
Today, the Old Coach Road is a cycle path (or bush walk) through a section of the old road that once connected the railways. The 15 km trip takes less than five hours of walking, or two and a half of one-way cycling.
We started our trip in Okahune. It may be jokingly called the Carrot Capital of New Zealand, but in reality it is now the beating heart of the Ruapehu region. It offers delicious cafes, luxury accommodation and plenty of activities, like Old Coach Road.
The local operator TCB makes it easy for you. They provide bikes, safety gear, briefed us on the trail, then took us to the start at Horopito. You then take the road back to Ohakune.
The trail begins along soft farmland before sharply entering Tongariro National Park. We soon find out that it’s far from your regular bush bike.
The Jurassic Forest is stunningly beautiful, with a jungle feel that makes you realize what New Zealand was like before humans started. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing the importance to Maori alongside “outstanding natural phenomena and natural beauty”.
The bush path quickly turns into a paved path, which was the original road connecting the two heads of the line. A word of warning: the bumps can be a bit rough on your butt if you go too fast.
You will then reach the Taonui Viaduct, a smaller bridge that has fallen into disrepair and is today a metallic monument in the history of the region.
Continue through the bush path until you reach the Hāpuawhenua Viaduct, which still stands 114 years after it was built. Trains no longer use it; there is an even bigger new viaduct a few hundred yards away which was completed in the 1980s meaning the original is only for walkers and cyclists.
The center of the bridge is lined with railroad ties, with a small gap in between. It may make your heart beat if you’re sensitive to heights, but it’s perfectly safe for everyone except mice. You can alternatively walk on the paths on either side of the sleepers to avoid the gap.
On the other side of the curved bridge there is a picnic table which is a perfect place to have lunch and marvel at the architecture. But the excitement doesn’t end there, with an abandoned rail tunnel to explore as well.
This remarkable journey could easily have never happened. After the railroads were connected in 1908, the connecting road was abandoned for almost 100 years. When it was rediscovered in 2002, the bush was so thick that people had to crawl to follow the path. It took years to restore everything, before finally reopening in 2009.
Since then the trail has steadily grown in popularity making it one of the best short trips and walks in New Zealand.
Accessibility: The track is not suitable for wheelchairs
Getting There : Ohakune is a four hour drive from Wellington and Auckland. Flying: Whanganui Airport is an hour and a half away, with Air Chathams serving Auckland. Taupō Airport is an hour and forty minutes’ drive away, with Air New Zealand serving Auckland and Sounds Air serving Wellington. See: airnz.co.nz or soundair.com
Play it: Old carriage route The self-guided bike ride, including rental and transfers to the start of the trail, is $ 50 per person. Electric bikes cost $ 99, including safety equipment and transfers. Visit tcb.nz.
Stay there: Poudrière castle hotel in Ohakune from $ 222. Visit powderhorn.co.nz.
STUFF TRAVEL EXCLUSIVE: Stuff Travel offers an exclusive offer to discover Ohakune during a three-day getaway. The offer includes two nights’ accommodation at the iconic Powderhorn Castle with daily breakfast and a 3-course dinner, bicycle rental and shuttle transfer. From $ 479 per person.
Visit travel.stuff.co.nz/oldcoach for more details.
Carbon footprint: Flying generates carbon emissions. To offset your carbon emissions, visit airnewzealand.co.nz/sustainability-customer-carbon-offset
The Writer’s Journey was supported by Visit Ruapehu.
Stay Safe: New Zealand is currently subject to restrictions related to Covid-19. For the latest travel tips in your area, see: covid19.govt.nz.