TAUMARUNUI, NZ - It's not often that you get the change to ride a modified golf cart down an abandoned railway line that runs past more ghosts than towns. But hopping off the cart in the middle of rolling farmland and being mobbed by a herd of Holsteins is even more surreal.
What seemed like a photo-op on an 83-km trip across New Zealand's North Island turned into a close encounter of the bovine kind tanks to our guide Maree Matena. All it took was a few shouts from her of "come here, ladies" and they came running, first a curious few and then a black-and-white horde that pushed their faces through the wire fence, licking fingers and mooing for handouts.
The rail line and the cows - plus a few thousand sheep and a handful of goats and wild pigs - are part of Forgotten World Adventures, a way for tourists to see this remote part of the North Island and relive its troubled history.
The Stratford to Okahukura railway line was meant to be a vital link between the farms, sawmills and coal mines of the Taranaki and Ruapehu regions to markets in the rest of the country. It took more than 30 years to build and cost 2.5 million pounds (then the country's legal tender) - a fortune in today's dollars.
Completed in 1932, the line was decommissioned in 2009 after a string of costly derailments, never having made a profit. It grew weeds and rust for two years until Ian Balme had a crazy idea.
Balme, a farmer and entrepreneur, used to hunt in the area and heard about the abandoned rail line. A friend as importing golf carts from the US and a light bulb went off - why not lease the line, retrofit golf carts with rail wheels and turn in into a tourist attraction?
The national Kiwi Rail was more than happy to make a deal, Balme says. "They were pretty relieved, I think, to find someone stupid enough to take it on."
But Balme has had the last laugh. Forgotten World, which opened in 2012, now draws about 7,500 visitors a year. Balme added self-propelled, two-person rail bikes in 2015 to broaden the attraction's appeal.
My group hit the rails in Okahukura, a short bus ride away from the town of Taumarunui. The gas-powered golf carts seat between two and six people, and all the driver has to do is push down on the gas pedal to keep pace with the lead cart.
There isn't much left of the towns and industry that once made the line seem like a wise investment. All 30 coal mines are closed, as are the sawmills and brickworks. Most of the towns along the line, with ethereal names like Nihoniho and Kohuratahi, are either down to a handful of inhabitants or have vanished entirely.
But that's part of the attraction's charm. Gliding through valleys and pastures, historic signposts with photos of once-bustling villages and the occasional crumbling remnant of a train platform are all that remain of the string of communities that once depended on the railway.
When I started this, I thought we were going to be selling a ride along a railway line," said Balme. "But what we are really selling is the Forgotten World experience."
One of the highlights is going through the tunnels along the route. Our 10-hour trip took us through 20 tunnels between Okahukura and Whangamomona, the first of which was the longest at 1.5km.
We stopped the carts midway through and turned off the headlights to experience the utter darkness - you can't see a hand held inches from your nose. And the tunnels are chilly, even on a hot summer day. So we didn't wast much time before motoring on.
Each tunnel is different (some are lined with brick, others with concrete) and some are in better shape than others (where there's water, there are leaks). But they all show how difficult and expensive the line was to build starting in 1902, when workers had only hand tools and dynamite. In all, there are 24 tunnels and 91 bridges on the line; the longest tunnel alone took 10 years to complete.
It's ony fitting that my trip ended in Whangamomona, which felt so ignored by the rest of New Zealand that it declared itself and independent republic in 1989. At the 105-year-old Whangamomona Hotel, whose sign declares it the "home of the republic", I got a stamp in my passport at the downstairs pub, a tangible reminder of my trip through a forgotten world.
(Written by Joanne Blain, Special to the Star - Toronto Star, Tues, April 11, 2017)