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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1 (May 1, 1930)

By Rail to the Geyser Country — The Hot Springs and lakes of the Rotorua Thermal Region

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By Rail to the Geyser Country
The Hot Springs and lakes of the Rotorua Thermal Region

The first section of the train journey from Auckland and Wellington is along the Main Trunk Railway to Frankton Junction. The distance from Auckland to Frankton is eighty-five miles, and from Wellington 341 miles. Both routes have their great landscape charms. The great scenic attraction of the route from Wellington to the Waikato-Rotorua junction is the section between the Upper Rangitikei and Taumarunui, at the head of navigation of the Wanganui River. Here the railway closely approaches the base of Mt. Ruapehu, the great glaciated peak of the North Island, and there are views of Ngauruhoe volcano and other wonderful features of the Tongariro National Park. Here the line, at an altitude of over 2,600 feet, passes through a part of the vast forest that once covered all this mountain country, and crosses, by great steel viaduct, numerous deep gulches and canyons.

Railway travel, with all its modern improvements in speed and comfort, has greatly eased and simplified the once rather difficult and expensive journey from New Zealand's coast cities to the Rotorua thermal wonder country. In the old days—not so long ago but that they are still well within one's memory—there was a day's horse-coach travel from the rail-head at Cambridge, in the Waikato. or from the little port of Tauranga, before the seemingly interminable forest opened out and the weary passenger saw below the blue waters of Lake Rotorua gleaming in the setting sun, and the myriad hot springs around the shores rising in snowy clouds like the smoke of enchanted camp fires. Nowadays the run to Lakeland is as speedy and pleasant and safe as technical science and a progressive State Department can make it.

Perhaps there was more of strangeness and enchantment about this amazing part of New Zealand in the pre-railway era than there is today, for those who enjoy roughing it, and who like to skirmish ahead of the tourist. But the discomforts and the cost discouraged most people. It was difficult to get about the country; the accommodation was primitive. For years after the foundation of the State township on the southern shore of the famous lake, the Geyser country was, in effect, reserved for a few people with leisure and money. The coming of the railway changed all that. The year 1894 saw the completion of the Government rail line linking up Rotorua with Auckland and the outside world, and this revolutionised travel, set the builders of hotels and boardinghouses and shops to work, set shipbuilders turning out steam launches for the lakes, and made a Lakeland tour a pleasure for the multitude. Nowadays the New Zealander has little excuse for not paying the Rotorua-Taupo region a visit—indeed, a visit year after years. For no matter how many times one has trained it to the land of lakes and geysers, there is always something new to see; and there is always something of the charm of breaking into a magic land as well as land of beauty. For all the changes and luxuries that time has brought to the place, a vast deal of the olden enchantment remains, and Nature has a way of asserting herself in unexpected forms now and again by way of reminding mere man that she, after all, is supreme.

A recent overseas visitors to New Zealand gave it as his opinion that our Geyserland was more interesting than the famous Yellowstone Park. Though New Zealand's geyser country was smaller, he said, that very fact was an advantage rather than a drawback. In the Rotorua region the traveller found one wonder after another in quick succession, and the impression of the whole was more lasting. In Yellowstone Park one had travel a considerable area between the sights. It was true that America's great thermal park had larger geysers than Rotorua, but one did not measure beauty by size.

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The Way to Wonderland.

Branching off from the North Island Main Trunk Railway at Frankton Junction (85 miles from Auckland and 341 miles from Wellington), the line to Rotorua traverses a part of the Waikato-Waihou Plain, and crosses the Mamaku forest range to the lakes and geyser country, a distance of 86 miles. This part of the journey to Rotorua takes four hours, and those four hours are full of interest all the way; rail travel in this part of New Zealand is the reverse of monotonous. There is first the crossing of the Waikato River by a lofty bridge, from which you have a view of the deep, strong stream flowing swiftly between high cliffy banks and green terraces, and the pretty town of Hamilton spread on both sides amidst its tree-groves and gardens. The next few miles are a garden country, too; the land is rich and closely cultivated. Then we are out in the great dairying region of New Zealand's interior, a land of large herds and many factories. Butter-fat brings millions of money to this most favoured grazing country. Much of it is reclaimed swamp, especially around the town and railway junction of Morrinsville (named after an Auckland merchant of forty years ago, Mr. Thomas Morrin, who originally owned a large area of this then undeveloped, country). Here a branch line goes to Te Aroha and the Thames, branching off again at Paeroa for the Bay of Plenty coast and Taneatua. To the northward is the Piako country, once a huge swamp, now the well settled and wealthy Hauraki Plains.

The Matamata Plain, with its business centre at Matamata town (37 miles from Frankton) is a place of marvellously rapid development, wholly the result of the profitable dairying industry. Once it was a great estate owned by a pioneer settler, the late Mr. J.C. Firth, who bought it in the 'Sixties from the Ngati-Haua tribe, of whom the celebrated Wiremu Tamehana, the Maori Kingmaker, was the head chief. Firth was a most vigorous settler, a splendid type of nation-maker; he spent many thousands of pounds in opening up the Waihou River for steam traffic to his station, and in breaking-in the waste land. After his day the plain was gradually subdivided for close settlement, and any man who owns a hundred acres of this good Matamata land is very comfortably off indeed. This grass country feeds a cow to the acre all the year round. Here, at Waharoa—named after the great warrior chief who was Tamehana's father—is the largest dairy produce factory in New Zealand, and, in fact, in the world. A million sterling a year comes to the Matamata-upper Waihou country, the earnings from butter-fat.

Travelling De Luxe on the New Zealand Railways. (Rly Publicity Photo) The interior of the Observation Car on the new Rotorua “Limited Express.”

Travelling De Luxe on the New Zealand Railways.
(Rly Publicity Photo)
The interior of the Observation Car on the new Rotorua “Limited Express.”

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Putaruru, 18 miles beyond Matamata, is a junction of roads and railway. Here is the nearest car route to the great Arapuni hydro-electrical works on the Waikato River. A timber company has a branch line of railway from this station southward to the North Taupo forests. About here, too, are the new plantations of exotic pines, covering a very large area of hitherto useless country; we are now approaching the pumice area of the island-heart. The name Putaruru, by the way, is a reminder of the days when native bush covered these parts. It means “The owl's nest in a hollow tree.”

A Combination of Luxury and Comfort. (Rly Publicity Photo) A first-class compartment on the new Rotorua “Limited Express.”

A Combination of Luxury and Comfort.
(Rly Publicity Photo)
A first-class compartment on the new Rotorua “Limited Express.”

The rail line now begins the gradual ascent of the pumice-coated range of hills culminating in the Mamaku plateau. Settlement here is sparse, after the good grass country. At Ngatira there is a small Maori settlement; a meeting-house of the olden type, with carved front, is seen on the right as the train goes through the village. The name Ngatira means “The Travelling Parties”; this was one of the oldtime tracks over the hills from Tapapa (near Putaruru) to Rotorua. Arahiwi, a small place a few miles further on, means “The Track to the Ridge.” The name Mamaku, the next station, is that of the black fern-tree (cyathea medullaris). It is however, not the original name of the place. That part of the range over which our line passes was called by the Maoris, Kaponga (the silver fern-tree (cyathea dealbata), but when the railway was being built, some forty years ago, it was found necessary to change the name, because there was already a Kaponga township in Taranaki, and confusion was caused in postal addresses. The Government authorities selected Mamaku as the substitute, but the name is quite inappropriate, because the mamaku (or korau) fern-tree is not seen in this part of the country; other fern trees grow in abundance. Tuakura or Katote (the names of other species would have fitted the place well.

To this Mamaku station the climbs by a winding way, through deep rock cuttings and over great embankments. A vast forest once covered all this broken tableland, the highest part of the Hautere that extends from the Tauranga Ranges to the patetere Plains. Now the sawmiller has thinned out the bush the settler is taking his place, and the grand old red pine timberlands are but a remnant. A railside fringe of the woods has fortunately been saved, and this belt of bush, with its graceful dropping rimu, it rata, its kahikatea and tawa, and its wild parks of fern-trees, is a cool, fragrant, eye-refreshing curtain of foliage that too quickly lifts as the train mounts the summit.

Mamaku station, with its sawmill and its stores and cottages, crowning the plateau, is at an altitude of 1,884 feet. The railway emerges page 28 from the forest between Mamaku and Tarukenga stations. Some deep gorges, with straight-cut walls of rhyolite rock, dissect the plateau; these gorges are singular in that they are quite dry—indeed there is very little surface water on the Mamaku tableland; there is plenty of rain, but the pumice soil sucks it up at once. Soon after passing the 59-mile mark (from Morrinsville—162 miles from Auckland) the train crosses the forest-hung defile called Manurewa (“The Soaring Bird”); here there are some very large rimu trees. Next, close to Tarukenga, is the gorge of Te Uhi (“The Tattooing Chisel”) with a cyclopean rock wall on the left, its straight gleaming scarps seem chiselled by some primeval giants. In the lower part of the Uhi Gorge (right) close to the line, the rail traveller may see a good specimen of the parasitic rata at its tree-strangling work; making its way along the trunk of a large rimu, it has thrown out numerous lateral fingers or hoops, ringing the pine in a never-relaxed embrace.

Accommodation Amenities for the second-Class Passenger. (Rly Publicity Photo) A second-class compartment on the new “Rotorua Limited” Express.

Accommodation Amenities for the second-Class Passenger.
(Rly Publicity Photo)
A second-class compartment on the new “Rotorua Limited” Express.

First Glimpses of Lakeland.

It is through a break in the bush, soon after leaving Mamaku, leading out into vista of ferny hills and gullies, that the train passenger sees, on his right hand, but far below, a blue lake glistening in the westering sun. This lake fills the middle of a shallow basin, which is, from rim to rim, fifteen to twenty miles across. The rims of the basin are soft blue fringes of varied outline, wooded in most places to the sky-line. The land on nearly every side slopes down gracefully and gradually to the level shores. Far below there are well-grassed farms where once there was nothing but manuka scrub and fern and tutu bushes. There are plantation of exotic trees, and gardens, alternating with grey stretches of manuka. A massive mountain partly blocks the view, slanting in long and shapely lines of rest to the manuka levels. This is Ngongotaha. “The Mountain of the Fairies.” in Maori legend. The soft blue lake is Rotorua—“Double Lake,” as it was called by the earliest Maori explorer who first caught sight of it from a viewpoint which showed it apparently divided into two. In the middle of the lake sits a foliaged island, Mokoia, of romantic memory. It rounds off and completes this peaceful water-sheet with a delicious harmony. Sometimes on a day of calm and soft thin gauzy haze it seems uplifted in airy space against the round plates of shimmering water, the blue island of a dream. Again, its wooded slopes and out-jutting rock-faces are all glowing in the gold of a gorgeous sunset, or it rests there in dark purples deepened by evening distances, and the meditative shadows, as you may often see it from the incoming train.

But just now everyone is looking for geysers and steam clouds, and though huge puia are not page 29 seen spouting on lake shores, there are little fleecy jets of vapour far away, rising from the waterside thickets, and on the other side of the lake a white curl of steam rests on the hillside, the sign of Tikitere's great fumaroles and ngawha. Everything is spread out like a map below, for we are more than seventeen hundred feet above sea-level, and eight hundred above Rotorua lake. At Tarukenga station, there is a full, and unobstructed picture of the Rotorua basin, an eye-feast of colour and form, lake, mountain and forest blended like a poem, “a thing finely poised between grandeur and gentleness.”

Beyond the white pumice cliffs on Rotorua's eastern shore, that glisten like chalk in the sun, there is a glint of another lake, Rotoiti of the many bays, and the indigo ranges of Whakapoungakau and the bold dark head of Matawhaura mountain build up the far eastern skyline. Little beaches glimmer white; the lake is streaked and shot with patches and veins like the inside of the iridescent pawa shell, and a white sail or two and flitting motor-launches give life to the waters of calm. Here and there below us the slopes and levels are softly painted and panelled with the grassy fields of farms; as a great lover of the out-of-doors wrote of Belvoir Vale, the scene is “glorious and beautiful with the unconscious and labour paints upon the canvas of Nature.” But the paint-brush of civilisation has touched only a portion of this lakeland hollow. Grey and sage-green and blue are the dominant colours; manuka and fern and range-clinging forest are still components of the colour scheme in this great saucer of the Arawa country. Soon all this country will be covered with grove-sheltered homesteads and orchards and gardens, and then the boiling holes and sulphur pools and the sinter terraces and alum cliffs will seem all the more wonderful by contrast.

In Geyserland's Capital.

Soon the train is on the levels, crossing now and again a trout stream twisting down from the hills between low banks clothed in manuka and flax bushes, and presently there comes a sniff of sulphuretted hydrogen as a clear brook is crossed, and there is a glimpse of steaming pools half-veiled in white vapour. That first whiff of the sulphurous regions abides in the memory. It is the first sign and token of a curious land, unpleasant to some on a first; acquaintance, yet hailed with a greeting after a year or two of absence. As one comes to know the Geyser Country he grows accustomed to the pungent odour of the sulphur springs, and perhaps to like it, as the natives do. Use makes one tolerant of many things once passing strange, and Rotorua is not the only famous place where the traveller receives his first impressions through the nose. However, even these insistent odours of Hot Spring Land have their uses. The sulphur breath that rises through a thousand crevices and solfataras in the fern or manuka scrub or in the lakeside gardens seems effectually to fumigate the place.

The Finest Train on the New Zealand Railways. (Rly Publicity Photo) The new Rotorua “Limited Express” on one of its trial runs.

The Finest Train on the New Zealand Railways.
(Rly Publicity Photo)
The new Rotorua “Limited Express” on one of its trial runs.

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