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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 12 (March 1, 1937)

A Winter Rail Journey through the Southern King Country

A Winter Rail Journey through the Southern King Country.

The late afternoon mixed passenger and goods train pulled out of Taihape on its usual daily run to Ohakune, the chief town of the Southern King Country. The heavy locomotive had a stiff pull extending for many miles to the high country at the head of the Hautapu river, right up to Waiouru on the edge of the Murimotu plains, and the chug, chug of the engine was steady and loud.

The men, travelling companions of the writer, were all King Country settlers, a type apart from most New Zealand farmers owing to their special circumstances of life.

Theirs is no easy, luxurious calling; they have hard climatic conditions to face, the land has its problems, much of the country being rough and only partially broken in. Hence it is a country for hardy men, and not the least attribute for that life is a strong right arm.

It is very noticeable to those who have eyes to see, that once the old King Country border is crossed, whether it be in the North near Te Awamutu, or in the South just about Taihape, the country's complexion and physical features alter. It has its own special atmospheric conditions, varying according to the class of country passed through. Another factor is the country's disinclination to be easily broken in. The crop of second growth on bush clearings is persistent and is in many cases winning out in the war against the pioneer settler. The spirit of the district seems to be in sympathy with old Maoridom and is in revolt against the white man's entry into this region.

It was not until the ‘eighties that the pakeha was admitted across the border; those adventurers who, ere that, penetrated its fastnesses, ran great risks. Such a one was Moffat who, unmindful of repeated warnings, was shot in the bush near Taumarunui by Maoris in the year 1880.

It had been sale day in Taihape, and some of these hard-boiled sons of the soil journeying homeward by train had reached the state described by Robbie Burns in his poem, “Tam O'Shanter”:

“The night drave on wi sangs and clatter ay the ale was growing better.”

Stories of the bush, of pig shooting, Maori yarns and songs, and tales of the wild horses out Taupo way, followed in rapid succession. “Dad,” a
(W. W. Stewart collection). A passenger train leaving Taihape, a flourishing centre on the North Island Main Trunk Line.

(W. W. Stewart collection).
A passenger train leaving Taihape, a flourishing centre on the North Island Main Trunk Line.

resident of the King Country for 50 years, still active and a good all round man on a bush farm, was persuaded to sing a song or two. We had proceeded on our way some miles and the train stopped at a remote country place, years ago a sawmilling centre. Very pleasantly, the rich sonorous voice of our Maori guard floated on the keen frosty air. “Turangarere,” what a beautiful rounded poetic name! Its very interpretation conjures up memories of the part.

“Turangarere,” our guard called out again, this time more impatiently and adds to it, “You Maoris inside there shake yourselves up.” At this our Maori passengers roused themselves, collected their sugar bag swags and page 42 page 43 moved leisurely towards the door. “Goodnight you pakeha, it te good job we got a Maori guard eh, he wait for us.”

Half an hour later we reached Waiouru, the highest railway station in New Zealand just on 3,000 ft. up. Peering out into the darkness one found the atmosphere like a knife edge, it seemed about down to zero, but a fellow traveller thought it not more than 20£ frost. “You want to come through here on a really cold night when the air has got hooks in it,” was his parting rejoinder as the whistle blew. Away across the undulating Murimotu plains rose the mighty bulk of Mt. Ruapehu, its snow-covered flanks glistening in the light of the full moon. This mountain is always impressive, whether viewed from a distance, or when after a long climb up its scoria slopes and icefields, to its unique crater lake.

We soon ran down the slope to Tangiwai where most of the passengers, including “dad,” alighted.

Apart from the writer there appeared to be only one passenger left, a tall well-set-up chap, lean and muscular. He said that he “had a bit of a farm a few miles back.” “Don't you find it a hard life and cold in the winter?” “Yes, it is heavy going and we get 25£ frost sometimes, but it has got to be put up with.” It made me think that in his humble way he is a greater builder of New Zealand than perhaps he thought.

At Karioi he got off the train and a minute later met a boy with his own horse and an extra one. The pair of them jumped into their saddles and cantered away into the night.

A few minutes later our train entered the bush district and the distant village lights of Ohakune blinked cheerily through the darkness.

Even Ohakune has much to interest visitors and some day its easily accessible large forest reserves will be much better known and appreciated.

The whine of the twin saws breaking down a large log has practically ceased in that locality, and if the visitor wishes to see something of the picturesque business of a bush sawmill he will find that the centre of this industry has moved further north.

Ohakune still has the appearance of a frontier town, which to a large extent it really is; some of its buildings are reminiscent of bush pioneering days. As a railway centre, an outlet for a considerable farming district, and the new phase of life it has entered, viz., the growing of vegetables, Ohakune will always have some importance and life associated with it.