If you were travelling north on the main trunk line at the beginning of the 20th century, you got off the train at Ohakune, boarded a horse-drawn coach, travelled 39 bumpy kilometres to Raurimu, and climbed on another train.
That 39-kilometre stretch of road began life as a bridle track in 1886, before being paved in 1906 to make it passable by coaches travelling between the northern and southern railheads. Once the main trunk line was completed in 1908, the link was no longer needed. A new cobblestone road was built between Ohakune and Horopito, but over time it felt into disrepair and disappeared under vegetation.
Fast forward to this century, when community group Ohakune 2000 started working with the Department of Conservation to turn the coach road into a walking and cycling track. Around 20 core volunteers and another 80 or so devoted inordinate amounts of their spare time over three years to clearing the road, culverts and slips, laying metal along the track, cutting away regrowth and planting trees.
The result is a seven-kilometre track that detours through native bush and ends at the Hapuawhenua Viaduct. The last section, which will connect to Horopito, will be finished by April 2010 and the track will form part of the National Cycleway.
We were the only cyclists on the Old Coach Road on a Sunday morning in late September but we met a few walkers along the way. We started out at the Ohakune Railway Station – you can also set off from the Marshalls Road carpark, five minutes away. The first leg is through farmland, then the track winds into bush. It’s not a taxing ride; the hills aren’t too steep, the bends too tight or the terrain rugged.
It takes a while to ride the seven kilometres, though, with so much to look at along the way. There’s the scenery, for a start, vivid green farmland, a disused tunnel - which begs you to dismount and explore – and the views from the rather grand Hapuawhenua Viaduct. The latter is a 284-metre-long, 45-metre high decommissioned railway viaduct. Built in 1908 as part of the main trunk line, it’s a fine example of a curved railway viaduct. It’s also where A J Hackett set up his first bungee jumping company in the 1980s. Today there’s a boardwalk on either side of the bridge, and handrails, so you can peer over the edge as you cross it and marvel at the engineering feat that went into its construction.
That’s only part of the rail history lesson the track offers; the Department of Conservation has erected displays along the track with a photographic record of the main trunk line’s construction. At each stop you can also see how far you are along the track.
Then there are the remnants of the old paved road, visible at some stages through the grass growing over the track, and the native bush – tall trees, ferns and flowers, which you really have to stop and appreciate.
Our ride ended back at the railway station, where we had coffee and scones at the Junction General Store. It had taken two hours to ride 15km – faster than the coach journey 100 odd years earlier, and doubtlessly a lot more enjoyable.