Backpacking Pensioners travel blog

Morning view from Mokau Campsite

Symbol of the King Country at Taumarunui

Main street at Taumarunui

Ariel photograph of the Raurimu Spiral

Lowest level - start of spiral through the trees

Can you spot the tunnel we left below us?


I awoke this morning feeling a little older after yesterday’s birthday; not that I mind. Statistics show that those who have the most birthdays live longest. Now I have just turned 26. Next year, when I inform I have turned 36 it might be more plausible.

Today will be spent travelling to Taumarunui where we hope we will be able to take a short train journey which will include the Raurimu Spiral. Our route is north along SH3 for a further 42 miles and then south down SH4 for 44 miles.

We set off with nothing to do but drive along looking at the wonderful scenery from our elevated seats in the van, marvelling at the long views from high and the height of the gorges when we are at river level. It is a surprise how the scenery and vegetation changes after travelling through a tunnel near the top of a high hill; almost like entering another world. Our only stop was to have coffee and biscuits in the van during the morning and to pull in for lunch at a rest area in Aripoa, before joining the SH4 at 8 Mile Junction, (a name that sounds much better than 12.8 kilometres junction).

On arrival at Taumarunui we parked on the main street and went to explore. A nearby large boulder with a top hat on it informed us that Taumarunui lies at the junction of the Onoarue and Whanganui Rivers and it soon became known in the late 1800’s by the boat travellers to this area as The Heart of the King Country. The top hat on the crest of the stone was the recognised symbol of the guardianship of this area. So why King Country?

The Maoris of this area felt they needed more unity for dealing with the Pakeha, (Europeans), and should have someone of the equivalent to the British Queen. In 1858 the high chief of the Waikato tribes Potatau Te Wherowhero became the first Maori King. He died two years later aged about 85 and was succeeded by his son who was a bit younger, and he led the Maori for 34 years, including the Land Wars of 1863/64. Eventually he retreated to this area and placed his hat on a big map and stated every thing under the hat was his area. The King Movement was a nationalistic step for those Maoris who were unwilling to sell, or loose their land to the European. (Not too keen on sharing then).

The Europeans were allowed to enter the King Country in the 1890’s after the Maori King and the Chiefs agreed to the Auckland-Wellington railway being built through their land. The present Mouri Queen is the sixth in line and has held the position since her father died in 1966. She is head of a tribal confederation who are all descended from those who arrived in New Zealand on the Tainui Canoe during the fourteenth century.

The long main one sided shopping street and the railway line run parallel with each other infront of the hill range. Further along from our van was the Tourist Information Office where we were able to view a scaled model of the Raurimu Spiral; a brilliant way of getting a train to the top of a big hill. We had first learned of this when reading our ‘Lonely Planet Guide Book’ but got a shock on learning the cost of taking a train journey to view the ‘Spiral’. Our book stated the cost was £13 each. Unfortunately the rail company changed their rules a year ago and took away all of the concessions. The journey from Auckland to Wellington is $115; it still costs this much from Taumarunui. The cost of our much shorter journey was $98, (£39 each), but we had set our hearts on the trip and are not likely to have the chance again. We booked for tomorrow and drove a mile down the road to a very nice camp site by the river.

Our computer let us know there was a network near by and we paid for 24 hour internet usage. Unfortunately we spent a frustrating evening trying to upload pictures for our blog site; however it worked very well in the morning. During our morning computer session we were able to swap written messages through ‘Messenger’ with our son Kieron in Minnesota, and when we plugged in our new Web Cam we found ourselves talking to him and his wife Katherine. I just thought the camera would show our image, what a nice surprise for me. Of course Sylvia knew all along of the capabilities of the system.

Eventually we had to cut the call and set off for our rail journey to the Tongariro National Park, 2,645 feet above sea level.

The Raurimu Spiral is a permanent memorial to R. W. Holmes – the man who has been described as ‘perhaps the greatest location engineer in New Zealand’s history’. (My main information is from a special leaflet purchased at the great cost of 20p). For more than 31 miles south of Taumarunui the main trunk railway climbs steadily towards the National Park Village, situated on the edge of the Volcanic Plateau. In this distance the total ascent is 2,084 feet. Over the last 7 mile from Raurimu to National Park Village there is an abrupt increase in altitude of over 704 feet. This rise is overcome by a masterly example of railway engineering known throughout the world as the Raurimu Spiral.

It is an ascending spiral which incorporates a complete circle, three horseshoe curves, and two short tunnels. Because of the layout the average gradient is thus reduced to about 1 in 52. After land surveys which went into double figures R. W. Holmes, a senior engineer of the Public Works Department finally solved the problem and in 1898 produced a textbook example of a spiral line. (I hope this is not getting too exciting for you).

We boarded the Auckland to Wellington train for our journey of about an hour, and viewed great scenery throughout. If anyone should wish to see the interior of the North Island the easy way is to take this rail journey. When we got to the Spiral I went forward to the observation platform which disappointingly proved to be a small outside area which became a bit of a squash with just 5 of us their; one way to make close friends. The brief history and commentary over the speakers by a rail staff member was very good and the experience exhilarating. The views were not good for photographic purposes because of the vegetation on the hillside and poor observation platform, which only afforded brief glimpses of the way we had just come.

First we travelled along the valley bottom before the rail track swept round left and climbed the hill in an upwards clockwise direction. Then, after going through two short tunnels we came right round the hill and could see the beginning of the spiral below us and soon we were crossing over the rail line we had just been on. At one point, a quick look to the right below us caught a glimpse of one of the tunnel exits we had left just moments before. This was not a dramatic experience but it was one we were glad to have been involved in.

At the National Park the down train meets the up train. Crews are exchanged and passengers have 50 minutes to stretch their legs and buy food at the station restaurant. I was busy talking with one of my new friends and Sylvia came looking for me because I had the van keys, and return tickets. If she had not done so, I might have continued my onward travel to Wellington. We had with us, (well Sylvia did as she enjoys carrying our back pack), our own nice sandwiches prepared before leaving the van. We ate our lunch and spent some time speaking with a member of the train crew before boarding the up train for our journey back. To experience travelling down the ‘Spiral’ we sat in the rear of the train in the lounge section. Views from the large windows were interesting but the glass reflected the camera use, and we were again disappointed in not getting suitable photographs.

Our rail journey had been a nice and relaxing experience. On alighting from the train about 3pm, we both felt the outing had been worth while, and it was time to move on to our next anticipated treat; a journey down ‘The Forgotten Highway’.

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