Carl and Justine headed to Ohakune right before the ski season kicked off, ensuring a crowd-free adventure exploring the curiosities around town and stunning snowscapes in Tongariro National Park.
“My giant plastic fruit is larger than yours.” “No, my massive plastic vegetable is definitely the biggest.” Small town New Zealand has a real fascination with being the capital for some sort of food item, whether it be an enormous kiwi fruit in Te Puke, the world-famous-in-NZ L&P bottle of Paeroa or the huge gum boot in Taihape.
Not to be outdone, Ohakune’s claim to fame is the bright orange carrot that stands guarding the town like a giant organic sentinel. Installed, or should I say, planted in its current location in 1984, it was originally made for an ANZ bank commercial and then donated to the town in honour of Ohakune’s long history of carrot production, which dates right back to the 1920s, when the original Chinese settlers used explosives to clear the land for farming.
As great as the carrot is though, it’s probably the amazing walks and tramps along with the Turoa Ski Field that draw people to Ohakune year round, but especially in winter when the town really comes alive. Our last trip there though was in early winter before the ski season began, so we almost had the whole place to ourselves.
The township itself has a really nice vibe to it, and feels just like the mountain ski town that it is. There’s plenty of cafes and bars to keep you entertained after a hard day on the slopes too. After wandering around there for a while we headed over to “The Junction” on the other side of town as you start to head towards the ski field.
Named due to its proximity to the railway station, it’s a popular spot for the après ski scene, although there’s one less place to party now that the ‘Hot Lava’ bar/club has closed down.
A few years ago we came down for the start of the ski season ‘Mardi Gras’ and the Hot Lava bar was in full swing, so it was a little sad to see it looking a bit rundown. In some ways though, it looks even better now I think, as I love old buildings, and it seems to have more character now that it’s empty.
Just a short drive up from the Junction is the Mangawhero DoC Camp where we chose to base ourselves for a few days. A great little campground, with hardstand parking areas arranged around a centre circle giving a nice communal feel. We were the only ones there though so not much of a community going on 🙂
From the campground it’s not far to the Mangawhero Falls which are worth checking out, as is the hour-long Forest Walk which passes the campground.
A little further up Ohakune Mountain Road is the start of a truly spectacular walk, the track to the Waitonga Falls. The path starts off climbing through native bush before it opens up onto a walkway across an alpine bog, with spectacular views of the snow-covered Mt. Ruapehu.
The track then descends steeply to the river near the base of the Waitonga Falls, which, at 39m, are the tallest in Tongariro National Park. You can see the waterfall from the end of the track, but for the more adventurous it’s possible to traverse the river bed and banks to get right to the base of the falls. Firstly, you need to cross a very slippery, wobbly log, a little further downstream, and then work your way back along the opposite bank, crossing rocks and crawling through the bush. It’s not easy to get right up to the falls, but it’s well worth the effort.
Turoa Ski Field
After the walk we drove the last few kms up the mountain to the Turoa Ski Field to park up for some lunch. We’ve eaten with some pretty amazing views and this one had to be right up there with the best of them. The mountain looked absolutely stunning, with the blue skies contrasting sharply with the blindingly white snow.
With lunch out of the way we were itching to explore the mountain. There’s always something special about walking around a ski field when it’s not open, especially when there’s snow around. Knowing that in just a couple of weeks’ time this place will be packed with boarders and skiers, it’s nice to enjoy the last moments of peace and tranquillity.
Not far up the mountain from the carpark is a lake which, on a calm day, has the most amazing reflections of the mountains in its still blue waters and it’s worth the steep climb up the hill to enjoy the breath-taking scenery.
No trip out this way would be complete without a visit to Horopito Motors, just a 10 minute drive from Ohakune. Made famous in the 1981 movie ‘Smash Palace’, it’s unique amongst car yards due to their policy of never scrapping any car that came in, meaning that there’s cars here dating right back to the 1920s.
We spent an amazing few hours exploring the many acres of grounds that are strewn with every vehicle imaginable, all with the most incredible rusty patinas of blues, browns and oranges – just like works of art started by man, but finessed by mother nature.
Heading back out of Ohakune towards Waiouru and the Desert Road, we stopped off at the scene of the Tangiwai Train Disaster which is on the left after around 15 minutes. There’s a very informative memorial here dedicated to the 151 people who died on a cold night on Christmas Eve, 1953, after the Tephra dam, which held back Mt Ruapehu’s crater lake, collapsed. This caused a lahar to race down the Whangaehu river, destroying the bridge pillars just prior to the arrival of the Wellington to Auckland steam train, sending it plunging into the icy waters of the river.
There’s a short walk out to the bridge from the parking area with signs to show the carriages final resting places, although they can’t be actually seen today. A very beautiful and serene and reflective place, well worth stopping off for a while if you are passing by.