Ohakune: with a permanent population of 1100 it would be a village in most parts of the world; in NZ it’s a small town. It’s typical of most in this country, the main street on a state highway and smaller streets of homes running off it. There are a few shops, servicing the homes within the town and the farms that surround it. Nearby is a mill that provides employment for many of the town’s residents, a New Zealand mill town being different from an English mill town where, more in the nineteenth and early twentieth century than now, they turned cotton into thread and fabric; here the mills turn trees into planks and wood pulp. Orange is big in Ohakune – like many small towns in New Zealand it has a quirky emblem, in this case the carrot, in celebration of the early growers who helped establish this town and still play an important part in its continued success.
Until a few years ago Ohakune was primarily a ski town, snow lovers clogging roads from and to the north island’s major cities on winter weekends, outnumbering residents four to one until the warmth of spring arrived and spoiled their fun, when the town was handed back to residents. There would be a few stray summer visitors but, apart from a few weeks over Christmas, it was ghost-like until the snow returned, many restaurants and shops closed through the warmer months. It’s changed a lot in the last decade, thanks mainly to the growth of mountain biking in the region, and Ohakune is now a year-round destination. Summer is beautiful and days can be very hot but, on the central plateau and 600m above sea level, even the nights can be cool, and spring and autumn mornings are as crisp as a freshly pulled carrot.
Like most, we discovered it in winter, when we also discovered that skiing in NZ is different to skiing in Europe and, especially on this mountain, susceptible to the weather. There were often more cancelled ski days due to wind or low visibility. On those days we explored the walks in the Tongariro National Park and one year came back for a week in summer, bringing our bikes to try out the newly opened Old Coach Road. We loved it so much we bought a house here, visiting regularly in summers that have gradually become busier. I remember one Easter a few years ago being astonished at how many people were in town, crowds of them around the cycle hire shops and in the cafes. I’m generally not a fan of crowds but there’s a lot of space here and it’s great to see others discovering the delights of this part of New Zealand.
Mt Ruapehu towers over everything, a constant presence watching silently as tiny humans live, work and have fun here. Sometimes he hides behind cloud, sometimes he wears a ring of it around his middle, his peaks peeping out the top. Whether it is in the blinding white of his winter coat or the subtle dark of his summer flanks, the sight of him never fails to make me smile and I always wave hello and goodbye as we arrive and leave. Occasionally he burps, spewing clouds of ash into the sky, the last time (in 1996) marking a sudden end to the ski season. Part of me wants to see it happen; part of me hopes I never do. (Although if it does happen in my lifetime, I’ll be seriously pissed off if I’m not here when it does.)
The town welcomes its guests and takes care of locals – there are excellent cafes (one serving the best breakfast burrito I’ve had in NZ) and pubs in which to spend your time when you’re not enjoying the great outdoors. And there’s the Carrot Adventure Park. If you’ve got children you (and they) will love it. There are swings and climbing frames, an outdoor gym, a picnic area with bbqs, pump and jump tracks to practise or learn bike skills, and where else could you sit in a carrot-shaped race car? There’s an assault course the local army base just up the road would be proud to own (well, they did help design it). All of it has been designed and created with massive effort by local volunteers and donations – the Ohakune Growers Heritage Path meanders through and around it, names of sponsors stamped into bricks. Ours is there, we know many of the others, and we’re proud to be part of this community.
Full disclosure – if your idea of a holiday is relaxing by the pool in the sun, I can’t recommend it. There is an outdoor pool in the town, open summer only, and it’s hot enough to soak up the rays (with the appropriate high factor sunscreen, of course), but the stock trucks rumbling past on the main road might disturb your peace and you probably wouldn’t be happy when the local farmer fertilises his fields. If you enjoy walking on the lower slopes of a mountain, in sometimes challenging terrain and always prepared for four seasons in one day, you’ll like it; if you like getting off road on two wheels and don’t mind a bit of mud, I can recommend it; if you just like fresh mountain air and a pleasant stroll alongside a pretty stream for a cup of coffee or a spot of lunch, you’ll have a good time here. Visit in winter and you might even get some skiing in.