Paul Charman and son go dirt tracking in search of “that western town place”
Okay, this one could be headed-up “Mini Mysteries Lite”, because saner motorists will probably experience little difficulty getting to Mellonsfolly Ranch. But for some of us who combine an amoebic sense of direction with sublime over-confidence in technology — it can prove challenging. I’ll set the scene. Dad and lad were out searching back roads of National Park/Raetihi/King Country for the legendary western town last Tuesday afternoon, but just taking one wrong turn after another . . . Winds of up to 100 km/h were forecast; snow and ice already lay on the ground and shadows had begun to lengthen.
The Mini in Mellonsfolly Ranch. Picture/Paul Charman.
I just wanted to reach our destination, take a few travel photos and push on to our scheduled haven for that night, sublime Chateau Tongariro. But we were well lost -- and every lose-your-way-horror-movie ever filmed began to flash into my mind. Road trips, even lengthy ones, are normally great fun in the 2014 Mini Cooper Hatch 5-Door.
But while this trek from Auckland’s North Shore to the wilds of the Central Plateau and back, was a boomer for the first few hours, it had started too late. It was to be a full-on 48 hour adventure, 760 plus kilometres caning the torquey stretch Mini along the back roads.
But the five-plus-hour drive had began about 10am, and when we should have been closing in on Mellonsfolly, the SatNav I'd purchased ahead of the trip misdirected us off State Highway 4 and onto “Erua Road”.
This glorified goat track, parts of which were well snow and ice-covered as the sun dipped low, was to be no fun.
Scenes from Deliverance (1972), Blair Witch Project (1999), The Locals (2003), danced in the imagination. We were nowhere near Ruatiti Road, which — with slips and a steep river valley — can some days be a pretty scary drive, even for those who know the way. But here’s where reality differs from fantasy. After taking in back woods National Park and Upper Retaruke, I stopped at some farm houses to ask directions.
Far from hostile hillbillies or undead zombies, we encountered nothing but kindness and encouragement from those hospitable locals. Armed with their directions we eventually made the connection with Ruatiti Road.
Sure, there were still worrying bends and slips, including places where they’d be weeks finding the wreck of your car.
But all you have to do is keep you nerve and follow this road right to the end. The no-expense-spared Western Town at the end of the road is a handsome reward for your efforts.
This replica of a genuine old town in Wyoming, combines latest technology with beautiful construction values and truckloads of antiques imported from America.
There were more western films than you could watch in a lifetime, high-end accommodation and plenty of guns. After meeting hospitable managers — Pancho and Rosetta — and sampling the town’s abundant hospitality (see footnote) we drove on in a gathering storm to the Chateau.
The winding road to Mellonsfolly Ranch in the Ruapehu DIstrict. Picture/ Paul Charman
The next day, with our Mini kitted out in AutoSocks, we picked our way through the snow and ice to the Top’o’the Bruce and up to Knoll Ridge Cafe, which somebody in London voted best cafe in the world.
Driven readers may be interested that two fairly large blokes were more than comfortable on this mid-winer adventure, despite spending almost two full days in the Cooper.
The Mini with its AutoSocks on the way to Mt Ruapehu. Picture/Paul Charman.
The long trip through a mixture of roads and weather conditions weather was aided by the car's great handling. My only criticism: since you have to work the gears a lot in a 1500cc six-speed manual — the digital gear indicator could have been more prominent. The first day, while still getting used to things, I kept forgetting which gear I was in. The quiet motor gave barely a clue, and only the rev-counter could disclose, that two was not four, and four was not six . . .
The Mini leading up towards The Chateau. Picture/Paul Charman.
But the stretch Mini was admired everywhere and it seemed to swallow all our gear, seemingly with additional room for two imaginary passengers. It’s just a shame those two transparent characters couldn't have helped me out more with the directions.