After a superb week in Wellington – I’m only prepared to go so far with the alliteration – I was heading back to Auckland.
Yes, another ride on the Northern Explorer and another chance to see North Island’s stunning scenery.
No, I’m not going to South Island on this trip.
Logistics didn’t make it work out and, for the last month, the weather hasn’t been great down there so, another time.
Wellington Railway Station is the largest station I’ve used in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful building, similar in style to the former Central Station in Auckland, and has multiple platforms.
Spending the last month using two-track stations I briefly wondered if I would be overwhelmed by such a large station.
For a few moments I thought I was going to have a spare seat next to me but, no, I was joined by a chap who was on his third time lucky attempt at finding his correct seat.
The labelling is very clear.
The other aspect which was also very clear was the never ending safety briefing. This would rival some of the briefings I heard on Chinese trains and I think it must be a result of necessity.
- Don’t pull the emergency brake lever in tunnels – they’re filled with toxins.
- Don’t pull the emergency brake lever when we’re going over viaducts.
What if it is an emergency in the tunnel or the viaduct, I wondered?
Second rules – movement around the train:
- Don’t walk down the carriage barefoot – your feet could get trapped in the moving parts.
- Don’t stand in the aisle.
- Don’t chat in the aisle.
- Don’t leave personal items in the aisle.
- Keep the aisle free at all times.
You think im exaggerating, don’t you?
Then, when you visit the open air carriage…
- Don’t stick your head out of the carriage. You could be bashed by low hanging vegetation and the train goes through tunnels unannounced… how narrow are these tunnels?
- Don’t stick your camera out of the carriage. You won’t be getting back any lost items. No kidding, but presumably people have asked otherwise this announcement wouldn’t be made.
- Don’t drink alcohol in there, don’t smoke in there and don’t let kids run around unattended. Presumably, we’re not allowed to place beta on survival though this is a very long journey.
I decided that it might be wise just not to leave my seat until the train reached Auckland.
The first major landmark, as the train climbed the steep hills out of Wellington and reached the Western coast was Kapiti Island.
On a clear day, the audio commentary advised, it would be possible to see the tip of South Island.
It was not a clear day.
Kapiti Island is around five miles off the coast and is a rodent-free bird and marine sanctuary. Previously in its history, it was home to a great chief and was later a whaling base where 2,000 people lived.
The journey out of Wellington is over green, shrubbed mountains, another example of New Zealand’s “England on steroids” feel. This once would have been covered by forest before settlers started “breaking in” the land, as it was described by a New Zealand naturalist concerned by the introduction of alien species in the 19th Century.
By now, the train had been travelling for an hour – it was 8.55am and the small boy sitting a few rows behind me loudly asked if it was lunchtime yet.
Motormouth hadn’t stopped chuntering away for the last hour. When he wasn’t expounding his opinions on what he was seeing, he was tunelessly humming.
His parents frequently hushed him but I think his complaint about hunger and demands for icecream were too much for another passenger, in front of me, who loudly added their exasperation to the parents’ entreaties for silence.
It was hard to tell who was more embarrassed.
Passing through Shannon, heart of the flax industry, the audio commentary covered the Manawatu river and the draining of the wetlands – an action which contributed to the 2002 flooding that displaced over 2,000 people.
The train reached Palmerston North, so called because Palmerston on the South Island (also named in honour of the British Prime Minister) was named first.
This was the journey’s first major stop where more people would join the train.
I was in a grumpy carriage.
The older guy diagonally behind me was grousing at how slowly the train was moving and when a gang of four small boys climbed on and excitedly started waving to their aunties who were seeing them off, triggering more complaint…I wondered at my options of moving to a more cheery part of the train.
I was missing the Men Behaving Badly.
After about half an hour, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t hear Motormouth or Old Grumpy. Had I gone deaf?
I glanced back.
The little boy had fallen asleep and his poor mother was grimacing ever so slightly every time the Gang of Four shouted excitedly. Old Grumpy had a sudoku and his earphones on.
Climbing out of Hunterville, the train left behind the rolling pastoral land and non-Maori place names. We were crossing into terrain that had made railway building more of a challenge.
Farmland, complete with flocks of sheep or herds of grazing cattle, continued but hillsides were steeper and there were more canyons. We crossed the first of a series of viaducts running alongside Highway 1.
Thereafter, the train slowed to allow photography opportunities as we crossed another two.
The railway line returned to pasture land. The only way that is sustained is through the application of phosphates to maintain fertility and prevent erosion.
The native forests, in this area, are long since gone as a result of extensive logging and clearance or ‘breaking in’ the land.
The Maori legend concerning the creation of North Island involves a fishing trip where one brother caught a fabulous fish that stretched into the horizon.
As a result of an incantation to make it lie quietly on the surface of the sea, the fish became North Island. Impatient in waiting for the successful fisherman to give thanks to the gods, one of the brothers started hacking the fish, creating the mountains.
South Island? That’s the canoe they went fishing in.
The train was now crossing the central plateau on curving rails which was necessary to reduce the gradient that trains had to climb.
In the distance, Mount Ruapehu which is the highest mountain on the North Island. It retains its snow until mid-life Summer.
Passing Ruapehu, the train began climbing.
This stretch of track required bridges to be built to cross the steep gullies created by streams cascading from Ruapehu. Surveyors at the time advised that bridging a direct route would be cheaper than circumnavigating.
This is the highest point of the route and the highest rail crossing in New Zealand at 814m above sea level.
This is also active volcanic territory: Ruapehu last erupted in 2007, Tongariro unexpectedly in 2012 while Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1977 (having spent the 20th century erupting 45 times).
Ngauruhoe is also known Mount Doom in a number of low budget Peter Jackson movies that you have probably never heard of. The Maori name means ‘throwing heated stones’.
As we pulled into National Park, Mount Doom was hidden by cloud. Again.
I was so pleased that I managed to get a shot on the train ride to Wellington the previous week.
The train headed off again down what was becoming a familiar journey, I’d already done this stretch twice: from Auckland to Hamilton, from Hamilton to National Park and the of course doing the epic Auckland to Wellington.
Did I regret doing this crossing repeatedly?
Not at all, this rail route takes you across stunning North Island territory that, especially once you get beyond National Park and heading down to the island, there is no other way of seeing as it doesn’t follow the highways.
Besides, rather bizarrely, at the time of booking, a train ride plus flight out of Auckland was cheaper than a flight out of Wellington.
So, even if the previously cheery Gang of Four (and for some reason were singing only the chorus to ‘YMCA’) were now becoming tetchy as their boredom increased, it was still a beautiful journey.