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At dawn on a calm Sunday, we roll our small wheeled suitcases down The Terrace from our overnight accommodation, passing capital icons — Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the Beehive and the cenotaph — this early start prompted by a 7.15am check-in at the Wellington Railway Station. A couple of hundred starlings swirl across a reddening sky.
The 1930s brick station is imposing, a row of Doric columns guarding its main entrance leading to a cavernous booking hall with polished floor and vaulted ceiling.
KiwiRail’s Northern Explorer sits quietly alongside Platform 9, just three passenger carriages today — not the busy season — with a diesel-electric locomotive and luggage car at the front, an open-air viewing car at the back and a dining car in the middle.
So began this second train journey for me from the capital to Auckland. The first time was on Boxing Day 1980, when I put a 10-speed touring bike with paniers into the luggage car of the Northern Express, destination Cape Reinga (after two bus rides north from Auckland). From there, I rode 4000km, all downhill of course, to Stewart Island/Rakiura on a three-month study of small towns and rural communities that became a book called Detours.
Back then, 200 metres down the track with Platform 9 still in sight, the Northern Express shuddered to a halt — "a bust hose; brakes locked on" was the guard’s curt explanation. After 10 minutes I saw him pull a green flag from his top pocket and, giving it a flourish, we were off again.
The Northern Explorer has no such glitch. Actually, we depart two minutes early, at 7.53am, after a whistle from the guard, who is called a train manager these days, heralds a smooth exit from the railway yards with the locomotive’s engine purring. Our carriage is half full but the train manager says that with seven stops on the 680km journey, the seats will fill up.
There is much to admire in the scenery — gullies of flax, avenues of forest laden with tree ferns, farmland where pukeko graze, crops of corn, onions and brassicas of some kind.
The young man across the aisle has his laptop out and earbuds inserted and he will remain in his digital world for the next two or three hours, oblivious to the passing cavalcade of rural life. Perhaps because railway lines are narrower than highways, rail travel offers closer, more intimate perspectives of the countryside. You can peer into farmhouse backyards, pass close to many modes of agriculture.
And with the Northern Explorer, you get a commentary on the public address system that points out scenic or historic highlights and complements the recorded GPS-triggered audio descriptions via personal headsets (the drop-down screens provide alerts to listen).
What you don’t get unless you are quick off the mark is breakfast. The dining car on our trip, although well stocked with sandwiches and wraps, ran out of cereals, yoghurt and pottles of fruit within 20 minutes of our leaving Wellington.
Beyond Marton, still in Manawatu, the track turns right to ascend into the rugged Rangitikei country, where views of forested gorges and farmsteads turn heads. Viaducts and tunnels abound, each one accompanied by commentary on the headsets recounting their construction and dimensions. In this region the Rangitikei River is a wild place of eroding sandstone cliffs, rushing water and jungle-like native forest.
Before long, a new uplifted landscape emerges — Tongariro, the country’s oldest national park. Mount Ruapehu, whose higher slopes are decorated by frozen snow patches shining in the mid-afternoon sun, rises out of the tussocky expanse of the Volcanic Plateau. Here, the main trunk line reaches its highest elevation — over 800 metres.
By road, the plateau seems like mainly open country; go by train and you pass through surprisingly large tracts of mixed beech and podocarp forest. North of the village of National Park is a unique feat of railway engineering, the Raurimu Spiral. Nineteenth-century engineers devised it to allow trains to negotiate an escarpment 140 metres high, thus linking the Volcanic Plateau to a valley of the Whanganui River. The descent is achieved with a spiral of line comprising two loops and a couple of tunnels. On tight corners, wheels squeal.
The Spiral section draws a crowd into the breezy open-air carriage at the rear, where connection with the countryside is more real and photography not impacted by window reflections. Then it is back to the dining car for coffee, tea — or wine — with something sweet.
Beyond Mounts Ngaruahoe and Tongariro lies the King Country, a jumble of deforested hills between Taumarunui and Te Kuiti, the hills brown as a result of months without significant rainfall. Through much of this region the main trunk line accompanies State Highway 4, passing farms and occasional hamlets. Old railway houses stand out for their uniform design. Although there are seven stops on this 11-hour journey there is no time to savour Taumarunui, famous for its railway pie and tea in fortified cups — just bells and barriers at the town’s level-crossings.
Unlike in the United States, where the passenger trains can be forced on to a siding to wait for freight trains to go by, the Northern Explorer is given priority over freight, which seems only fit and proper.
In lowering sun, which produces spectacular lighting effects on the landscape, we pass through Waikato, historically a dairying paradise. More brown than green today, however, the hills and dales look like something out of the American Midwest during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Drought grips the land.
Hamilton brings us back to big city life and soon we’re getting ready to leave the train at Pakuranga — not quite the end of the journey — where friends are waiting.
As one of three New Zealand Great Train Journeys along with the TranzAlpine and Coastal Explorer in the South Island, the Northern Explorer, on a fine day at least, lives up to the billing. We’ve averaged just over 60kmh, a reasonable speed given the seven stops and various slow stretches, including the Raurimu Spiral and curved viaducts.
One thing lacking, we thought, was a printed A4 topo map with the stations, timetable, track elevations and basic information. The Great Train Journeys magazine is interesting but its map is not detailed enough and, anyway, it is liable to be ripped out by passengers wanting a stand-alone guide. For the ticket price, $89 each in our case, surely a stand-alone map would be affordable.
For me, this second Wellington-Auckland train trip was a revelation. Whereas years ago I found long-distance cycle touring to be illuminating, a passenger train, with the aid of audiovisual tools, coffee on board and a comfy seat, was another novel way of seeing and appreciating landscapes, habitats and human endeavour in rural settings.