Friday, April 19, 2013

KiwiRail's Northern Explorer

The whole purpose of going down to Wellington was to come back again, on the Northern Explorer. Trains have become a bit of a theme recently, with my having travelled across several European countries on the rails last year, and the Rocky Mountaineer and various other train trips coming up in June. This is one I hadn't done before: the 10-hour journey between Auckland and Wellington along the Main Trunk Line through and past some of the North Island's best scenery. "A front-row seat to the back country," the brochure described it - and so it was, passing through places not on view to road travellers, and giving a new perspective to familiar scenes.
Some were, even so, a bit too familiar, so I was glad that, by chance, we'd chosen to travel north rather than south, given that the time of year means that the last hour or so of the journey is in darkness. That meant that the last section, approaching Auckland, was no great loss, whereas I would have been sorry to miss seeing the Kapiti Coast at the other end. Luckily (and unexpectedly) the sun was shining, and the sea sparkled, Kapiti Island looked invitingly mysterious, and the Tararuas were doing their best to evoke a Grahame Sydney painting.
There were lots of autumn-bright trees, the sheep were back-lit, the little towns neat and sleepy, the farmland tidy. Then we got up onto the volcanic plateau with ravines, rivers, viaducts and tussock country, before winding around the Raurimu Spiral, where the line curls round on itself and at one point you can see it both below and above the train: pretty impressive engineering. Nature had already outplayed that though, with the mountains we'd just gone past. Ruapehu was sulking inside cloud, but Ngauruhoe and Tongariro were clear, if moodily dark and threatening, the former channelling its Mt Doom persona.
LOTR references were overtaken by Hobbit ones as we went through the neat hilly green farmland near Matamata, hearing lots of history on the headphone commentary (which you can't hear if you're outside on the observation car, tch) before getting into familiar country as the rain arrived and the sun pushed off for the day.
It was a lovely trip, scenic, relaxing, comfortable in the nice new carriages with their big windows, David the Train Manager was friendly and informative, and Simone behind the counter in the cafe was quite a character. The food, by the way, was delicious - supplied by Wishbone. Their chicken laksa soup was so good I bought some more to take home. Imagine! Railway food you can't get enough of!

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