There are multiple flights daily between Auckland, NZ’s biggest city, and Wellington, the country’s capital. During the week, the route is quickly served about 20 times in either direction. A lot of commuting, traveling for business, work, study, and seeing family is happening in between these two most important cities. You’d think that in a country like New Zealand, transportation would be more sustainable and less environmentally harmful. About an hour does the flight take. Going by car is easily a full-day journey on windy and narrow roads. The country’s autobahn vanishes just south of Hamilton, about 120 km into the trip.
After flying many times, I tried it and took an overnight bus once. It was a very long and quite annoying experience. When being prone to motion sickness, those curvy roads are no fun.
Once, there was a decent railway network on the north island. Now, it’s diminished to one scenic long-distance route between Auckland and Wellington called “Northern Explorer.” It takes 11 hours to make the trip through the countryside.
I had it on my list for quite some time now, but all those times I needed to travel back from Wellington to Auckland, the train was not scheduled. As it is a scenic train, AKA tourist train, it only runs 3-4 times a week and only once daily. However, on my way back from hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track, I made it work and booked a ticket for the train ride.
When I arrived that sunny Sunday morning at the railway station, I was very excited and beaming all over. Luckily, I had two seats to myself, and my carriage was right next to the open-air observation car.
The train was relatively busy, but the atmosphere was relaxed and full of excitement about the upcoming journey. Punctually, at 7:50 a.m., we slowly rolled out of Wellington, along the shore, northwards. Soon, the Tararua Range appeared to the east. The TA follows its ridges, and these mountains are a little infamous because of their high winds and unpredictable weather.
The scenery was serene: rolling lush green farmland, mountains in the backdrop, blue skies. Sheep and cattle grazing peacefully and making a nice contrast to the bicolored scenery. Slowly, we approached the Volcanic Plateau of the North Island. The vibes in the train got increasingly excited: the conductor announced upcoming viaducts, and people with big cameras rushed towards the observation car to get the best views of those impressive pieces of engineering the train would roll over. I cannot hide my fascination for this kind of infrastructure too. However, it impresses me to see the stark contrast between what humans once built to tame nature and how nature roars in the form of rivers, canyons, and thick bushes right next to it. Eventually, the snow-covered top of Mt Ruapehu made its appearance once in a while. Slowly, we were approaching the highlight of the whole journey: Tongariro National Park with its three volcanoes, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Tongariro, and Mt Ngaurugoe. The whole area is probably the most active volcanic area in the entire country, as the last eruption happened in 2007, and there were eight significant eruptions in the 20th century. In one in 1953, over 150 people died as it caused derailing a train. It’s not the best story to think about when on a train in the area.
At the same time, Ruapehu is the highest mountain on the north island, with 2797 m. It’s a popular hiking area in summer (ever heard of the Tongariro Crossing? About 1000 people a day tackle it in high season.) and one of the major skiing areas in winter.
Eventually, all three volcanoes came into sight. How lucky we were with the weather! Not long ago, I was in the area with my partner, but back then, cyclone Gabrielle made her way across the country, and we did not see a thing during those two days we stayed in the area.
After the brief stop in the village of National Park (yes, that’s its name), we descended from the volcanic plateau, and the excitement in the train was replaced by peaceful sleepiness among the passengers.
The second-to-most-exciting moment was when I had a very brief and very vague glimpse of Mt Taranaki, which sits near the Pacific shore about 150 km to the west as the crow flies.
After a brief stop in Hamilton, the fourth biggest city in NZ, the journey started to be rather dull as the train made its final approach to Auckland through heavily farmed land and the outspread suburbs of Auckland. A couple of minutes earlier than scheduled, we were pulling into Auckland’s “The Strand” railway station. Many very excited taxi drivers are already waiting, trying to lure potential passengers to their cards. With a smile, I shouldered my pack and made my way to the nearest bus stop, where I caught a bus that brought me back home within 10 minutes.
It was a surprisingly scenic ride, probably also thanks to the bright weather, and I enjoyed it very much. However, I am also surprised that people barely got into contact with each other. Either the journey was not long enough, or people going on Northern Explorer Journeys in Aotearoa, New Zealand, are less likely to get into contact with other travelers. With a bit of melancholy, I was reminiscing about the epic Amtrak rides in the US. People in the US who I met on Amtrak trips were generally more impulsive, extroverted, and curious about their fellow travelers. Kiwis seem typically more reserved and politely withdrawn, which also appears to account for tourists in the Northern Explorer—every journey to its own time.