Destinations Cities

Riding the main trunk line

Jenny Nicholls boards the Northern Explorer, and finds soba noodles and picture windows have replaced the cold mince pies and scratchy blankets of her childhood train trips.

Someone says, “Don’t leave with me on board!” There are hugs, family selfies, amiable bickering for the best seat. The windows look promisingly vast.
My eye falls upon a menu as tall as a Taliban’s beard. (“We’re glad you’re onboard. If you need anything, just ask.”) Inside, posed, ramrod-backed couples grin hard as they stare fixedly out the window while reaching for cappuccinos which might need to be analysed for controlled substances. “Darling! The sheep are levitating again!”
On the back of the menu is a map with a dotted line showing the Northern Explorer’s long route from Wellington to Auckland. Nineteen green circles are strung along it, grouped at first, like the beads on a broken necklace. First, evenly spaced up the coast: Porirua, Paekakariki, Otaki. Then the line straightens. After Palmerston North, there is a swerve to the left; after Marton, a swing to the right. Then a long stretch to Taihape. The line gets crinkly here, pushed to and fro, swinging around Ruapehu, before mooching through the Waikato. The train takes 11 hours to cover 681km, which is fairly nippy when compared to “great train trips” elsewhere. The Tazara railway from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya in Tanzania takes 24 hours to travel 850km on sweltering rails. The Manakara Express in Madagascar takes 16 hours to get 140km – from coastal Manakara to Fianarantsoa in the highlands.
It is 7.55AM precisely. Outside, everything appears to move.
The last carriage of the Northern Explorer has open sides, which helps in getting the perfect shot.
These passengers are photographing Mt Ruapehu.
A young bloke’s voice emerges from a speaker. David is a natural, a microphone star. He introduces us to his colleagues, Bruce and Elaine, and points out the wonders – natural and man-made – of the trip with clarity and vim. Not for David that egomaniac tone, harsh, nasal and breathy, drawn out in a self-seductive rapture, as if savouring every moment of fame. He is never snooty, incomprehensible, glutinous or morose. David is happy. He is a swell guy. He gets to the point.
Elaine carries coffees up and down the carriages with the athletic grace of a skateboarder-of-a-certain-age, sometimes eight in one go. “You get to know where the corners are.”
The train gathers momentum through the Wellington commuter belt, twisting and turning through gorsey hills, the brakes in constant use. Suddenly, around a corner, is the sea. Kapiti! The new sky is cut by an impatient vapour trail. Speedsters! We are taking the slower route.
It being sparrow’s fart on Sunday, the roads are empty except for a few elderly cyclists. We stop at Paraparaumu to pick up “guests”. The rising sun glitters over vast fields of greens destined for the stomachs and pedal-bins of Wellington. A well-fed rabbit sneaks across a paddock, visible to no-one except the entire train. Between Paekakariki and Palmerston North, new commuter suburbs blossom in the sandy coastal soil, their little pink-timbered outlines sprouting like ugly fairy rings. The backsides of shops, factories and garages are painted with huge signs. NEW WORLD. ENHANCE PAVING. FIBRE FLARE. NEW WORLD. PENRAY. TOAD HALL. NEW WORLD.
The black and white dairy cows sit like my old plastic toys under plastic poplars, with a painted backdrop of perfectly misty ranges. But my childhood play farm didn’t come with white crosses decorating wire fences, with their pretty garlands of pink, white and red flowers.
Sheep flee maniacally from the train all day, running as if the devil is on their fat tails. But the train, immune to distraction, never does peel off the tracks to eat them. The sheep, despite daily evidence, remain terrified from Waikanae to Pukekohe.
The lucky country begins past Feilding, after we leave the road behind – endless rumpled hills, flecked with Herefords and cabbage trees, grass growing tall beside the track. Bulls, all neck, unmoving, look thoughtfully at the train. They, at least, have half a brain.
Elaine can carry up to eight coffees on her tray through the pitching carriage.
These feel like secret landscapes. We see the end of this farm, the middle of that farm, stuffed haysheds, old gates and ancient tractors, bucolic fields we share with their farmers.
The fat young bulls remind me of something. I pick up the menu again, with its trendy noodles on the cover. There are no pies. There is, instead, bewildering variety – quinoa and dried pear salad, laksa, chowder, soba noodles, wraps, and even a list for the gluten-free traveller.
Traditionalists have not been forgotten, though: $4.50 will buy you a ham sandwich, and $7.50 a mac cheese with bacon. The fruit salad ($7) comes with passionfruit pulp.
I can remember childhood nights on the wheezing overnighter to Auckland. Mum would wake us up in Taumarunui for tea. We would troop dozily off the train into a freezing railway station tearoom, to eat cool mince pies in crinkly cellophane off chunky plates now worth a fortune on Trade Me. I would invariably squirt so much tomato sauce out of the engunked plastic-tomato bottle, it would pool in the dry, sunken middle of my pie, which tasted, for some reason, of Marmite.
Being farmers’ children, hungry as mice, docile as calves, we would demolish every clammy crumb uncomplainingly. “Takeaway” food was exotic cuisine, even if it tasted of cardboard and Marmite, and we knew that this special expenditure required a favourable reception. Back on the train we fell asleep instantly on the hard red seats, swathed in scratchy army blankets, the train busy in our ears, tomato sauce on our faces.
Onboard service manager David (left) and train manager Bruce.
Make mine a smoked salmon and soba noodles, with “zingy soy chilli dressing”.
The wood-lined dining car has a few well-spaced seats, making it a magnet for seat hogs. Train staff Elaine, Bruce and David tactfully evict overstayers who doze off in the sun, or gangly teenagers heading back to school, sitting three to a seat, texting each other and giggling for hours.
The well-kept plains around Marton, fat with maize and dairy, change abruptly to wilder river valleys cutting deep into the foothills of the Volcanic Plateau. The sun is high, an excellent lunch under your belt. But don’t doze off… the views in the next few hours are the most spectacular of the trip.
This Rangitikei landscape strikes an ancient bell within me. That clump of trees, this ridge line, a curve in the road, look the same as they did when I saw them from the window of the school Bedford bus. Although there are no signs, I know the town where my brother, sister and I learned to read is just around the corner. I still think Hunterville, nestled in a scoop in the green hills, is perfect – well, seen through nostalgia goggles, anyway. I’ve been back a couple of times since 1977, and it seemed as tranquil as when I left, a bell-bottomed, freckled adolescent.
You have to be alert, or you will miss it. There is the church on a hill, the poplars. By the time I finish saying “Ooh, look it’s Hunterville – I went to school here” it has almost… gone, sliding back into memory. The train sighs through the T-junction, past large deco and Edwardian buildings, (two of them were once pubs) before sweeping into spectacular Rangitikei River terraces towards Mangaweka.
A few minutes later, for a few moments, you become suspended in mid-air. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t look down! The train clacks airily over three huge viaducts here. The longest is 315m long and 78m high.
As we pass Taihape, then Waiouru, the pasture changes colour. The green, neatly fenced paddocks give way to olive green and red sedges and low manuka as the soil becomes less fertile. The large herds of sheep and cows have dwindled into small groups, then solitary escapees, or horses, which eat anything.
A view of Mt Ruapehu. Ghlennis and Garry Condell, Hamilton-bound then home to Tauranga. Kurt Philbin, 16, and Joe Cook, 15, on their way back to school in Hamilton.
The place to be, as we curl around Ruapehu, is the viewing car at the back of the train, which has open sides for shutterbugs and camera nuts. Put your coat on. The ice in the air comes as a shock after your warm, sunny carriage.
From the outside, this must look like a cattle car packed with insects, with quivering black antennae sticking out of long open slats. Men wearing green fishing vests sport lenses that could capture a hair on a flea on the back of a tui at three kilometres. But there are plenty of civilian cameras, too.
I discover iPhones are useless at shooting mountains. They flatten everything, turning the snow-covered flanks that fill my eyes into a smudge under a sea of sky.
The small township of Raurimu comes shortly after the National Park station. To get there, we descend the famous spiralling track: 139m in less than six kilometres – an intractable 19th-century problem that had engineers stroking their beards and wailing for years. How to get from the heights of the volcanic plateau to valleys created by the inconvenient Whanganui River by train, without a huge detour, a cable car, or everyone getting out and walking?
I can never get my head around the Raurimu spiral, no matter how often it’s explained to me. On a map, the track looks like a noodle which has fallen on the ground, with a circle and wiggly bits. Add two tunnels and three hairpin bends. At least one train driver has had conniptions here at night after mistaking his own tail lights for those of a train in front within ramming range.
You would think the person who invented this giant noodle – which saves hours on each trip and the need for as many as nine viaducts – would at least have had a tunnel named after him. But no. His name is forgotten.
From here, the train meanders through the most isolated and beautiful farmland in the country, which rumples around Taumarunui like a vast green candlewick bedspread, beautiful in a lowering sun. Once an important stop on the old trunk line, the train now whistles through this remote, villa-strewn place. It’s shrinking: in 2013, only 4500 people here filled in a census form, a 14 per cent drop from the 2001 count. You can pick up a tidy two-bedroom house here for $50,000.
The land flattens out, and we arrive in the lush dairying country of the Waikato. The train’s rippling shadow begins to lengthen.
A number of card-playing senior larrikins from the East Coast get off in Hamilton to catch a bus back to Tauranga. They have had a blast in Wellington and have the loot to prove it – shopping bags from Kirkcaldie & Stains, Carly Harris, Annah Stretton.
The train staff are still going strong: Bruce drops off 13 rubbish bags at the Hamilton station. He tells me he doesn’t reach home until late, nodding off as soon as he’s had his steak. He’s good at his job, an amiable bear – adroit at the tricky business of escorting dozers from the dining car seats. David politely, mournfully, urges passengers to settle their tabs at the cafe.
Auckland turns up and goes on and on; even the tagging looks industrious. The familiar hypodermic clanks into view, and the boggy reaches of the Manukau Harbour, then a warm blue gulf, studded with sails.
• The Northern Explorer operates a six-day timetable, departing Auckland on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, and Wellington on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday (adult fare from $119 one way). Check kiwirailscenic.co.nz/northern-explorer.
Words by: Jenny Nicholls
Photos by: Ken Downie