Day 1 – Northern Explorer Train – Auckland to Wellington
Leaving Auckland from the Stand Railway Station on the Northern Explorer, the first treat is a view of the turquoise waters of the Hauraki Gulf and Rangitoto in the distance (our first sighting of a volcano of the day) as we follow Tamaki Drive for a shortwhile before heading across the waters of Hobson Bay and the Orakei Basin and inland.
Soon we are travelling through residential areas passing back yards and gardens as we go. The volcano count continues with a glimpse of Mt Wellington before we head to the western coastline and the Mangere Inlet. From here the scenery changes to the industrial south of Auckland city, passing by factories and workshops. Train travel is such a great way to really see a place. Showing us the bare bones of not only the beauty of our countryside but also of the realities of city live, and the impact of industry and farming.
Talking about farming, in no time at all we’re out into the countryside and soaking in wonderful views of the green fields of the Waikato
As we enter King Country the views changes from the flat lands of the Waikato to valleys and rolling hills of green. Where the evidence of the timber trade from decades ago can be seen.
From the late 1800’s up to the 1980’s the small communities and timber trade in this area were booming. But after years of conflict between conservationists, forestry workers and Timber Industry, a policy change was brought in which protected the native forest from logging but resulted in many of the small rural communities fading away.
I know this area from my many visits to the awesome Timber Trail that finishes in Ongarue. Thankfully the policy changes and protests in the 80’s prevented a section of the Pureora Forest from being logged. This section is the impressive primary native forest that riders are treated to when they start the Timber Trail ride.
The railway line snakes up the Ongarue River valley with a surprisingly large amount of corners for a trainline. Through our first long tunnel – which was extremely noisey and caught those of us in the open viewing carriage by surprise! Passing through the little township of Taumarunui we change valleys to following the famous Whanganui River upstream for a little while before changing again to the Whangapapa River valley and up to Owhango.
Owhango is also familiar biking territory, as this is the end of the 42 Traverse ride. Another really cool adventure ride in central North Island.
From here we slowly climb towards the famous and much anticipated spiral. Climbing 132 metres in 6.8 kilometres, the Raurimu Spiral overcomes what was a major obstacle for the railway designers of their day; how to cross the steep slopes between the valleys and gorges of the Whanganui river to get to the Volcanic Plateau to the east.
It curves around so much that its said that legend has it a train driver at night once hit the emergency breaks after catching sight of the light on his last carriage and thinking it was a train coming in the opposite direction!
At the other side of the spiral we’re on the Volcanic Plateau and we soon get a glimpse of the bright white summit of Ruapehu against the skyline. The weather was perfect for awesome views of the volcanoes. Our volcanoe count for the day increases to 4! Firstly Nguarahoe, which starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie and then the huge Mt Ruapehu. They were mesmerizing to watch as we passed.
The landscape has a desolate feel to it on this vast plateau. The terrain visibly volcanic in places and the vegetation very spiky and abstract against the skyline.
After the volcanoes next come some of the viaducts over steep gorges. Makatote viaduct, the Taonui Viaduct and the impressive Hapuawhenua Viaduct. Here the old wooden viaduct still stands proud on the other side of the gorge. Again another great biking destination – The Old Coach Road starting in Ohakune this time.
From Ohakune we continue to skirt around the southern reaches of Mt Ruapehu and then begin our descent towards Parmeston North as we snake down the Hautapu River valley. Another tunnel passes but this time we are in the cafe carriage and aren’t so surprised by the noise and darkness! It was getting on for 3pm by now and we thought it was reasonable to have our first beer at this point!
We chatted away to the other passengers, finding out where they had come from and what their plans in New Zealand were. I couldn’t help but give one guy some tips for hiking trails down in South Island, where he was headed. It’s always a pleasure to see visitors to New Zealand excited about discovering and adventuring through our country and soaking in it’s beauty.
The next scenic feature is the Rangitikei River and it’s canyon. The Rangitikei is one of New Zealand’s longest rivers at 185Km long and at this point traverses through an impressive 170 odd metre deep, papa rock (mud rock) canyon. I always look in wonder at it when I drive this way, but by train you can see more of it and you are much closer to the huge drops! The railway crosses the river a couple of times on bridges which provide you with the best views into the gorge.
This is great kayaking and rafting territory. With the gorge and awesome grade 3 and 4 rapids this river is a magnet for whitewater enthusiasts (myself included!)
Continuing down the line, we get to Palmerston North Station. From here it’s only a couple of hours to Wellington. The countryside flattens out as we traverse the flat lands between the sea and the Tararua Ranges to the east. The weather started to deteriorate here. The dark grey rain clouds developing as the heavily saturated air from the onshore wind pushes up over the mountains.
The coast itself is still a decent distance away at this point and we don’t get treated to views until we after Paraparaumu, when the railway skirts the rugged west coastline for many Kms before crossing the Te Awarua-o-Porirua Harbour and into Wellington itself.
We’d finished one stage of the journey to Christchurch and were excited to embark on stage 2 – the InterIslander to Picton in less than a couple of hours.
If you would like to include The Northern Explorer train journey or indeed any of the awesome North Island Rides we passed on the way, into your holiday, get in touch and we’ll work with you to plan your customized adventure!