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Kiwi Rail's Scenic Trains

All three of them... back-to-back!

all seasons in one day 20 °C
View 2013 Round the World Trip on FrancisRTW's travel map.

It wasn't my original plan but having revised my itinerary to fit in Easter in Hawke's Bay I ended up with back-to-back trips on all three of Kiwi Rail's Scenic Train Routes, the nearest thing New Zealand has got to an intercity passenger network. My journey began with the now familiar trip into Auckland's Britomart Station from Onehunga where I caught the thrice weekly 7.50am 11 hour Northern Explorer Kiwi Scenic Rail Train south to Wellington.

Auckland suburban train about to leave Onehunga Railway Station for the Britomart

Auckland suburban train about to leave Onehunga Railway Station for the Britomart


Britomart Railway Station

Britomart Railway Station


The Northern Explorer about to leave the Britomart in Auckland for Wellington

The Northern Explorer about to leave the Britomart in Auckland for Wellington

All three trains - the Northern Explorer (Auckland to Wellington), Coastal Pacific (Picton to Christchurch) and TranzAlpine (Christchurch to Greymouth) - have identical newish rolling stock with plush seats, panoramic windows, airline style overhead screens of the route and earplugs for a commentary. However what makes these trains stand out are their open air viewing carriages for taking pictures of the pretty spectacular scenery often passing outside.

Inside the passenger carriage of a Kiwi Rail Scenic Train

Inside the passenger carriage of a Kiwi Rail Scenic Train


The open air viewing carriage

The open air viewing carriage


Inside the open air viewing carriage

Inside the open air viewing carriage


Me in the open air viewing carriage

Me in the open air viewing carriage

The journey began with atrocious weather through the lowlands south of Auckland, past the Waikato River (the longest in New Zealand) and into the King Country. During the 1850-1860s this was the last stronghold of the independent Maori who hoped by electing themselves a King this would better help them defend their land and culture. For a long time this area was out of bounds to Europeans, a bit like the American West with the Red Indians about the same time.

The King's Marae is at Ngaruawahia and has been visited by many world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II. We passed the royal Maori cemetery on the sacred mountain of Taupiri where the higher up the hill you are buried the more senior you were with the Maori Kings being buried right at the top.

The Waikato River bending away towards the coast

The Waikato River bending away towards the coast


The gate to the King's Marae at Ngaruawahia

The gate to the King's Marae at Ngaruawahia


Maori cemetery on the sacred mountain of Taupiri

Maori cemetery on the sacred mountain of Taupiri

The train then began to climb up towards the volcanic plateau, initially passing rugged farmland but this changed to native broad-leaved podocarp forest as we reached the Tongariro National Park. We had a short photo stop at the National Park Railway Station where the top of Mount Ruapehu (aka "Mount Doom" from the Lord of the Rings) briefly made an appearance above the clouds.

Crossing the river on the way up to National Park Station

Crossing the river on the way up to National Park Station


Crop spraying helicopter on the way up to National Park Station

Crop spraying helicopter on the way up to National Park Station


Native Podocarp broad-leaved Forest seen from the train

Native Podocarp broad-leaved Forest seen from the train


Mount Ruapehu (aka Mount Doom) appears above the clouds

Mount Ruapehu (aka Mount Doom) appears above the clouds


Close up of the top of Mount Ruapehu

Close up of the top of Mount Ruapehu

From the National Park the train headed south towards Wellington using tunnels, viaducts and the Raurimu Spiral (built in 1898) where the track spirals 4.2 miles (6.8 kilometres) to cover a distance of 1.2 miles (2 kilometres) in order to beat the gradient.

Crossing a large viaduct on the way down  to Wellington

Crossing a large viaduct on the way down to Wellington


Our train leaves a tunnel on the way down to Wellington

Our train leaves a tunnel on the way down to Wellington

We arrived in Wellington (christened "The Coolest Little Capital in the World" by Lonely Planet) where I made my way across the road to my backpackers hostel where I was staying overnight before getting the ferry in the morning. There was an ominous sign on the back of my door giving instructions of what to do in case of an earthquake!

Coolest Little Capital in the World sign rotating around a harbour building in Wellington

Coolest Little Capital in the World sign rotating around a harbour building in Wellington


What to do in an Earthquake notice on the back of my room door in Wellington

What to do in an Earthquake notice on the back of my room door in Wellington

I went exploring the city in the evening and discovered it was late night opening at Te Papa, the excellent Museum of New Zealand. Inside I passed some Orcs, was subjected to shaking room simulating an earthquake and saw a giant squid as well as the feathered cloak Captain Cook was given in Hawaii shortly before his death in 1779. On the history floor there was a wall high copy of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori and the British, something New Zealanders are immensely proud of and treat with a reverance akin to how Americans treat their constitution.

Three Orcs by the Information Desk in the Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand)

Three Orcs by the Information Desk in the Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand)


Giant Squid at Te Papa, the largest and most complete specimen ever found

Giant Squid at Te Papa, the largest and most complete specimen ever found


Hawaiian Feathered Cloak and Helmet given to British explorer Captain James Cook in 1779

Hawaiian Feathered Cloak and Helmet given to British explorer Captain James Cook in 1779


The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi wall high in the Te Papa Museum

The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi wall high in the Te Papa Museum

In the morning I got the shuttle bus from the railway station and climbed aboard the Kaitaki Interislander Ferry for the 3 hour 10 minute sailing to Picton on the South Island. For the first time since Switzerland I actually wore my coat as it was starting to feel a bit chilly. The Kaitaki started life as the Isle of Innisfree for Irish Ferries on their UK to Dublin/Rosslare routes so I've probably sailed on her before in a former life!

Our ferry Kaitaki gets ready to leave Wellington

Our ferry Kaitaki gets ready to leave Wellington


Wellington Harbour

Wellington Harbour


Our Ferry leaves North Island in its wake as we cross the Cook Strait

Our Ferry leaves North Island in its wake as we cross the Cook Strait

After crossing the Cook Strait (unfortunately I didn't see any albatrosses) we entered Tory Sound and then sailed down Queen Charlotte Sound (both are better described as a 'fjords') to Picton. Everybody on the boat appeared to be on the deck as sailing down the Marlborough Sounds is pretty awesome as the land closes in behind you after sailing across the open sea.

We enter Tory Sound on South Island on our way to Picton

We enter Tory Sound on South Island on our way to Picton


The Kaitaki sails down Queen Charlotte Sound on South Island - awesome!

The Kaitaki sails down Queen Charlotte Sound on South Island - awesome!

Passing other ships in Queen Charlotte Sound on our way to Picton

Passing other ships in Queen Charlotte Sound on our way to Picton


The Kaitaki docked the far side of the harbour in Picton ready to return to Wellington

The Kaitaki docked the far side of the harbour in Picton ready to return to Wellington

Having disembarked from the Kaitaki it was only a short walk to the railway station to catch the 5 hour 30 minute Coastal Pacific Kiwi Rail Scenic Train to Christchurch. No commentary this time unless you had your own earphones as the Chinese supplier had let Kiwi Rail down and the ear phones they were meant to give us were still enroute!

For the first hour and a half of the trip we passed endless rows of vines, not surprising as the Marlborough Region we were passing through is by far the largest in New Zealand producing about 75% of the country's output and is particularly well known for its white wine.

The endless vineyards of Marlborough

The endless vineyards of Marlborough


and more vineyards...

and more vineyards...


...and yet more vineyards

...and yet more vineyards

At Lake Grassmere we passed the shallow lagoon sheltered from the open sea which with its high salinity along with warm prevailing winds make it particularly well suited to salt extraction producing about half of New Zealand's domestic salt. Beyond Seddon the railway ran along the coast and we reached where the Kaikoura Mountains (the highest mountains north of Mount Cook) reach the sea and the scenery changed dramatically with headlands rising out of the sea and lots of tunnels.

The Lake Grassmere Salt Lagoon

The Lake Grassmere Salt Lagoon


The Salt Works at Lake Grassmere

The Salt Works at Lake Grassmere


The Kaikoura Mountains reach the sea with dramatic headlands

The Kaikoura Mountains reach the sea with dramatic headlands


There were numerous tunnels where the mountains reached the sea

There were numerous tunnels where the mountains reached the sea

This stretch of coastline is particularly well known for its marine life and we saw many seals from the train lazing on the rocks. The train stopped at Kaikoura with its Whale Watch Centre, a place I plan to return to a bit later on my trip. The last part of our journey was across the very flat North Canterbury Plans crossing the occasional river until we reached Christchurch.

The rocks where the Kaikoura Mountains reach the sea are ideal for seals

The rocks where the Kaikoura Mountains reach the sea are ideal for seals


Seal coming ashore near Kaikoura

Seal coming ashore near Kaikoura


The train stops at Kaikoura famous for whale watching

The train stops at Kaikoura famous for whale watching


The Coastal Pacific at Kaikoura Station

The Coastal Pacific at Kaikoura Station

I overnighted in Christchurch, a city very much still recovering from the earthquakes that devastated it in 2010 and 2011 and which I will be returning to in 10 days time. Suffice here to say it was a shock to see especially after hearing how beautiful the city had once been.

In the morning I got the free shuttle back to the railway station and boarded the TranzAlpine for the 5 hour journey across the Southern Alps to Greymouth on the west coast, the final stage of my end to end journey on Kiwi Rail's Scenic Train Network. Initially our route took us across the Canterbury Plain, New Zealand's largest flat area but after about an hour and a half we had our first real view of the mountains and had a photo stop.

The TranzAlpine about to leave Christchurch Station for Greymouth

The TranzAlpine about to leave Christchurch Station for Greymouth


The Canterbury Plains - New Zealand's largest area of flat land

The Canterbury Plains - New Zealand's largest area of flat land


Our first view of the mountains

Our first view of the mountains

The next couple of hours were the most spectacular of my entire train journey from Auckland as we went through 16 tunnels and crossed 5 high viaducts making our way across the Southern Alps. It was difficult to decide which side of the train to look with the highest of the viaducts - the Staircase Viaduct - standing at 240 feet (73 metres).

The railway ran alongside increasingly deep river gorges as we climbed up into the mountains

The railway ran alongside increasingly deep river gorges as we climbed up into the mountains


One of many spectacular viaducts we had to cross as we made our way across the mountains

One of many spectacular viaducts we had to cross as we made our way across the mountains


The train passed and crossed many mountains, lakes and deep gorges as we crossed the Southern Alps

The train passed and crossed many mountains, lakes and deep gorges as we crossed the Southern Alps


Crossing the Staircase Viaduct as we make our way through the Southern Alps

Crossing the Staircase Viaduct as we make our way through the Southern Alps

Having crossed the Otira Viaduct and then gone through the Otira Tunnel (at 5.3 miles - 8.5 kilometres, the longest railway tunnel in the British Empire when it was built in 1923) we stopped at Arthur's Pass, the highest of only three roads crossing the Southern Alps and the highest settlement in NZ.

From here we descended South Island's wetter West Coast, initially through cattle country but then as we descended past Lake Brunner (a large lake popular for trout fishing) and into 1860 Gold Rush country we had natural New Zealand Bush and Forest until we arrived at our final destination of Greymouth.

Me at Arthur's Pass, the highest settlement in NZ

Me at Arthur's Pass, the highest settlement in NZ


Lake Brunner

Lake Brunner


Crossing the Grey River on the way to Greymouth

Crossing the Grey River on the way to Greymouth


The TranzAlpine makes its way down to the west coast

The TranzAlpine makes its way down to the west coast

Posted by FrancisRTW 03:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged mountains lakes trees snow trains boat fjords wine maori marine_life videos lord_of_the_rings solo hostelling earthquakes nz_south_island nz_north_island film_locations constitutions

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