All three of them... back-to-back!
04.04.2013 - 06.04.2013 20 °C
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.