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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 Comments (0)

Backpacking down South Island's West Coast

All aboard the party bus!

semi-overcast 17 °C
View 2013 Round the World Trip on FrancisRTW's travel map.

Travelling alone with everything on my back and a lot of distance to cover, joining a backpacking tour felt the best way to get the essential NZ South Island experience. Having settled into my hostel in Greymouth I wandered down for a tour of the local Monteith's Brewery whose Amber Ale I had developed a taste for. The tour itself made me sad with the brewing now done in a large plant elsewhere with the micro brewery that remained only used for researching new beers. However at the beer tasting afterwards I met and joined for dinner 4 lovely ladies already on the Magic Bus I was joining who gave me the lowdown on what life on the bus with our driver "Soap" was like; the next 9 days were going to be fun!

YHA Queenstown Lakefront - typical of the hostels I stayed in

YHA Queenstown Lakefront - typical of the hostels I stayed in


Example of a small hostel dormitory (from YHA Taronga on North Island)

Example of a small hostel dormitory (from YHA Taronga on North Island)


Inside Monteith's Brewery in Greymouth

Inside Monteith's Brewery in Greymouth


Our Magic Bus and crew outside the Haast Visitor Centre (I am kneeling at the front, 3rd from the left)

Our Magic Bus and crew outside the Haast Visitor Centre (I am kneeling at the front, 3rd from the left)

After a boisterous welcome aboard the bus the following morning we stopped at the Bushman Centre at Pukekara. Not a lot to see per se in the small museum but they did screen a humourous macho 20 minute video about deer hunting - NZ South Island West Coast style! Basically deer are an introduced species and with no predators bred like rabbits destroying everything. At first they were ruthlessly hunted but then it was realised profit could be made by capturing and farming them. Then the video gets fun because ultimately the way they are caught is by flying low in a helicopter and leaping on them with a net - maniacs!

The Bushman Centre at Pukekura

The Bushman Centre at Pukekura


Deer in the paddock by the Bushman's Centre

Deer in the paddock by the Bushman's Centre

The highlight of the day though was the afternoon heli-hike on the Franz Josef Glacier, we were given coats, boots & crampons and flown on a short but spectacular helicopter flight to the start of the glacier. We were then taken on 2 hour hike across the ice, crossing & climbing crevasses and descending through ice tunnels. It was brilliant and very different from my previous glacial experience during my trip at Jungfraujoch in Switzerland.

The view from the helicopter flying on to the Franz Josef Glacier

The view from the helicopter flying on to the Franz Josef Glacier

Hikers disembarking onto the ice from the helicopter

Hikers disembarking onto the ice from the helicopter


We wait while our guide makes sure the ice screws holding the safety line are still secure

We wait while our guide makes sure the ice screws holding the safety line are still secure


We make our down a crevasse on the Franz Josef Glacier

We make our down a crevasse on the Franz Josef Glacier


Me emerging from an ice tunnel on the Franz Josef Glacier

Me emerging from an ice tunnel on the Franz Josef Glacier


A helicopter taking off from the glacier returning hikers back to the village

A helicopter taking off from the glacier returning hikers back to the village

Early the next morning we reached Lake Matheson and after a short walk across a deliberately wobbly bridge reached the viewpoint where Mount Cook, Mount Tasman (the 2 highest mountains in NZ) and the Fox Glacier are famously reflected in the lake like a mirror. It turns out the connection between the glacier and the top UK selling Fox's Glacier Mints is a myth - one is named after an 1870s NZ prime minister while other is named after their Leicester based inventor in 1918!

I didn't know it at the time but the new data card I inserted into my camera after Franz Josef turned out to be a dud and I lost all the photos I took for the next couple of days. Fortunately I was with friends trying to take very similar photos to myself and they have helped out so these are "borrowed" photos until Milford Sound. Thanks again guys for helping out - you know who you are!

The wobbly bridge on the track down to Lake Matheson, every step and the whole bridge seems  to move to the left or right!

The wobbly bridge on the track down to Lake Matheson, every step and the whole bridge seems to move to the left or right!


The famous mirror reflection of the mountains on Lake Matheson; unfortunately it was not at its best while we there but still impressive none the less

The famous mirror reflection of the mountains on Lake Matheson; unfortunately it was not at its best while we there but still impressive none the less

We then had to cover a lot of miles from the relative flat of the West Coast snaking up through the mountains and dense forest of the Haast Pass to our next overnight stop at Wanaka. On the way up we stopped at the Thunder Creek Falls which Soap our driver said were "magic" and that if we stared at them for 30 seconds and then looked slightly away we'd know why. I'm not entirely sure I saw what was intended but as I stared I did see what looked like a warp in my vision in the trees next to the top of the falls which was pretty eerie!

Thunder Creek Falls (aka the Magic Waterfall)

Thunder Creek Falls (aka the Magic Waterfall)

Once we reached the summit it was relatively flat driving alongside Lakes Wanaka (26 miles - 43 kilometres, 70 square miles in size & 4th largest in NZ) and Hawea (21 miles - 35 kilometres long, 54 square miles in size). Our final stop before overnighting in Wanaka was at Puzzling World, a tourist attraction built around optical illusions and puzzles. It had a maze but it's signature attraction was its leaning tower outside, the idea was you took a photograph from an angle such that it looked like you were holding it up!

Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka


The Leaning Tower at Puzzling World just outside Wanaka

The Leaning Tower at Puzzling World just outside Wanaka


Einstein is always watching you! Another optical illusion at Puzzling World

Einstein is always watching you! Another optical illusion at Puzzling World

The next day began with "Soap" our driver playing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" full blast, we were approaching Queenstown, "the adrenalin capital of the world". First stop was at the historic AJ Hacket Bridge over the Kawarau River, the home of the original bungy jump and nearly a quarter of the bus had signed up to have a go! Needless for me to say but with my fear of heights I wasn't one of them... although there was something gnawing away inside of me saying if I could just get enough courage (or madness) to do it for the couple of minutes it takes I'd love to be able to say I'd done it!

The historic AJ Hackett Bungy Bridge over the Kawarau River

The historic AJ Hackett Bungy Bridge over the Kawarau River


Bungy Jumper eye view of the river

Bungy Jumper eye view of the river


We have take-off... only 142 feet (43 metres) to the river below!

We have take-off... only 142 feet (43 metres) to the river below!


Ignoring the bungy jumping for a minute, it is actually quite a pretty gorge!

Ignoring the bungy jumping for a minute, it is actually quite a pretty gorge!

All fired up we had a lunch stop in Arrowtown and went in search of the meat pies from the local bakery. Hand-sized meat pies baked fresh daily from the local bakery in every small town are considered the national dish in New Zealand and although similar, invariably taste a lot better than the steak pies back home in the UK. Arrowtown itself is a quaint small town which has managed to retain more than 60 of its original wooden and stone buildings from its gold rush days of the 1860s.

Arrowtown

Arrowtown


The Arrowtown Bakery

The Arrowtown Bakery

It was then onwards to Queenstown - where most towns have chemists and supermarkets, Queenstown instead has agents for bungy jumping, jetboating and skydiving and a host of bars and clubs! Our Bus was in a party mood having won the "Battle of the Buses" bar games tournament against the rival tour bus companies the night before in Wanaka and we now enjoyed a few nights in the pubs, clubs and restaurants of Queenstown (and off course the meat pies from the world famous Fergbakery in Shotover Street).

Party time in Queenstown with my Magic Bus crew (I'm first on the left)

Party time in Queenstown with my Magic Bus crew (I'm first on the left)


All you can eat Pizza Night with my Magic Bus crew in Queenstown (I'm first on the left)

All you can eat Pizza Night with my Magic Bus crew in Queenstown (I'm first on the left)

Posted by FrancisRTW 02:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged waterfalls lakes bridges animals snow museums food beer party glaciers tour theme_parks videos hostelling magic_bus helicopters breweries light_aircraft nz_south_island outdoor_pursuits frontier_towns Comments (0)

Milford Sound

Awesome scenary with its own very distinctive weather - and a misbehaving camera :-(

all seasons in one day 10 °C
View 2013 Round the World Trip on FrancisRTW's travel map.

A must see for me was Milford Sound only 40 miles (64 kilometres) away as the crow flies although with mountains and lakes in the way the actual distance by road was 180 miles (290 kilometres) and took over 3 hours. The drive there was spectacular and we stopped at a lake with a particularly pristine mirror refection of the surrounding mountains and forest before making our way through the Homer Tunnel to Milford. When we emerged the other side the weather had totally changed, Milford Sound is the wettest place in New Zealand!

The stunning scenery on the way to Milford Sound

The stunning scenery on the way to Milford Sound


Mirror Lake on the way to Milford Sound

Mirror Lake on the way to Milford Sound


Sign reflected in the Lake on the way to Milford Sound

Sign reflected in the Lake on the way to Milford Sound

Milford Sound is a 10 mile (16 kilometre) long fjord with very steep sides; Mitre Peak is the most famous and towered 5,551 feet (1,692 metres) over the Sound as we arrived to board our tour boat. With forest clinging to the sheer cliffs, waterfalls cascading into the Sound from high up and seals colonising the rocks (apparently there are dolphins in the Sound as well but we didn't see any the day we were there) it is one of the most stunning places in the world and part of a World Heritage Site covering the south west corner of New Zealand.

Mitre Peak in Milford Sound (5,551 feet - 1,692 metres), for an idea of scale note the tour boat at its base!

Mitre Peak in Milford Sound (5,551 feet - 1,692 metres), for an idea of scale note the tour boat at its base!


Me by Fairy Falls in Milford Sound

Me by Fairy Falls in Milford Sound


Close up of the Fairy Falls in Milford Sound

Close up of the Fairy Falls in Milford Sound


St Annes Point at the mouth of Milford Sound, next stop Australia!

St Annes Point at the mouth of Milford Sound, next stop Australia!


Seals on Seal Rock in Milford Sound

Seals on Seal Rock in Milford Sound


Bowen Falls on the left as we return up Milford Sound

Bowen Falls on the left as we return up Milford Sound

Unfortunately it was when I arrived at Milford Sound that my camera began to indicate it had a problem. Two and a half months and five countries into my round the world trip even with most of them backed up (in triplicate - I am an IT Project Manager after all, always got to have a contingency plan!) you can imagine how I felt!

Fortunately it turned out to be the new SD Card I put in my camera after the Franz Josef Glacier Heli-Hike that was the problem so I was able to use my camera's internal memory (and borrowed photographs) until I got a replacement the following day in Queenstown. Two photo stores in NZ and LA have tried to recover the lost pictures for me since with no success so I'm pretty sure they are not recoverable.

I try to put on a brave face after realising there is a problem with my camera

I try to put on a brave face after realising there is a problem with my camera


Me enjoying the scenary at Milford Sound

Me enjoying the scenary at Milford Sound

Posted by FrancisRTW 03:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged waterfalls mountains boat tunnels fjords tour marine_life hostelling magic_bus nz_south_island Comments (0)

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