KiwiRail Northern Explorer Train from Auckand through Tongariro National Park to Wellington. Overnight in Wellington before taking the morning Kaitaki Interislander Ferry across the Cook Strait to connect with the KiwiRail Coastal Pacific Train to Christchurch.
Will then do TranzAlpine Experience Coach/Train Backpacking Tour with MagicBus NZ staying in Youth Hostels with an extra 3 day stopover in Queenstown, including a day trip to Milford Sound.
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
Britomart Railway Station
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
The open air viewing carriage
Inside 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 gate to the King's Marae at Ngaruawahia
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
Crop spraying helicopter on the way up to National Park Station
Native Podocarp broad-leaved Forest seen from the train
Mount Ruapehu (aka Mount Doom) appears above the clouds
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
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
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)
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
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 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
The Kaitaki sails down Queen Charlotte Sound on South Island - awesome!
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
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
and 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 Salt Works at Lake Grassmere
The Kaikoura Mountains reach the sea with dramatic headlands
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
Seal coming ashore near Kaikoura
The train stops at Kaikoura famous for whale watching
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 Canterbury Plains - New Zealand's largest area of flat land
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
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
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
Crossing the Grey River on the way to Greymouth
The TranzAlpine makes its way down to the west coast
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
Example of a small hostel dormitory (from YHA Taronga on North Island)
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)
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
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
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 make our down a crevasse 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
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 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)
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!
The Leaning Tower at Puzzling World just outside Wanaka
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
Bungy Jumper eye view of the river
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!
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.
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)
All you can eat Pizza Night with my Magic Bus crew in Queenstown (I'm first on the left)