Central District Times
Arriving at Taihape platform 20 minutes early (as requested on the e-ticket) means there is no time for a meal before the trip.
The listed arrival time of 3.05pm comes, and a cold blast of winter wind, but no train.
At 3.30pm with camera ready I try my best to get a good shot of the Overlander arriving but genuine nerves, excitement and remembering it says on the ticket "you have to make yourself clearly visible" to the driver, means I panic and run towards the train (on the platform of course) and much to my relief the train pulls in to Taihape.
About the middle carriage I see the friendly face of passenger services manager Alun McCarthy.
"Good afternoon Richard, welcome to the last run of the Overlander train. You have a seat allocated in carriage B, yet Eric the train driver has a spare seat in the locomotive if you would prefer to travel there?"
I feel like a 12-year-old boy all over again. I am off, running to the front of the train where a small door on the side of the engine opens. Up the small ladder and I am in the cab with engine driver Eric Cairnross.
A quick hand-shake, several thanks, a thumbs-up and we are off; Taihape never looked so beautiful.
Down the Winiata straight to Utiku where we stop for works on the line (even on a Sunday). Once sure that all workmen are off the line it is safe to proceed. It gives me an opportunity to pinch myself and have a chat with Eric.
He has been driving trains for 40 years and intends carrying on for a few more.
We are soon crossing the second highest railway viaduct in New Zealand, the 81 metre high North Rangitikei viaduct spanning the Rangitikei River. It is the northern-most of the three large viaducts on the Mangaweka Deviation, opened in 1981.
Quickly travelling over the 73m-high, 160m-long Kawhatau River viaduct, we are soon on to the third, the jewel in the crown, the 78m-high, 315m-long, South Rangitikei Viaduct. This is the country's second-longest and fourth-highest railway viaduct and the views above the river gorge are spectacular.
Next we are passing my home of Mangaweka, the town having been the base for much of the building of the original line and tunnels early last century, then later, the deviation.
We are now speeding through a long tunnel towards Ohingaiti where we stop for Kevin who lives in a house on State Highway 1 next to the rail line. Without fail for the last umpteen years has been there, rain or shine, to wave at the Overlander. He attracts extra attention by waving a red flag. Today Kevin meets passengers and crew as the train pulls to a stop. After hugs and pleasantries a small bag of memorabilia is handed to Kevin, before the train is under way again.
Trundling past the majestic Ohingaiti Cliffs, we cross the historic Makohine Viaduct. Built between 1896 and 1902, at 228m across and 72m high, it was a feat of engineering and once the tallest viaduct in New Zealand.
We are soon bearing down on Hunterville, passing the old Station Public House, which is now looking splendid after major renovations a few years ago. Cruising along the flat plains of sheep and dairy farms, the train picks up speed. Eric tells me it is a shame the Overlander crew will not be crewing the new train (the Northern Explorer), which will be staffed from Auckland.
The Overlander's top speed is 100kmh, though Eric likes to sit on 95kmh. Being at the front, it feels faster to me – so fast in fact that in no time Marton Station is in view and my leg of the journey is almost over.
I farewell Eric and the Overlander leaves Marton for the last time. I'm a happy man.
- Central District Times