On the Northern Explorer

CHRIS HYDE
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2013
Train-landscape
Chris Hyde

ENGINEERING FEAT: The Raurimu Spiral is a series of intricate curves and tunnels, that drops the train from the Central Plateau into King Country.

Train_std
Chris Hyde
LUSH FARMLAND: Green pastures dominate the scenery through Manawatu and Waikato.

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In 1908 the final spike of the Main Trunk Line from Auckland to Wellington was driven into the earth by Prime Minister Joseph Ward. The line's newest baby, the one-year-old Northern Explorer, is a train that's far from teething.

Approaching Te Kuiti was when it started.

It was roughly 4.30pm, the light yellowing across the pyramid-shaped, sheep-trampled sandstoney King Country hills.

As the Northern Explorer meandered ever closer to its destination of Britomart, every one of its 40 or 50 passengers slowly turned to the ones they'd shared oxygen with for the entire day and exchanged pleasantries. Smart.

Long-haul tourist trains like the Northern Explorer are set up for socialisation. The view out the window, past travel stories, the sheer glory of gliding along two straight pieces of steel at 80kmh - they're all excellent icebreakers.

And if the pleasantries succeed or fail, there is a bar one carriage down.

But timing is key. When the train starts at Wellington just before 8am, or in my case Palmerston North just before 10am, the fingers of sunlight haven't yet risen above the frame of the train's windows.

Start a conversation now only to realise your air-sharer is a tad racist, a garden-gnome enthusiast, a cliche-dropper, and a long day is in front of you. So everyone, including me, waits for Te Kuiti.

Thankfully, it's an enjoyable wait.

Passenger trains have been making their way up the Main Trunk Line of the North Island for nigh on 100 years. Even though the Northern Explorer has just one year of service, they've had a lifetime of experiences to get the formula right.

And that formula is simple. Make it comfortable, don't rush, don't intrude. Let the massive windows, and the ever-changing views out them, do the talking.

Most of the passengers on the train today seem to be seasoned travellers. As we roll through green Manawatu, the passengers two down from me contemplate in British accents whether a gin and tonic would be kosher at 11am. Another, three down, knits.

As we head into Rangitikei hill country towns, voyeurism takes over. Being high up has some great advantages. You can look over the facades, into the backyards of the fenced off, to the things people don't wish to be seen.

The pamphlet describes the Explorer as a trip through the back country. I'd describe it as a trip through the real country.

No where is it more brutally apparent than at the Hunterville Station. As we pass by, an older woman tends the flower garden designed to brighten the area, to stave off the dereliction. But the train and its height sees over it, to the car rusting lazily in the unkempt lawn behind the roses.

Commentary warbles periodically down airplane-style headphones, so that the train remains quiet.

It means you can tune in and tune out.  Whereas most New Zealand guided tours end with a healthy faceful of history/culture-glossing cringe, KiwiRail has worked hard to ensure there's more than just cliche to its commentary.

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The science of how the jaw-dropping Rangitikei cliffs were created, the history behind the viaducts crossing them and genuinely interesting yarns about colonial triumphs and blunders are all wound together with professionalism and honesty.

Perhaps, the finest achievement is that the commentary actually describes the scenery that comes with the near obliteration of the Central North Island's timber and mining communities - the railway towns of the early 1900s.

''Time, as usual, has taken its toll,'' the commentator says without a hint of sheepishness as we approach Ohakune Station.

It's Mardi Gras day in the alpine town, which combines with the opening of Turoa and Whakapapa, and today at least, Ohakune is buzzing. A few of the younger passengers disembark, a market that KiwiRail would undoubtedly like to tap into more. There are bugger all flights in to Ohakune.

Now on the Central Plateau, it is the perfect time to go to the open-air viewing car. It's cold today so  few are keen to brave it for long.

Snow dots the distinctive tussocks like toilet paper in the wind. Ruapehu stands perfectly basted with whipped cream and his volcanic brothers are also looking their best.

In serious snow, the kind that shuts the Desert Road, the Northern Explorer just ploughs on through it. I'm told the view from the driver's cab on those days is a sight to behold.

Taonui Viaduct is impressive, and then it's on to the RW Holmes-designed Raurimu Spiral, the engineering marvel of a descent. The drop into the tiny timber milling town is so steep the track has to repeatedly circle underneath itself in a whirl of excitement and confusion for passengers.

Raurimu marks the end of the majestic and the continuation of the real country.

As I make my way back from the viewing car I meet a German electrical engineer named Klaus, who's intently surveying the label of a Monteith's Golden Lager in the dining cart.

Klaus travels by train. That's just what he does. He's done most of Europe, southern and northern Africa, Russia, China and Australia all by train. He was livid when he realised he would have to get on a bus to get to Picton. Why?

''Planes and buses are all like little hives of stress,'' he says. ''No-one is friendly when you're in that mindset. No-one sits down and has a beer with someone they've never met on a bus.''

As we head into Hamilton he tells stories of a girlfriend in Dubai, before proceeding to launch a tirade about Turkish people draining the German economy.

I excuse myself as politely as possible and make my way to the opposite end of the train, thankful that I didn't initiate the chat seven hours before.

Nine hours after we left Palmerston North the lights of Auckland approach. For my part, there's no exhaustion, no soreness, anxiety or desperate desire to reach my destination.

It's everything travel usually isn't.

MORE INFORMATION Fares on the Northern Explorer start from $129 one way. The train runs between Auckland and Wellington six days a week - three journeys each way. Discounted fares are available for families, return trips and those travelling halfway.

Chris Hyde travelled the Northern Explorer courtesy of KiwiRail.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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