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New Zealand: Travelling north to south by train – from Auckland to Christchurch

By: Carolyn Hall

 

Mention the words “children” and “aeroplanes” in the same sentence and most parents will roll their eyes and recount a horror story. But the combination of “children” and “trains” is a different matter; invariably it’s a case of happy families.

New Zealand
New Zealand

 

North Island: Northern Explorer
What better family holiday can there be than exploring New Zealand by rail? I love being connected to the ground when I travel, and train travel has to be my favourite. So I was excited to be heading to my home country to do some “backyard” exploring on board the six-month-old KiwiRail scenic carriages, which are 100-percent, from the wheels up, built in New Zealand.

Sadly, the rail tracks just out of Auckland were under repair, so although the rallying point for the Northern Explorer was the relatively new Britomart Station in downtown Auckland, we had a 30-minute bus ride to our initial starting point at Papakura railway station.

New Zealand
New Zealand

 

Once underway, however, it was very much a matter of sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the ride. Or getting up and exploring. With way more legroom than an aeroplane seat and the ability to get up and walk around at any time, plus massive panoramic picture and skylight windows giving unrestricted viewing, there is a wonderful sense of being immersed in the stunning countryside. There’s also an open-sided viewing carriage that has no windows whatsoever: it’s just you, the fresh air and the wide-open spaces of New Zealand. What a rush – and kids just love it!

Recorded snippets of interesting history are available to listen to on headsets, and the 10-hour journey between Auckland and Wellington does not feel like a marathon. I’ve driven this route many times, as well as flown it, but going by train is the best option. No driver fatigue, no bored passengers, no emergency toilet stops. A variety of food and hot and cold drinks are available from the café car, where you can strike up a conversation with interesting fellow travellers.

The downside is that, although it is possible to get a pricier multi-day pass allowing you to alight and rejoin multiple times, the number of places to actually get off and on is somewhat restricted. But this time we travelled non-stop, and couldn’t have asked for a more stunning day.

We passed through the second-largest wetlands in the North Island, but engineering the single track in the 1800s was such a feat of difficulty that it has never been widened. We also traversed King Country, which in the 19th century was entered by the Pakeha (white man) only on threat of death. Survey teams were taken hostage, and it took five years of negotiation before it was possible to commence laying this part of the track. Further south, the mountains of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu stand proud, each with its own unique history – and current explosive behaviour.

Wellington Stopover
Even Wellington (otherwise known as The Windy City), at the bottom of the North Island, produced one of its still and sparkling clear days to greet our arrival.

The same could not be said for the intervening four days spent in Wellington before the next stage of the journey – they were typically cold and wet (and, yes, windy). Fortunately, the day of the Interislander ferry crossing dawned relatively calm and clear and the three-hour crossing, which can be incredibly rough on a bad day, was cold but beautiful.

Leaving the shelter of Wellington harbour, it was possible to see the outline of the South Island. Traversing the sounds was just stunning, a word used a lot to describe New Zealand’s scenery – but it is a truly memorable experience, whether good or bad! On board are movies, bar areas, full restaurant services as well as outdoor areas where you can really appreciate the wide open spaces and the close proximity of the land you sail past.

New Zealand
New Zealand

 

South Island: Coastal Pacific
The ferry arrived at Picton on the South Island to connect with the Coastal Pacific train that runs down to Christchurch. Our luggage was booked straight through, leaving us free to explore the seaside town for an hour. With craft shops showcasing New Zealand products and multiple cafés on hand, Picton is a pleasant place to spend some time until the train is ready to leave.

We had arrived at Auckland airport to a sign that said “Welcome to Middle Earth”, and scenes from Lord of the Rings were never far from my mind; parts of the Coastal Pacific train journey certainly feed into that – the great rolling hills and rocky outcrops with Orcs amassing, and river beds where horses and Dark Riders are swept away… the imagination doesn’t have to work very hard to conjure it all up.

The beauty of New Zealand is in its scenic diversity and its changeable weather, both of which were on display for the duration of this ride. The bad weather that we had been ahead of for most of the day finally caught up with us, and the temperatures dropped to miserable as the rain set in. Yet, apart from making the open-viewing carriage an unpleasant experience unless wrapped up like an Eskimo, the weather in fact fed into the sense of being somewhat remote and exposed as we travelled along the coast.

But all of it – the vistas, the clear blue skies, the freezing rain, the wide open spaces, the rugged coastline – made for a refreshing change from Singapore and a reminder of what I love and miss about the country I call home.

And the children? Only the sounds of happy laughter were heard throughout the entire journey: no whining, no tears and no tantrums.

As with all good journeys, there is always more to be saved for next time: the TranzAlpine leg from Christchurch across to Greymouth on the west coast, for example.

But that’s another story.

Train Tips

If your hair isn’t long enough to tie back, take a scarf that can be tied on or a beanie-type hat that can be pulled firmly down to prevent being blinded by your own wind-whipped hair as you look through the open windows of the train. Also, an extra layer or two of clothing won’t go amiss.
Vegetarian food is very limited, but you can order and pay for your meal immediately on boarding and have the staff hold it behind the counter until you are ready for it. Alternatively, take your own.
Grab a couple of free maps of the North and South Islands at the station before you leave so you can follow the route.
The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) is a great reference point for all train travel worldwide and has some great tips about booking the NZ train. Follow its advice. Visit www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz for information about all available train and Interisland ferry trips, with timetables and prices.

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