The rail trip
With the introduction of high-speed air travel and the affordability of the family car, the romance of rail travel in New Zealand is a distant memory. The heady days of steam-hauled night expresses, railcars, and sleeper trains slowly disappeared until, in the North Island, only one passenger train remained—the Northern Explorer.
There is a certain all-encompassing magic about travelling on a passenger train, especially on the North Island Main Trunk Line (NIMT). With fresh coffee or a glass of wine in hand, you’re enveloped in the scenery as it effortlessly glides by.
The slow, old clunky trains of yesteryear have been replaced with cosy, carpeted carriages, large tinted windows, a cafe car and lounge, and an open-air observation car for those all-important photographs. Train travel used to be a means of getting from here to there but now it’s all about the experience.
My journey began at Hamilton for a non-stop dash across the green landscapes of the Waikato. The familiar towns of Te Awamutu, Otorohanga, Te Kuiti, and Taumarunui—now a shadow of their former glory—flashed by in seconds.
After crossing the Whanganui River the train steadily climbs in elevation toward the Raurimu Spiral. At the time, it was all confusing but later, on the road trip, I called into the Taumarunui i-Site to view a model train set of the spiral.
This marvel of engineering does make sense watching it in miniature and is a definite requirement to see before actually travelling over it in the Northern Explorer. After a brief stop at National Park, the train crosses a series of viaducts that define the NIMT.
The most spectacular ones for me were the Makatote, the Hapuawhenua, and the Waiohine. They were for the other passengers as well, all clapping loudly as we crossed over each one.
Other highlights along the way were the Horopito Motor Wreakers yard (used in the movie Smash Palace), more high viaducts on the approach to and from Mangaweka, and the Turangarere Horseshoe Curve—a much easier example than the Raurimu Spiral to see the drop in elevation of the railway track.
Once down off the Central Plateau, it was a rapid dash across the Rangitikei Plains to Palmerston North, the terminus of my train trip.
The road trip
Fast forward a week and I was back in Taumarunui to explore the faded glory of the towns that flashed by my train carriage window earlier. In stark contrast to the towns I would drive through later, Ohakune was a modern resort town centred around skiing on the nearby Mount Ruapehu.
Even the railway precinct looked like a theme park attraction, all newly painted and renovated yet keeping its historic face from yesteryear. After a quick visit to the Tangiwai Memorial to view the new granite additions, I entered unfamiliar territory. The transition from the high alpine landscapes of the Central Plateau to the deeply carved scars of the Rangitikei River was instantly apparent.
This is sheep farming country, the numbers swelled by the appearance of newborn lambs. One shearing shed I passed had a train mural on it, a fitting emblem for this road trip.
Taihape once defined the railway on the NIMT, but today, much of it has faded or gone, including the iconic railway station. In the main street, some historic buildings remain but their impact has been sadly overshadowed by the monotony of fast food outlets, supermarkets, and chain stores.
I couldn’t help wondering what treasures were removed to make way for these.A little further on, I passed the foundations of the now demolished Mangaweka Viaduct before entering the ghost town itself. The main street, now bypassed by the highway, seems frozen in time.
Old-time buildings line both sides of the street, all closed and empty while life-sized cut-out people stared out from the footpaths in mute silence. It looked like a movie set waiting for the vintage cars and actors to arrive.
Also closed were the local icons, the DC3 cafe, and Gravity Canyon bungy, joining them shortly will be the local school. After exploring the original railway track above the town as far as the collapsed tunnel portal, I checked into the Black Weka, billed as a luxury hideaway. I must confess I didn’t have great expectations when I pulled up outside, but you should never judge a book by its cover.
Sandwiched between a shop and an abandoned garage, it looked like the rest of the street but inside it was a world away. The former historic bakery has been renovated in black paint, heavy, old-fashioned wallpapers, and velvet curtains and furnishings. There are chandeliers in every room with a massive king-sized bed and a freestanding bath that was big enough for two or more people.
From the dining room, French doors opened out onto a private deck and garden. Even if you were in town with a motorhome or caravan, a stay here would be well worth the experience.
Before heading for home via Hunterville, I made a stop at the carpark below the Waiohine Viaduct. I had noticed it from onboard the train and made a mental note to call in and explore it from the road. The viaduct is huge when viewed from the carpark, made even more special when a very long freight train thundered across followed 20 minutes later by the Northern Explorer. The timing couldn’t have been better.
The combination of exploring the same scenic route by both road and rail gave me a unique two-dimensional perspective to this part of New Zealand. One involved viewing the scenery from a comfortable modern train carriage, a glass of wine in hand and the other, the freedom to stop and explore a little closer.
It does take a little backtracking and planning to achieve but the experience in duplicate is well worth the effort.
- The Northern Explorer runs from Auckland to Wellington, Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and from Wellington to Auckland, Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. There is no service on a Wednesday. greatjourneysofnz.co.nz.
- To replicate my train trip, you’ll need to board the train at Hamilton. If you board southbound or leave northbound at National Park, you’ll miss travelling over the Raurimu Spiral.
- There is a coin operated model railway of the Raurimu Spiral situated in the I-Site Visitor Information Centre in the Taumarunui Railway Station.
- Bookings are essential to stay at the Black Weka Luxury Hideaway.
- blackweka.com, +64 21 311 558.