Last summer, two new train rides from Dunedin were booked out – one heading inland, the other bound for the coast. Lisa Jansen reports on both.
When people are asked to think of Dunedin, the Railway Station comes to mind for many. The impressive Flemish Renaissance-style building is one of the city’s most iconic sights – and it’s not just for show. The station is the starting point for two of our country’s most scenic train journeys: The Inlander and The Seasider. For many years, the hugely popular Taieri Gorge Railway departed from the station several times a week, making its way inland along the Taieri river, through Hindon and on to Middlemarch. International tourists and locals alike often list the journey as one of the highlights of their travels throughout New Zealand.
TRIPS FOR LOCALS
Unfortunately, the Taieri trip is one of the many attractions that have fallen victim to COVID-19 this past year. The tracks between Hindon and Middlemarch need significant maintenance work, and in the absence of international tourists, the operators decided they could not justify the cost. Luckily, they found a way to keep Dunedin’s tradition of scenic train rides alive, by offering shorter trips, more tailored towards locals and domestic tourists.
For the summer of 20/21, Dunedin introduced two half-day rail journeys that ran every Sunday – The Inlander in the morning and The Seasider in the afternoon. The modified offering was exceptionally well received, with both journeys booked out most weeks. That gives hope that they will become permanent attractions in Dunedin, giving more Kiwis – and tourists once they return – the chance to admire the stunning scenery on both routes.
The Taieri Gorge journey is now known as The Inlander, running from Dunedin to Hindon and back. From Dunedin it heads south, first following the modern KiwiRail tracks and then turning onto the historic Taieri Gorge tracks. After crossing the Taieri plains, it meets up with the Taieri river and winds its way up the hills to Hindon.
The train passes through six tunnels, the longest, the Salisbury Tunnel, measuring over 430 metres. All the tunnels are very narrow, so when the train crew advises you to close the windows and take care on the viewing platforms, it’s best to listen.
Throughout the journey, guests can enjoy beautiful views of the mountains and the river. One of the highlights is the Wingatui viaduct. At almost 200 metres long and 47 metres high it’s an impressive structure, especially when you consider that it was built in the late 19th century.
The train stops for almost an hour in Hindon, where you might wonder what there is to do. The answer is, not much! Hindon is essentially a sign along the tracks, so be prepared to entertain yourself.
There is a lovely area for a picnic, an old train carriage to explore, and those who want to stretch their legs can wander along the tracks or follow a gravel road up the hill.
After this break, the train starts making its way back, reaching Dunedin about 3 hours after departure. You then have the choice of finding something else to do for the afternoon or continuing with The Seasider journey.
As the name suggests, this trip takes you along the coast. From Dunedin, the train heads north along the harbour towards Port Chalmers. The first part of the journey offers wide vistas over Dunedin harbour before the tracks start climbing into the hills, winding through bush and a long tunnel to eventually emerge above Purakaunui Inlet. This is when you want to get ready, as the best views of the trip are not far away.
Another short bush section follows, before it opens up to expansive views over Purakaunui Beach. As the train winds along the cliffs, you see why this journey is called The Seasider. Make sure you’re ready, though, as the best seascapes pass quickly, and before you know it, the train is passing through bush again, slowly making its way down to Waitati, where you will have a two-hour break.
Unlike Hindon, Waitati offers several activities and ways to pass the time.
Within a few minutes’ walk from where the train stops, you find a cheerful garden bar that often has live music, a garden centre with an idyllic cafe, a small gallery and an artisan shop. Those who feel like stretching their legs can do a 60-minute loop walk around the Orokonui Lagoon (it’s signposted from the station). There is also the option to jump on a bus to nearby Arc Brewery or the Orokonui Ecosanctuary (both need to be booked and paid for). However, a separate trip is recommended for the ecosanctuary, as you’ll probably want to stay longer than this stopover allows.
Regardless of how you spend your time in Waitati, when you hear the loud train signal, it’s time to hop on board again for the return trip to Dunedin, where you can expect to arrive about 3 hours after departure.
Both journeys use the same comfortable carriages, with four seats around a table and big windows to take in the scenery.
There are toilets throughout the train, and usually, one or two carriages have a viewing platform which is great for undisturbed views and photography. Consider checking where the platforms are before boarding, to find a seat near them.
The train also has a cafe that sells surprisingly good coffee, given the circumstances, and the scones make for a delicious morning or afternoon snack. If you’re travelling on The Inlander, it pays to bring cash as the cafe’s EFTPOS terminal stops working once the train enters the gorge, where there is no cell phone coverage.
Throughout both trips, the train staff share interesting facts about the area, the trains and the history of railways around Dunedin. Staff pass through the carriages regularly and are very approachable and happy to answer questions.
This past summer, both excursions have been very popular and booked out regularly – and there is good reason to believe it won’t be any different next summer. If you only have a short time in Dunedin, it’s best to book early, so you don’t miss out. And make sure you arrive early on the day, to get a good seat.
When it comes to finding the best seat, you probably want to consider if you wish to be near a viewing platform and the cafe. As far as the views go, try to find a seat on the harbour side of the train (left when facing south) for both trips, to enjoy the best glimpses of river and ocean.
LEARN MORE AND BOOK
The Inlander and Seasider are taking a break over winter, but they are expected to be back next summer. To learn more about the train journeys and book your tickets, visit the Dunedin Railway website, dunedinrailways.co.nz. This is also where the schedule for the coming summer will be published once it is available.