All aboard the Northern Explorer

By: James Heremaia

All aboard the Northern Explorer All aboard the Northern Explorer
All aboard the Northern Explorer All aboard the Northern Explorer
All aboard the Northern Explorer All aboard the Northern Explorer
All aboard the Northern Explorer All aboard the Northern Explorer
All aboard the Northern Explorer All aboard the Northern Explorer
All aboard the Northern Explorer All aboard the Northern Explorer
All aboard the Northern Explorer All aboard the Northern Explorer

Photographer James Heremaia slinks away from the paint pots to relive a past adventure that is just as absorbing today as it was in the 1970s.

It has been more than 35 years since I stepped into the world of marriage, kids and a mortgage. Before that I was a 20-something single person – youthful, invincible, selfish and self-centered.

In my mind the world very much revolved around me. I could do, say, wear and be anything I chose to be and to travel at the slightest whim to wherever I wanted to go. I was always on my own and usually broke. These were the heady days of freedom, discovery and self-indulgent youth.

Earlier this year I was left home alone for a week. My intentions were to paint the lounge and kitchen, but after hearing that old 1960’s pop song on the radio by Billy J Kramer, I started to think about a train trip I made from Auckland to Wellington all those years ago.

I hadn’t been on a passenger train since then so it didn’t take long to ditch the paint roller and throw together a backpack and have a cursory check of the balance on my bankcard.

On board the Northern Explorer

Today only one passenger train operates in the North Island: the Northern Explorer. It runs from Auckland on alternative days, so I decided to break my trip in National Park for a couple of days, then continue on to Wellington and fly home from there.

It was like being 20 again. I had no fixed itinerary as such, although I did get specific about what I would do in the Central Plateau. In keeping with the spirit of the pop song, I decided my activity would centre on the train and include a day’s fishing from a private luxury launch on Lake Tarawera, as well as a scenic flight over the Tongariro National Park.

With a daypack slung over my shoulder and a loaded bankcard in my pocket, my solo adventure began with a walk down Queen Street to the Britomart Transport Centre where, strung along Platform Three, was the Northern Explorer.

As I stepped up into my carriage the word ‘luxury’ popped into my head.

Glass doors silently opened, tinted windows wrapped up the sides and into the roof, plush carpet underfoot and soft contoured seats, some arranged in pairs and others facing each other with a table between. TV monitors hung from the curved ceiling and the heady scent of freshly brewed coffee wafted down the aisle.


As I sank down into my seat I thought about those unopened pails of wall paint at home and just as quickly dismissed it as the train gently and silently glided out of the neon lit station into the dawn of a now stirring Auckland city.

It takes a while to clear the urban jungle that is Auckland, but once in open country the scenery takes over. Familiar landscapes such as the Taupiri Mountain and the Waikato River take on a new perspective when viewed from a train window. There is a short stop at Hamilton before the train hurtles non-stop through the lush greens of the Waikato and into the King Country.

From Taumarunui, the journey gets very interesting starting with a long bridge across the Whanganui River then a gradual climb toward the Central Plateau ending with the ascent of the Raurimu Spiral. For this part of the route the observation car was full to capacity with cameras at the ready as the train effortlessly negotiated several horseshoe curves and two tunnels. Shortly after the ascent, the train arrives at its second stop, National Park, where most of the passengers, including myself, disembark to board several waiting buses.

Chateau Tongariro

There is one distinct advantage about not being 20 again when it comes to travel. There is no need to crash in a cheap dormitory shared with five other equally broke people. With that in mind my choice of accommodation for the next three nights was at the Chateau Tongariro, on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu.

After checking in I had two choices for lunch: high tea in The Chateau, or lunch in New Zealand’s highest cafe, Knoll Ridge, near the summit of Mount Ruapehu. I chose the latter only because it involved a chairlift ride to get there.

The next day was about my bucket list. Finally I would get to do the Tongariro Crossing, an alpine walk 20 kilometres-long that I should have done a long time ago.

Early the next day I flew over the Tongariro National Park with pilot Mathew Mathews of Mountain Air. The volcanoes were picture perfect and from that perspective majestic especially when you looked down into the craters. Out of respect, Mathew did not fly over the craters but skirted them in a complete circle.

After one last night of luxury at the Chateau it was time to rejoin the Northern Explorer.

Read the full article in issue #131 of Motorhomes Caravans & Destinations magazine (on sale now!). Subscribe here.

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