Recently, after flying to north for a conference, I returned home on the train from Auckland – back to Wellington on the Northern Explorer. Seems funny to be going south on the northerner!
I’d taken this trip about 18 months ago in reverse as this train travels three days a week in each direction – Mon/Wed/Fri from Auckland and Tues/Thurs/ Sat from Wellington. (See KiwiRail Tranz Scenic website for exact details or booking)
KiwiRail staff spot me as a Northern Explorer traveller as soon as I enter Britomart station in downtown Auckland and quickly I’m given my seat number. After breakfast and my usual ‘long black’ on the station concourse, I settle into my comfortable seat with its good leg room, and note the carriages are much improved since my last trip. With large scenic windows and a great purpose-built viewing carriage I know this will be a great journey – unfortunately the weather is not promising for great photos.
Travelling by rail always ensures you see many parts of NZ that can’t see from the road and this route delivers. This ‘main trunk line’ had its last spike hammered into place by Prime Minster Joseph Ward in 1908. Covering 681 kilometres it has 14 tunnels and 352 bridges and of course the Raurimu Spiral. An engineering feat, on this spiral the train climbs 132 metres in under seven kilometres, and for many enthusiasts this is the highlight of the trip, while I love the viaducts and white cliffs of the Rangitikei River.
Seems the on-board crew, Antonio, Mark and Elaine have worked on the Northern Explorer for some time: Elaine tells me “How could you not love a job that has the office window changing like this one does!”
The café car has seat service so I suggest you get there as soon as you can and pre-order your meals or coffee breaks – I missed out on the chunky fruit salad as it had sold out so my warning is based on experience!
My meals were roast vegetable and feta salad for lunch, then a lamb shank for dinner – this meant I could just head home and relax without having to stop on Cuba St. for a meal or cook one J Also note that for about 2 hours of the trip, EFTPOS is not available due to the remote and windy track.
Comments from some of my fellow travellers include these:
- Bath, UK woman: “Excellent. Absolutely fabulous.”
- Tauranga, NZ couple: “Fabulous, relaxing. We bussed to Auckland to get the train and in Wellington we have a list of to-do things we didn’t complete a couple of years ago – we’ll fly back home.”
- Virginia, USA couple: “We have travelled all over Europe by rail and this has more than lived up to our expectations! This trip is to celebrate our 59th and 60th birthdays and we are travelling onto the South Island by the Interislander ferry then we will train and bus too. We just love the open observation carriage. ”
- South African couple: “We just love it. My husband has been a train enthusiast since he was a child in Namibia.”
- A Kiwi and his new Vietnamese wife: “This is my first trip on a train since I was a child and it’s great. My wife has never been on a train before and is really loving the ride and scenery. It’s a great way to see our own country.”
- Auckland couple: “this has been on our bucket list for year. It’s fabulous and will absolutely recommend it. We are spending a few days in Wellington then flying home.”
So, to see rolling hills, plains, rivers, native bush, pine plantations, mountains and viaducts along with sheep, cattle, deer, birds, beehives, grapevines, ducks and llamas .. all unseen from the road, I recommend you take a journey on the Northern Explorer. As you can tell, I loved it and would do it again – but first I must travel across the Southern Alp’s by train to add to my list of great journeys I’ve taken by train!
See what a guy who recently sped around the world in only 125 days, and travelled on all three KiwiRail scenic journeys had to say about them here