A Day Out on the Train

We are travelling back to Hamilton from Wellington on the Overlander train, a journey of about 580km which takes 9 and a half hours at an average speed of, shall we say, slow!  It gives us the opportunity to relax, spend quality time together as a family and admire the scenery (much of which is not visible from the road – or so the spiel from the train crew goes).  I jest; it is indeed a very pleasant journey and the scenery is stunning.

As we travel along the coast out of Wellington we have but a short time to admire the morning light on the harbour and the tall buildings reflecting the sun like huge mirrors before we plunge into the tunnel that takes us through the mountain to the other side. We emerge into misty mountains to our east but clear blue sky to the west. This is the pattern for the next few kilometres; we go through Levin and the sun is shining through the heavy clouds over the mountains to the east. Levin (rhymes with “begin”) was founded in 1906 and named after William Hort Levin, a director of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company. The town’s Maori name is Taitoko but I have still to work out what it means – tai is something to do with tides or ocean I think.

Heading northwards we see cows and rolling plains to the west and still the misty mountains to the east.

We are just approaching Palmerston North which according to the train crew “allows visitors to participate in a large variety of adventurous activities”. There is a five minute stop here to take on passengers and let smokers off for a fag break!

Fielding – built along the same plan as Manchester, “so those of you that may hail from there will easily be able to find your way around” – but I bet that if you come from Fielding you would not be able to find your way around Manchester!  Onwards through the flat lands to Marton – beer brewing land –  and we start the climb up country to the mountains.  New Zealand is indeed a green and lush land, and as we trundle through it the sheep and the cows munch away contentedly and Aonghas chews on a meat pie, most of which he is wearing down his front as he is concentrating more on watching the DVD of Return of the King than looking at where his food is going!  Every now and then there is a small graveyard seemingly in the middle of nowhere but I presume they are Maori burial places. It is not easy to type and I will have to make extensive use of the spelling and grammar check, as the train rocks and rolls and makes me miss the keys.  This is certainly not a sleek Intercity 125, and even further removed from the smooth and aerodynamic movement of the TGV.  It takes me back to childhood train journeys, and it is sort of comforting to feel the rails beneath the wheels and all the bumps and trickety trick, trickety trick as the train bowls along.  The carriage has filled up as we have travelled north and it is always fascinating to observe our fellow passengers. We are sitting by the door so are frequently stared and glared at by people as they steady themselves to open the door – good old-fashioned handles that have to be turned, not pressure pad technology that magically opens the door as you approach.  Now there is the confident youth, then there is the mother and young child, the elderly, but determined lady and the portly middle aged man (not Nigel!). They all negotiate the awkward journey that takes them from one end of the carriage to the other.  Thrown from one side of the aisle to the other, grasping the head rests for balance and all but falling into a stranger’s lap, they achieve their goal of the door or the safety of their seats.

Just passed through the small town of Hunterville founded in 1884 by George Hunter who walked from Wellington .  It is famous for its Huntaway dogs which are a unique Herding dog which uses its bark to herd sheep.  There is a festival each year which starts with a dog barking competition and features The Shepherds Shemozzle – a race with man and dog. Shepherds travel from all over New Zealand to compete up hill and down dale and through the town obstacle course – fascinating the things you find out! The landscape is now very green and lumpy like upturned egg boxes. To the East the valleys are flat and the cliffs are getting more sheer, and to the east the many hillocks are more rounded.  The lush green fields are dotted with the white of the sheep and the tussocky grass.

This is the Rangitikei region – farming country with lovely native bush.  The Papa cliffs are spectacular, steep sided, impressive gorges and a sparkling white; the water is clear and looks refreshingly cool below as the river meanders through the gorge.  We cross it several times – there are 10 viaducts over the next 50 km we are told and our stewards reel off the names, heights and lengths of them too quickly for me to make notes – I will have to look them up later!   See this link for more details on the viaducts – http://trains.wellington.net.nz/bridges.html

However one of them is the Makohine Viaduct ( 229m long and 73m high ) and we dashed down to the front of the train to get a better view from the open air platform behind the engine.  It is very noisy but good to have fresh air and the wind in your face – as long as you face the right way and don’t get the fumes from the diesel.  We have picked up a bit of speed now and are almost faster than the cars on SH1 which runs alongside the track.  The boys were devastated on the way down that the cars outpaced the train, but when we are in the car they always want to race the trains and revel in the fact that we drive faster than them.  The sheep scurry away in an arc across the fields as the train goes past, three brown cows sit in a row unmoved by the noise and the deer continue to graze and then blackness as we enter a tunnel. It feels strange to be hurtling along in complete darkness, a bit like the old ghost trains at the fairground – what ghoul will pop out round the corner, what gooey, sticky strands will sweep across my face…?  But no, we are back out into the light again all safe and no surprises.

We pass through Mangaweka which from the train seems like a tiny little place and as we whizz through it I spot a sign for the Mangaweka International airport (this has to be a joke, surely!)– there is an old plane parked next to the sign and close by there is the General Store and then a Gospel Hall.  According to good old Wikipedia “The town also hosts the controversial annual “Fakes & Forgeries Art Exhibition and Festival” in October and November”.

The odd colonial style house stands alone in a field, surrounded by the remnants of a once well-manicured garden, run down but still evocative of times past, the native bush reclaiming the space it used to occupy. On to Taihape which is a small town founded in 1894 and a centre for the timber industry.  The once busy sawmills are nearly all now closed but were the reason for the existence of the town when the native forest was cleared up until the 1940s. Famous now for its annual gumboot throwing competition and on the edge of the town there is a large corrugated gumboot to commemorate Taihape’s 100th anniversary.

Did you know that before the arrival of people on NZ 85% of country was forested?  In the 1200s Maori felled and cleared the land to make way for crops and to build houses and waka and so by the time the European settlers arrived in the mid 1800s only 55% of the land was forested. Maori lived mainly along the coastal areas on both Islands but some iwi moved to the geo thermal areas around Rotorua in the winter. In a very short space of time between the mid 1890s and early 1900s the European settlers cleared huge tracts of land for grazing and farming as well as felling the mighty Kauri trees to be exported, so that nowadays only 25% of the land retains its forest and much of the native trees have been lost.  There are huge campaigns and efforts now to regenerate the native bush and re-introduce endangered species of plants and birds.

We continue on over the viaducts; The North Rangitikei viaduct is (I think) 181 m long, 77 m high, then the Toetoe viaduct (59 m long 58 m high) with a pretty waterfall to the west.  We are travelling through rolling country with hills to the east and west and we are steadily rising with the help of “gradings” shaped like horseshoes which help the train climb the inclines – you can often see the track above us as we snake around.  Onto the plains of Waiouru which is where the NZ army has its training grounds.  It is the highest point on the journey at 814m above sea level and the furthest point from the sea on our journey.  It is also the home of the army museum and memorial –where you can find out about the national military heritage.

We continue across the plains and then come to Tangiwae.  This is the site of New Zealand’s worst rail disaster when on Christmas Eve night in 1953 a lahar swept down the valley and washed the train off the track.  The last two carriages were left teetering on the track which allowed many passengers to escape but 151 died.

We stop at Ohakune for half an hour for lunch, a coffee, a wander round to stretch the legs and a trip to a loo that doesn’t move out of the way just as you descend onto it!  The railway cafes at National Park Village and Ohakune must make a killing for half an hour each day as a train load of passengers disembarks for a break from the journey.  Ohakune is 2027ft above sea level, a big skiing area on the southern side of Ruapehu, and also a famous for its vegetable growing.  It is home to the Giant Carrot – we have noticed that NZ towns like to have some sort of quirky “thing” for which they can be recognised – giant carrots, giant corrugated kiwis, Golden Shears, giant apples and so on.  We have not been back to Ohakune since our campervan was broken into when we were on holiday here 5 years ago.  Although Lachlan came for a week’s skiing with the school ski team and is keen for us to return as a family – maybe we can get over the break-in now and put that episode behind us!

We approach the historic HapuaWhenua viaduct which is built on a big curve 414m long.  First opened in 1908, it was replaced by a new concrete viaduct in 1987.  Earlier this year renovations of the old viaduct were complete and “now it is an exciting and safe experience to walk along the deck, study the construction and design of the viaduct, marvel at the new concrete viaduct and enjoy the serenity of the bush and the antics of the native birds”.  In 1987 AJ Hackett ran NZ’s first Bungee Jump off the old Hapuawhena viaduct.  As we travel over the viaduct we can look into the gorge below onto the crowns of the bright green spring fronds of the Ponga ferns and the darker spikes of the Cabbage trees.  And now the rain starts – no views of snow-clad Ruapehu, Ngaruahoe or Tongariro today.  Travelling through the native bush towards National Park Village we will climb steadily and will soon negotiate the Raurimu Spiral.

The Last Spike – marks the completion of the NI main trunk line and the creation of the Auckland to Wellington link.  There is a sort of obelisk that marks the spot and a sign post – the Prime Minister of the day was presented with a silver spike which is now in the Te Papa museum in Wellington.

The Makatote Viaduct is the highest one on the journey and the 3rd highest in NZ. It is 79 metres tall and 262 metres long – on a good day you can see Taranaki to the West and Ruapehu to the East.  It spans a forested gorge and we can see a small river meandering through it.

Now we have come to a halt and are waiting at Makatote just south of National Park Village for the southbound train so that crew can swap over. Alongside the track there is toetoe, ox-eye daisies, pine trees, birch, flax, gorse and broom, totara, bracken … and lots more that I don’t know the names of.  I was here just a few weeks ago with the Year 10 girls from my school on Outdoor camp and we mountain biked through this forest in glorious sunshine.  Unfortunately today we do not have the views that we were treated to then.

We go through National Park Village and then onwards to the Raurimu Spiral.  It is an amazing feat of engineering and quite bewildering to travel round.  Basically the station at National Park on the south side was 714 feet above Raurimu Station on the north side although a straight line of only about 7 km separated them. The problem was to join up the two places with a workable grade.  This was done by means of the spiral and now the distance travelled between the stations is 11km. It is said that if the aeroplane had existed when reconnaissance surveys were made then the Raurimu spiral would never have been built. A guy called James Cowan described the spiral thus; “The line is run as an ascending spiral, a complete circle (which passes over itself at a higher level), and two tunnels. The fashion in which this mountain railway ties knots in itself is rather puzzling on first experience.”  Earlier on in the year we had stopped on the road at Raurimu where there is a lookout and a model of the spiral – looking at it there and trying to spot the track through the bush, it was quite difficult to work out how the spiral worked but now that we have travelled it all has become clear!

The boys are getting tired; we have been up since 5.30am and they are flagging and getting tetchy.  Nigel played a few games of Uno with them before the Ohakune break.  A hot chocolate and a poke of chips revived them temporarily but they are getting on each other’s nerves now. Aonghas had a go at trying to sleep but can’t get comfortable.  I know, I thought – let’s have a game of Tantrix – it distracted them for a while but Lachlan lost interest when it looked like he wasn’t going to win and Aonghas didn’t like Lachlan “advising” him where to put his tiles.  Oh dear!  Game over and the blue line won – nobody was playing blue so we all lost which makes life simpler, I suppose!

270 km into the journey and we are at Taumarunui which is 171m above sea level and has a population of 26,500.  Taumarunui means giant sun screen in Maori. Apparently as the great Maori chief Pehi Turoa lay dying on the plain he asked for a sun screen to be erected to shield him from the harsh rays of the sun. Originally a Maori settlement at the confluence of the Ongarue River with the Whanganui, where important canoe routes linked the interior of the island with the lower Whanganui River settlements, it then became an important trading post in the 19th century and is now the gateway to ski areas and water sports on the Whanganui river which is the 2nd longest in NZ.

My computer battery died on me so I decided to take a break and read my book – an hour later I awake and the seats around me are deserted!  My family have gone awol!  The sun has come out and although there are still plenty of grey clouds, there is a freshness in the air.  We are in Te Kuiti – Sheep Shearing Capital of the world – I just love the labels they give their towns here! There is a huge statue of a man shearing a sheep at the edge of town and an honours board of world champion sheep shearers.  We stop here regularly for a break when we drive down to Taumarunui.  Founded in 1897 it is a railway town in the heart of land which is very similar to the Yorkshire Dales.  The road from here down to Taumarunui is one of my favourite areas to drive through and certainly a place earmarked to explore more thoroughly in the future.  Otorohanga (meaning food for a long journey), known for dairy and sheep farming and marketed as NZs Kiwiana town,  has based its tourism on the quirky kiwi icons that decorate the shops and businesses down the main street – Buzzy Bee, Hokey Pokey Ice cream, kiwis, pukeko, jandals to name but a few.  Lachlan has returned – they have been out on the viewing platform behind the engine.  Aonghas and Nigel are back now too – they were on an anti-sickness mission! All good now though!  Only an hour now before we arrive in Hamilton and we are in familiar country.  The novelty of a train ride has sort of worn off now after 9 hours and we have seen the scenery outside plenty of times though it is still quite interesting to see things from a different perspective.  We come to Te Awamutu which means – the end of the channel – or the river’s end.  Te Awamutu was a major site during the New Zealand land wars of the 19th century, serving as a garrison town for the colonial settlers.

As we approach Hamilton we are told that it is the fourth largest in New Zealand and is famous for its beautiful gardens and Mystery Creek where you can get “hands on” with a cow!  (The mind boggles!)  Its Maori name is Kirikiriroa which means long stretch of gravel, but the settlement of Hamilton was founded on 24 August, 1864 and named after Captain John Charles Fane Hamilton, the popular Scottish commander of HMS Esk who was killed in the battle of Gate Pa, Tauranga.

We step off the train into the early evening sunshine, grab a taxi and head home.  We have had a great trip and I would really recommend the train journey.  The desire to stay awake and make the most of the stunning views is strong – but then I don’t like missing out on anything – but it is a long time to be on a train with two active boys!  Fortunately we had table seats so we had space to play games and watch videos but that would have been less easy if we had been in two sets of forward facing seats.  There is the option of going to the observation car at the back of the train and spending some time there, which we did on the way down to Wellington.  There is a huge panoramic window at the rear of the carriage from which you have the most amazing view.  However the boys preferred the tiny open air platform directly behind the engine – much more exciting and it provides an opportunity to get some fresh air!  A fascinating journey but it’s always good to be home!

(thanks to Wikipedia for clarifications on the info I heard and half-heard on the train!)

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