Auckland to Wellington: It's the journey that counts

By Danielle Wright

Good things take time, as Danielle Wright discovers on an Overlander scenic train trip to Wellington.

The Overlander takes passengers on a scenic path from Auckland to Wellington. Photo / Supplied
The Overlander takes passengers on a scenic path from Auckland to Wellington. Photo / Supplied

Britomart station in itself would have been a good daytrip for my son, Henry, who is keen on the peculiar hanging water feature on the roof. Used to rushing, I distract and hustle him on board the train as we settle in for a 12-hour trip to Wellington.

Like any 5-year-old, he likes trains. We've left his sister at home with her dad to give a patient older brother some of the attention back which he lost a couple of years ago when a time-consuming baby girl was born.

The route will take us from Auckland, through Hamilton, National Park for lunch, to Palmerston North and then the grand old station in Wellington, a world away from the shininess that is Britomart.

Soon after we wobble out of the station, the soothing narration begins, like a voice in our heads, as crew point out historical fact and fiction over the loudspeaker. It's a good history lesson for Henry and a lot more memorable than reading about his country in a book.

We're travelling on the Main Trunk Line, which was opened in 1908 and was once the lifeblood of the North, taking more than 20 hours from Auckland to Wellington in the early days. Today, we will cover 681km, cross 352 bridges and travel through 14 tunnels.

The track has a few twists and turns to keep it interesting, such as the Raurimu spiral which does a complete circle, three horseshoe curves and two short tunnels. Legend has it that one train driver, in the face of red taillights ahead, put on the emergency brake only to find he'd merely caught up with his own guard's van.

There are also towns to spot on the line, once bustling with industry and now relying on party tricks to grab attention: Te Kuiti, the shearing capital of the world; Taihape, the town with the giant gumboot; Palmerston North: the "knowledge city"; and Ohakune, the home of the big carrot. In Maori, Ohakune means "place to be careful in", though no one can remember what was so scary before the big carrot was built.

In between the towns we pass rainforest, wetland, volcanoes, ravines and coastlines that give a different perspective on the country than you see from the main roads. There is backcountry and backyards you'd never normally see.

"Cheep Liquor" is proudly plastered across a store in Waikato and a sign, "Heaven, Hell: which train are you on?" farewells us from another station. Washing lines, lemon trees and sports fields hosting Saturday morning football show signs of small-town life.

The time goes quickly but games of eye spy get a bit hard once grass, trees, sheep, cows and clouds have been used. The scenery isn't as varied or dramatic as I'd hoped. We play Hangman instead and I'm faced with a nine-letter word without any vowels.

After much build-up, we reach the Hapu Whenua viaduct, where you can take a picture of the train as it turns. The lounge area behind us is swamped with sightseers. They discuss their own countries while the beauty of ours goes past, unnoticed.

Around the halfway point everyone gets off at National Park station. We're expecting alpine air and views of the mountains but it's wet and foggy and most of the 30 minutes are spent queuing for food, then rushing back on board when the food runs out just before we get to the counter.

Now I can understand the famous rush for a meal of mince pie, mashed spuds and peas at Taihape Station when the famous "Limited" arrived early in the morning. So, after failing to get to the cafe in time for a hot meal, we opt for the old railway classic, the mince pie, back on board.

Later, we travel past the spot where a lahar came down Mt Ruapehu in 1953 and swept away the Tangiwai Rail Bridge just before the nightly express train from Wellington travelled through. In what was New Zealand's worst rail tragedy 151 people lost their lives. Hauntingly, Tangiwai means "weeping waters" in Maori.

We pass Waiouru, the highest station on the journey. Waiouru derives from a Maori phrase "the place all people must pass through" and is where my great-great-grandfather contracted pleurisy, which later caused his death, after inspecting the main trunk railway here.

I never paid much attention when told about him, but I was now as we travelled over the tracks, viaducts and bridges, many of which he helped plan and build.

As we head into Wellington it's early evening and dark, with mist and light rain against the windows. Twinkly lights beam from homes in areas more built up than we've seen for half a day.

As we disembark, many of the passengers comment on what a good traveller Henry has been. It makes a change from travelling as a family with the stress of controlling two children egging each other on.

With such hectic lives, the Overlander provided a chance to stop rushing around, slow down and enjoy my son's company and the journey, which, just like parenting, needs time to be appreciated.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Nostalgic Nosh: Get good Kiwi tucker on board, including Kapiti hokey pokey ice cream, Anzac biscuits, wine gums, Whittaker's chocolate and Nana's lamb roast from Wishbone. Indulge in this instead of queuing for food at the National Park cafe, and spend that precious 30-minute stop trying to find the mountain views.

Fares & Timetables: The Overlander operates seven days a week through summer and Friday-Sunday during winter. Choose from doing the trip in one day, stopping along the way or turning your journey into a two or three-day getaway.

Auckland to Wellington one-way starts at $49 with the Go Anywhere fare but there are limited tickets at that price so book six weeks to two months in advance, otherwise it could be as much as $131.

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