Making tracks up the country

By Pamela Wade

On a rail trip from the capital, Pamela Wade is enraptured by the North Island's emerald green beauty and looming mountains.

As the Northern Explorer crosses the Hapuawhenua Viaduct vertigo sufferers may want to keep their eyes on their magazines.
As the Northern Explorer crosses the Hapuawhenua Viaduct vertigo sufferers may want to keep their eyes on their magazines.

"Ah," said the farmers, pleased.

"Now we're into the good country," and they sat back to watch with professional satisfaction as the neat, green Waikato farmland slid past the windows.

I didn't want to argue but, as far as I was concerned, all the country had been good, right from the start in Wellington.

In the sharp, bright morning, KiwiRail's Northern Explorer left the capital's imposing railway station to its invading hordes of blank-faced, black-clothed commuters and took us northwards, to the sparkle of the Kapiti Coast, past pretty Porirua Harbour and the bushy bulk of Kapiti Island.

As yet more commuters streamed into the city along State Highway 1, we settled back into our comfortable seats and eased into holiday mode, ready to enjoy the movie outside the picture windows.

The Tararuas slipped past, the low sun on their bare flanks making them look like a painting by Grahame Sydney.

Little towns with wide streets dotted the farmland: pub, war memorial, pet sheep in the back paddock and neatly stacked piles of firewood.

Poplars and willows made splashes of yellow against the green as the line climbed towards the Central Plateau, and the scenery took a turn for the dramatic.

Tall viaducts took us across the great slash of the Rangitikei Gorge, the Tangiwai Bridge making us think for a moment about the 151 people who were swept to their deaths in Whangaehu River in 1953, and then came the graceful concrete curve of the Hapuawhenua Viaduct, more than 400m long.

The showiest engineering feat of the Main Trunk Line was still to come, but nature took central stage at National Park, where Ruapehu sulked behind cloud but Ngauruhoe and Tongariro were moodily dark against the sky.

"Is that Mt Doom?" asked an American tourist breathlessly of those of us gathered in the open-air viewing carriage.

The farmers looked at him blankly, so I answered, adding that it was on this line that the teenaged Peter Jackson looked up from reading Lord of the Rings and realised he was passing through Middle-earth and Mordor.

The interior of the train's new carriages is light, airy, comfortable and with big sightseers' windows.
The interior of the train's new carriages is light, airy, comfortable and with big sightseers' windows.

The farmers came into their own at the world-famous Raurimu Spiral, explaining the horseshoe bends, tunnels and loop that provide the train with a comfortable 1:50 gradient down from the Volcanic Plateau.

It was slightly bamboozling to see the track both above and beneath us as we descended to Raurimu, and reassuring to hear on the headphone commentary that a train driver was fooled once, braking hard when he saw his own rear lights.

In the cafe carriage, it was even more disorientating to discover that, far from serving curled-corner sandwiches, greasy pies and stewed tea, the food was so varied and delicious that I actually bought extra to take home.

The King Country whizzed by at 100km/h as the farmers drank beer and critiqued the fencing, dice clicked on the table at a family Monopoly game, teenagers retreated with their iPods inside their hoodies and older people snoozed.

Sealed in our cosy new woodgrain carriages, the windows curving up onto the roof, we were snugly comfortable when the rain began at Hamilton, blurring the surface of the Waikato River, only the flowers on the graves at Mt Taupiri still bright in the gloom.

After 10 hours, 681km, 352 bridges, 14 tunnels and three stops, we drew into Britomart Station, dazzled not just by its gleaming brightness, but by our journey through the glorious variety of the North Island scenery - all of it good country.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: The Northern Explorer runs three times weekly in each direction, with Scenic Escape packages including the Chateau Tongariro, Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton.

Pamela Wade rode the rails courtesy of KiwiRail.

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