Tragedy remembered on journey south

By Jim Eagles

The Tangiwai Memorial. Photo / Jim Eagles
The Tangiwai Memorial. Photo / Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles continues his exploration of New Zealand by train, paying his respects at the site of the Tangiwai disaster and taking the Overlander on to Wellington.

As the Overlander crossed the bridge over the Whangaehu River, between Ohakune and Waiouru, the train slowed and the manager asked us to "take a moment to remember those who died here".

It was at this crossing, at the appropriately named Tangiwai or "weeping waters", on Christmas Eve 1953 that New Zealand's greatest rail disaster occurred. The crater lake at the summit of Ruapehu breached its banks, sending a massive lahar, a flash flood of volcanic mud and water, sweeping down the river, carrying away the bridge.

The Wellington-Auckland Express plunged into the river and 151 passengers and crew died.

"Every Christmas Eve the northbound Overlander stops on the bridge," the train manager told us, "and the driver gets out and leaves a wreath."

From the train you can't see much of the Tangiwai Disaster Memorial, the grey concrete cairn erected years later to mark the tragedy, but we had paid a visit the previous day, driving the short distance from Ohakune in a borrowed car.

These days there are huge signs warning passers-by of the risk of flash floods and a network of electronic warning indicators has been set up down the mountainside to give advance warning of any further lahar.

Nevertheless, the old disaster site has a desolate and even dangerous air. The river has a battered look, the banks appear eroded by regular floods, the bed is full of the skeletons of dead trees and there's a whiff of sulphur in the air. The simple memorial, with its bright red number plate from engine KA949, is a poignant sight.

Fortunately things are more cheerful on the train once we've passed. The buffet car has a few Great New Zealand Railway Pies - so I'm able to enjoy one for lunch with a nice dollop of tomato sauce. It's not bad at all. There's also plenty to see out the windows.

Then we're passing through Waiouru - whose full name, Te Wahi Oru Nga Tangata, appropriately means "the place that all people must pass through" - which has long been home to an Army training base through which many young Kiwi males have passed as well as to the magnificent Army Museum.

It's also the highest point on the Main Trunk Line, at 814m, and we're soon racing downhill towards Wellington, through the spectacular scenery carved by the Rangitikei and Manawatu Rivers.

There are fantastic views of the rivers and their enveloping cliffs from the five huge viaducts - the longest, South Rangitikei, being 315m long - built to carry the railway across.

Passengers agog at the impressive landscape are even more amazed when the train zips past the Mangaweka International Airport and its DC3 aircraft - eh? - these days home to the Mangaweka Adventure Company which years ago took me on a whitewater rafting trip in a storm - the most exhilarating and terrifying thing I've ever done.

There's more entertainment just outside Ohingaiti where we meet "Kevin, the friend of the Overlander," standing on the road, dressed mainly in red and waving a red flag, as he usually does twice a day.

"He wasn't here this morning," says the train manager, who came through on the northbound Overlander, sounding rather relieved.

Then we're passing through Hunterville, where the first huntaway dog was bred - I didn't know that - Palmerston North with its university, the market gardens of Otaki and the ruggedly beautiful coast.

To get the railway here from Wellington they had to dig five tunnels which were named after Roman gods: the first, appropriately, being Neptune, lord of the sea which is pounding the rocks just below.

The Overlander is fairly racing along, making up for a bit time lost because of work on the line, and we're almost in the capital when suddenly there's a hiccup. The train slows and then, at Kenepuru, comes to a halt.

"The diesel's playing up," reports the train manager, "and the driver's in a hurry to get home so he wants to try fixing it."

The fix must have worked because a few moments later we're off again and back to full speed.

Finally we come to the entrance to Wellington, the city's front door, the Tawa tunnel, at 4.3km long the longest on the North Island Main Trunk, so we enter behind time and in the dark ... which seems like a pretty good metaphor for the capital really. Sorry. Only joking.

Next week: Wellington and a meeting with a real kiwi, then across Cook Strait to the spectacular South Island and a date with a crayfish.

Further information: You can find out about the Scenic Rail Pass at tranzscenic.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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