All down the line: Auckland to Christchurch

By Paul Harper

Herald Online reporter Paul Harper is making his way around the South Island by rail over the course of a fortnight. Here are some of the highlights of his trip so far.

Lake Sarah, near the small settlement of Cass. Photo / Paul Harper
Lake Sarah, near the small settlement of Cass. Photo / Paul Harper

Day one

The first leg of the tour sets off from Auckland and heads to Wellington, picking up passengers in Pukekohe, Hamilton and Palmerston North. Unfortunately the weather hampers the first half of the more than 10-hour trip. Fog and heavy rain hides much of the countryside from view, including the North Island's four largest peaks - Tongariro, Ngaurahoe, Ruapehu and Taranaki - which can be seen from the train on a clear day.

Despite the weather, passengers were treated to views of the country not visible from the state highways. The tracks run through the ruggedest of the Waikato and King Country, and through gorges and alongside rivers away from the main roads. Passengers are also treated to the Raurimu Spiral, an engineering feat which allows engines to make the steep climb up towards National Park.

The weather cleared about Ohakune, just in time for the stretch of the trip where the line runs near the Rangitikei River.

With its steep cliffs and fast flowing water, the stunning Rangitikei is one of the North Island's most underrated features.

While drivers traveling along State Highway 1 get glimpses of the beauty of the region, rail travel allows passengers to see much more of the dramatic scenery, particular when crossing a series of high viaducts over the river.

The rain returns about Palmerston North, where the train picks up the last of its passengers before heading down towards Wellington. The last highlight before reaching the capital is the stretch of the Kapiti Coast north of Pukerua Bay, where the train winds around the cliffs with the road and Pacific Ocean to the west.

Day Two

They say you can't beat Wellington on a good day, and fortunately for the tour group it was a fairly good day on Sunday. The second day of the trip is dedicated to crossing the Cook Strait on the Bluebridge ferry.

Passengers on the ferry get fine views of the harbour and the southern coast of Wellington as it leaves the North Island for the Mainland. Typical to form it is windy, fortunately still warm. For the most part the seas were also fairly calm, apart from a rough half an hour or so where the vessel was rolled about violently by large swells.

The rough seas saw many a head dipped into a white paper bag, chairs and glass thrown onto the ground and the young and old screaming as the boat rocked. Once in the calmer waters of the Marlborough Sounds, passengers were able to enjoy the picturesque peninsulas and islands as the boat made its way to Picton.

Day Three

The third day sees the tour party board a chartered train, with four carriages in tow. From Picton we head down to Blenheim and through the region's famous vineyards down to Kaikoura.

The Kaikoura coast is rugged yet picturesque, no matter how much the rain dampens the mood. It clears as we reach Kaikoura, where the steam train KA942 Nigel Bruce was leaving the station - a treat for the many rail enthusiasts among the group.

Like in the North Island, baby lambs under the close watch off their mothers can be seen on farms running alongside the track in the South Island too. As the track moves away from the coast south of Kaikoura, the journey passes through rugged farmland which levels out as we venture further into Canterbury, before reaching our final stop for the day, Christchurch.

Paul is on the South Island Springtime Tour, run by Pukekohe Travel.

- nzherald.co.nz

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