The baby lambs ran away from me. I was thrilled to see them. They were not thrilled to see me.
On this decidedly unsubtropical cold and grey August day, their prancing in the green fields while staying close to their mamas seemed to promise the arrival of spring. I meant no harm. I wished there was more than a fleeting moment to coo over how cute they were.
I felt a little bad for intruding on their turf, but we wouldn't be intrusive for long: We had a place to go and cups of tea to drink as our train made its way up to Whangarei for a weekend exploring the Far North.
Sitting all cozy on a warm train watching the countryside blur by made for such a relaxing, lovely experience I would happily repeat when the weather gets warmer. If only we could do so more often.
Perhaps unbeknown to Aucklanders, there are opportunities to take the train up to Whangarei. The lines between the two cities are predominantly used by freight rail, but travellers can ride these rails as part of a charter trip. This particular ride on the 96-passenger Silver Fern railcar, built in 1974, was part of a three-night package from Pukekohe Travel.
The line between Auckland and Whangarei used to accommodate passenger travel, but it was slow: It took roughly five hours to get between Auckland and Whangarei back then. It still takes five hours to there now - the train doesn't go much faster than 50km/h.
Passenger rail service to Whangarei ended in 1976.
No one I talked to seem to think there was any chance it would start up again anytime soon.
"You can't afford to run a passenger service if you're only going to have five or six people travelling on a train. It's just economic suicide," said KiwiRail train manager Ken Tawharu.
Tawharu reasons that Kiwis love their cars. And no doubt there is a lot more flexibility when you can take your car, take as much stuff as you want, hook up a trailer or a boat, and get from Auckland to Whangarei on your own schedule. Your car can make the commute in 3 hours.
But for those Kiwis and tourists who can't or won't drive: pensioners who have hung up the keys, drivers too scared to take on the left side of the road, or individuals who enjoy staring out the window with a glass of wine in hand - the train service would be a welcome option for exploring the Far North.
The railcars are incredibly comfortable, with outlets to charge your electronic devices (careful though, there's no 3G on parts of the trip) and "more legroom than bizzo class" according to the gentleman seated behind me.
And there's reason to believe there is increasing demand for these sorts of trips.
Pukekohe Travel's October Auckland-Whangarei trip sold out merely by word of mouth, according to Tours Manager Damian O'Connor.
As long as there are "bums on seats", KiwiRail and the travel companies are happy to run the charters. Pukekohe has plans to repeat the itineraries this year. I wish these trips could be offered as train-only weekend charters in the future. If these trips become more and more popular, could we potentially have a weekend getaway option? This would bring Auckland and Whangarei in line with major international cities that have easy train escapes to weekend hotspots. New Yorkers hop on the train to the Hamptons or Montauk. Angelenos go south to San Diego or north to Santa Barbara. Londoners and Parisians ping-pong between the two via the Eurostar.
It seems the few train trips available address a missed opportunity to get more travellers up north to gaze up at the incredible kauri forests, walk along Whangarei Marina, or grab a ride to any one of the nearby beaches.