Rail journeys through both main islands, with the occasional trip by car, open up the country, writes Helen van Berkel.

We've been through our ups and downs, New Zealanders and rail. Rail opened up the gold fields of the south and the agricultural possibilities of the centre. It was the birthplace of the union movement and arguably helped give us the employment conditions we enjoy today. It has brought us engineering triumphs and it has brought us tragedy. We fell out of love with rail in the 1980s but now we are falling in love with it again, through KiwiRail's great scenic journeys.

The Northern Explorer has been with us the longest, taking 23 years to build and taking a trainload of MPs on its first journey in 1908. These days it leaves from the Auckland Train Station in Parnell, arriving out of the gloom on a foggy winter's morning. The carriages are roomy and warm; large windows designed to showcase the countryside. There's no Wi-Fi — only windows streaming, the conductor tells us. Not everyone gets the joke.

Those windows look out on the wakening southern suburbs of Auckland, then overlook the peaty banks of the Waikato River. We stop — more often we don't — at little stations that once were the heart of the communities now dying around them.

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In an open carriage at the back the wind tears through our hair as we click-clack steadily south. The jumbled contours of the volcanic plateau tested the early engineers who built world-marvel bridges and viaducts.

It's hard to find camera space at the rail of the viewing carriage as we come to the main attraction: the Raurimu Spiral between Taumarunui and Tongariro National Park, where the train rises 200m within 5km. At one point, it looks like the train is above you as the track take the tight loops through the steep altitude. It's hard to get a feel for what is going on — apparently even today there is no way to see the entire track so how on earth the unknown designer came up with the route astonishes today's engineers. But we did notice the column of smoke that seemed to be in front, then beside us then behind us as we completed the circle.

South of Taihape, the white cliffs of the Rangitikei River valley offer spectacular relief from sheep-dotted farmland and a landscape bursting with word-stealing views. Plenty of food and drink on board and GPS-guided commentary help ensure we don't get bored when we need a break from the spectacular scenery outside our window.

For us, the usual 11-hour journey took more than 12 because of earlier technical difficulties and the evening commuter rush was well over by the time we pulled into Wellington. The train heads south every Saturday, Monday and Thursday and makes the return journey every Tuesday, Friday and and Sunday. But before our return we had even more spectacular journeys on our itinerary.

About 4am on a cold winter's morning well before the millennium ticked over, Dad crept into the room I shared with my sister. "Wake up," he whispered. "We have to catch the ferry." But I was already awake, beside myself with excitement at the idea of catching the Interislander to the North Island. I wanted to recreate that childish joy for my daughter when we travelled in the opposite direction. "Wake up," I whispered at 4am on a cold dark morning. "We have to catch the ferry." But she hissed at me: "We don't have to leave for another six hours!"

It was not quite the response I was after but the younger generation do not know how lucky they are. You can actually drive your car on to the boat. That seemed the most wondrous thing when I was 7.

But the excitement started to build as we waited in the terminal at Wellington. It seemed little changed: the plastic seats, the lino floors, the cafe selling Tip Top icecream. The coffee was better. The boarding call came and we scrambled up the gangway. My thrill at going on the ferry was shared by a group of young Canadians behind us: they were literally jumping and high-fiving with excitement, pausing only to photograph the trucks and cars as they drove on board the Aratere.

It was all as I remembered it: that evocative Interislander smell: a mix of excitement and tomato sauce and the knowledge that one was going to get treats in exchange for three hours of good behaviour. There was a new smell this time though: butter chicken was on a menu once dominated by pies, fish and chips and Trumpet icecreams. It was probably the first time my daughter heard me insist she have a pie but obviously you're not a real Kiwi until you have eaten a pie on the Interislander. I remembered gangways of industrial-strength bobbled lino and little walls between passageways that seemed knee-high to me but probably weren't. Nowadays, there's a cinema and carpet and free Wi-Fi.

We wandered the ship, trying to see it all. We felt the surge of power as the engines powered up and, without even noticing it, we were gliding out of Wellington harbour
Unfortunately, we had a smooth sailing. Apart from the notorious wind, the swells were small the skies were blue. I told my daughter of the times my teenaged self and my friends would see who could stand on one leg on the longest when wild Cook Strait was at its most tempestuous. The outdoor decks would soon be closed and the smell of holiday joy would be replaced with something much more chunky.

On a good day you're never out of sight of land; the ferry angles along the southern foot of the North Island and follows a path that is more east to west than north to south before quietly slipping into the river valleys that are the Marlborough Sounds. The almost overwhelming perfection of sky, sea and land takes away all words as digital cameras and phones fake click in vain attempts to record the Sounds' quiet perfection. We're pulling into Picton almost before we know it, our great adventure over with the fading vestiges of the day's glow.

Even before we left the highway to pull into Kaikoura I knew we had made a big mistake. Foolishly I had only allowed one day in which to explore this glorious little seaside town. I wanted to climb those hills. I wanted to walk those trails. I wanted to visit those historic homes and photograph that pretty church on the hill. I wanted to see the seals in the colony on the point and the whales that swam beyond the horizon.

The original plan had been to take the Coastal Scenic train from Picton to Christchurch but after the November 2016 quake shattered this little corner of the upper South Island, we had no option but to drive. First stop: Nelson. My home town.

It is little changed from the city I farewelled within weeks of walking out of Nelson College for Girls for the last time. The Boulder Bank still hulks on the horizon to the right as you follow Atawhai Drive into the city, although a few more houses dot the hills on the left. New shortcuts and roundabouts have appeared — and Nelson suffers the same lack of signs that confuses tourists around the country. Even as an ex-local I had difficulty finding the Tahuna Motorcamp, our home for the next two nights.

Nelson, too, deserves more than a day. We managed a trip to Mapua, where the old wharfs have been transformed into a series of quirky little tourist shops and restaurants.

Nelson's main retail precinct is overlooked by the stately and magnificent cathedral, which lends a sense of occasion to shopping in chainstores that line the streets below.

KiwiRail's Interislander ferry Aratere in Wellington Harbour. Photo / Mark Mitchell
KiwiRail's Interislander ferry Aratere in Wellington Harbour. Photo / Mark Mitchell

We set off from Nelson, via Murchison, driving alongside rocky streams and towards distant blue and jagged mountains. The Inland route is the only road to Kaikoura now, since the quake wrecked State Highway 1. The Maruia Falls remind us that November's quake is nothing new here: the falls were created when the 1929 earthquake set off a landslip that shoved the river westwards. State Highway 6 became SH65 as we drove through the Buller Gorge, an awe-inspiring route of grey rock and tumbling river. Dark forests crowded the roadsides on the loop towards Culverden and back up to Waiau and Kaikoura. Heading north again, quake damage was apparent. A chimney down here, broken walls there, roadworks everywhere.

The violence of November 2016 is a reminder of how New Zealand was made.

The quake hasn't, however, affected Kaikoura's most famous denizens, attracted to the rich feeding grounds of the Kaikoura trench. We went out with Kaikoura Whale Watch on a trip delayed by the distance the whales were feeding from shore. Pods of truck-sized creatures sweep the depths but only one deigned to make an appearance. We bobbed on the smooth waters as the crew dropped sounders overboard trying to find the eagerly awaited beast. Only albatross and shearwaters kept us company as we waited in silence. Suddenly we were directed to the port rail. We saw nothing until a broad black back burst through the surface, a great gush of air and geysering moisture made rainbows as a bull sperm whale appeared beside us. For 10 magical minutes he cruised the surface, blowing rainbows of spume from his airhole as he emptied and refilled his lungs and revelled in the attention.

Then with a leisurely arch of his tail, he was gone.

Back at the marina, construction workers repair the damage left when a seabed rises at least a metre. The damage is even clearer around the headland at the seal colony. Green algae covers dry, muddy rocks where once paua clung to rocks and fed in the rising and falling of the tide. The seals are still there, stinking, basking and lolloping across the rocks and posing for photographs.

The damage is also apparent in the town: the lovely Adelphi is a shattered husk and wooden scaffolding supports many town verandas. The historic Fyffe House, built of whalebone foundations is closed. Kaikoura will be back, better and newer and flasher than before and those forbidding alps still provide a picturesque backdrop to the beautiful bays where whales still feed.

Where the North Island is grey greens and khakis, the South Island is all about blue. Blue rivers, blue lakes, blue mountains, blue sky.

If we had taken the Coastal Pacific there would have been blue sea too. But, alas, the Kaikoura earthquake of November 2016 meant the Picton to Kaikoura to Christchurch leg of our tour by train had to be done by car.

The TranzAlpine leaves from the Christchurch Train Station in Addington, quickly rolling through the flat suburbs for the flat plains of farmland.

The early route takes us along the banks of the Waimakariri River, its twisted channels spread between its wide banks at this time of year when the early snows are holding back the flows in the upper reaches of the Southern Alps.

As we enter the foothills of the alps, skirting the Korowai-Torlesse Tussocklands Park, the view outside the picture window becomes ever more jumbled and jagged. The Mighty Waimak's tributaries narrow, enclosed by steeper hillsides. We enter a landscape of tussock and scrub, browned by summer's heat and dried by autumn's chill. Outside the window a mesmerising landscape rolls by, formed by water, erosion and the faulty earth.

We enter the green and mysterious Arthurs Pass National Park, to traverse one of the world's great wonders: the 600km Alpine Fault, one of the speediest faults on the rim of fire, tilting vertically at a blistering pace of 20km every 12 million years and fair galloping along horizontally at 30m per 1000 years. This means that rock that was once in Nelson is now being found in the far south and the Southern Alps were once at sea level. In fact, were it not for the erosion we see slashing at their flanks, our alps would be taller than Mt Everest. An onboard commentary explains why this fault is so remarkable; unfortunately, mine cut in and out and besides I was too busy rushing up and down to the open viewing car with my camera to catch much of the commentary.

It's a stunning trip through the pass, hemmed in by rocky mountains clad in thick bush. There is a romance to the basic earthiness of the pass as you travel through in a heated carriage, metres from a dining car that serves hot food and good wine.

But beyond our aluminium, steel and glass skin not much more than a century ago, the Kiwi can-do spirit was born: tough men and tougher women who fought rock and ice to win the West Coast for agriculture and wrest the black gold out of those mountains. Just what they managed to achieve can be seen in the 8.5km Otira Tunnel, dug through the alps without the benefit of modern earthmoving equipment.

After more than 10 years of drilling and blasting, the 1:33 gradient tunnel ended up costing more than twice the contract price and the original contractor was financially ruined. The public works department finished it, partly as it was seen as a vital route for getting coal to the battlefields of World War I Europe should the Germans decide to blockade the West Coast ports.

The observation car is closed when you go through the tunnel because of the potential for fumes to build up.

Then the mountains spit us out on to the Taramakau River plain at the feet of Mts Alexander and Te Kinga. Lake Brunner glides alongside us, reflecting the blue mountains of the distant alps. As we near Greymouth the rivers are lazier still, languid and dark under the beech forests. And long before we have tired of the journey, we pull into Greymouth, the end of the line for one of New Zealand's Great Journeys.

We return to Christchurch by train and then complete our South Island loop by car. This meant an opportunity to finally see Punakaiki the famous pancake rocks of the West Coast. In fact, this coast is worth making the trip all by itself.

The Earth's bones bulge through its skin here, presenting grey cliffs that swell like shoulder blades out of the dense bush. It must be one of the world's most magnificent drives, snaking through coastal forest and offering glimpses of the Tasman. The departing sunshine gave the sea a yellowish cast as we pulled into Punakaiki.

We rushed through the check-in at the holiday camp to see the rocks before dark. A well laid-out path with vantage points of the cliffs and blowholes shows all the structures of the remarkable rocks. The constant booming of the water sounds like the ocean is underground as it is in places. Sadly, the relatively calm sea means the spectacular blowholes for which this patch of coast is famous, aren't in evidence today, or the next morning when we return for another look. Signs along the path tell us it is a mystery why some limestone layers in Punakaiki fashion and I wouldn't have a clue. I'm just happy that it does.

Checklist

DETAILS

For information on Kiwirail's journeys, go to greatjourneysofnz.co.nz. for updates on the roads to kaikoura, see

nzta.govt.nz

Visit Kaikoura:

and