Alexander Bisley rides the rail from Auckland to Wellington and absorbs our spectacular scenery
Road trips and flying both have their virtues; but KiwiRail's Northern Explorer is the most memorable way to get between Auckland and Wellington. An alluring sunrise hovering over Parnell augurs well, as the train clips towards East Auckland. Till the sun goes down just after Palmerston North - and panoramic vistas of majestic Te Apiti Wind Farm through the Ruahines and Tararuas - the Explorer is the best way to see our lands.
Back in the day, coming up from the badlands of Wairarapa to see my grandparents, the trains were wildly below potential. Asset-stripping Tranz Rail and co. almost destroyed the network, making trains from ex-communist countries look like Japan's or France's.
Since renationalisation, KiwiRail has tried to make the service appeal to Kiwis and tourists, and there's been a dramatic turnaround.
The Northern Explorer has impeccable, genuine Kiwi hospitality from the crew, led by Fiona. They comment, concisely and helpfully, on key highlights of the trip, with right-on te reo Maori pronunciation (there are also headphones with a thorough running commentary). There's tasty kai on board, Wishbone sandwiches - I plump for chicken and almond - and hot cheesy potato gratin. Kapiti Boysenberry and Passionfruit magnums, and cups of tea. Formerly forlorn station cafes - bar Taumarunui - have whirred back into life: Ohakune's even has a micro-brewery.
My fellow passengers come from many walks of life and countries: Canadian, Taiwanese-American, Puerto Rican-Singaporean, and that's just the comfy seats around me. There are spacious tables (with power outlets), where a writer can get some serious work done.
In-between taking in the sights, I read Andrew O'Hagan's superb demolition of Julian Assange, and W. Kamau Bell's wise and hilarious thoughts on the awkward state of the United States. "There's a f*** of a lot of space" in the North Island, The Bugle's Andy Zaltzman observed on his trip. There are verdant hillsides, wild turkeys, and frisky toitoi.
The open-air observation carriage is the best way to experience the landscapes, and get a revitalising dose of fresh air on the 11-hour journey. People are relaxed and happy. I meet and korero with Ross, a fellow Ngapuhi, and a Northern Explorer regular. "Way better than flying or driving, e hoa. Driving is stressful, can't enjoy the scenery. And landing at that Wellington Airport, jeez."
Another passenger shrieks with delight when the Central North Island's snow-clad mountains - Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe - hover into view, before the Raurimu spiral, famous engineering.
We enjoy eye-catching and varied angles of these magnificent mountains, as we head through Tongariro National Park. One of Aotearoa's two world heritage areas, it now attracts more than one million tourists a year. Tuwharetoa Paramount Chief Te Heuheu gifted Tongariro National Park to New Zealand. He wanted these sacred lands to be protected so all could appreciate them.
The train makes a longer stop at National Park, the nation's second-highest altitude railway station, so we can enjoy the views. On this late May day there's snow on the ground at National Park, and right through to Ohakune and Waiouru - through the exciting bridges and viaducts and the comforting beech trees - my favourite section of the trip. Ruapehu, all 2797m, is resplendent.
I have one significant criticism. Due to National's underfunding, KiwiRail is phasing out electric trains for greenhouse gas-spewing, dirty diesels.
This could damage the pristine experience, and further mocks the 100% Pure New Zealand slogan.