Time doesn't fly on the Northern Explorer but you find it's a small world after all, writes Eli Orzessek.
There's nothing like a joke that's been told a bazillion times before.
Take, for example, this classic that I'm sure has been broadcast over the speakers of the TranzScenic train many times since the dawn of free Wi-Fi.
"We don't have Wi-Fi on this train," the driver announces. "But we do have something called Windows Live. It's on either side of you."
No, he's not referring to the discontinued brand name for a set of web services and software products from Microsoft, but rather the large windows that line the carriages — that's your only entertainment for the next 10 hours or so.
Like all dad jokes, it elicits a mixture of groans and laughter. But it's true: a lengthy glance at your phone means you risk missing important landmarks and scenery as the Northern Explorer journeys from Auckland to Wellington.
I've always enjoyed the leisurely pace of train travel — it may take a while to get to your destination, but at least you don't have to mission out to the airport and deal with the chaos within. Also, it just feels classier — a more civilised way to travel, with better seats to boot. Once a cheaper option than flying, catching the train has become priced out by the advent of uber-cheap flights, but it's a journey that's worth every cent — even if you've lived in New Zealand your entire life. And it remains surprisingly popular — my trip was booked out by a mix of older people, train enthusiasts and overseas tourists.
The Northern Explorer takes you through a lot of small towns on the way but early on, I had a moment that cemented New Zealand's reputation as a small town in its own right.
My next-door-neighbour happened to be on the same train — in the same carriage even — sitting a mere two rows behind me. Chatting on the platform during a brief stop in Hamilton, we probably learned more about each other in 10 minutes than in the eight or so years we've spent living on the same quiet street.
We leave Hamilton and zip through some of my favourite Waikato small towns — past the famous Deka sign and Topp Twins mural in Huntly, around Taupiri Mountain where Billy T James is buried and on through Ngaruawahia — once unfairly slated by journalist Heather du Plessis-Allan as a town "not worthy of stopping to pee in". I can tell you, it's a fine place to stop for a pee and there are some great op shops as well.
As we pass Te Kuiti, I turn to the Aussie guy next to me and comment that the boring part of the journey had begun — endless, endless farmland. "But this is what we come here for," he replies — apparently they don't get rolling green hills like these over the Ditch.
Unfortunately, I'm not lucky enough to score one of the afore-mentioned premium Windows Live seats, but being on the aisle gives me easy access to the open-air observation cart at the front of the train. While the crowds ebb and flow depending on the location, there's one traveller who seems to be constantly there for the entire run — an ageing punk with headphones in, leaning moodily against the barrier.
It's a wild ride at times in this rattly open-air cart and I get a bit nervous about dropping my phone at times. Getting that perfect shot for your Instagram takes a bit of planning and careful timing — sometimes, you've only got a split second to grab that shot of an aesthetically rundown shack surrounded by overgrown nature. There's also the problem of mobile reception — far and few between in this part of the country. Mostly, it's best to forget about the live-tweeting and stick to good old Windows Live.
It's the ideal time of year to undertake this epic journey — in spring, the North Island has its best green coat on and we're lucky enough to move from a drizzly morning in Auckland to one of the most perfect sunny days you could imagine. The lambs are leaping, the calves resting under their mothers' legs — it's enough to make you overlook the occasional dead sheep along the way.
And there are two clear standout stars when it comes to views.
The Raurimu Spiral is the first — you'll want to keep an eye on the map and grab a spot on the observation cart in advance. An engineering masterpiece, this single rail spiral starts with a horseshoe curve and sees the train overcome a 139m height difference between Raurimu and Tongariro National Park.
The second is just around the corner in the national park, where we're treated to incredible views of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, made just that bit more spectacular on such a clear, crisp day.
Although these sights surely deserve the crowds they attract, it's all the little uniquely Kiwi oddities along the way that make the Northern Explorer such a worthwhile excursion. I'll take the faded motels and disused clubrooms, the kids waving at the train from behind corrugated iron, the cherry trees in blossom and shells of old rusted-out cars any day.
Not to mention the snowman of Ohakune and the weird statue of the Virgin Mary on a hill in Paraparaumu.
Munching down a pie in the restaurant cart, this truly is the best way to get back in touch with the real New Zealand — and an excellent way to spend 10 hours.
For details on the Northern Explorer, go to railplus.co.nz.