Friday, 05 June 2020


A truly great way to experience the beauty of the North Island

Our son has been in Wellington at university for the past three years and has now started his first job in the capital city.  As a result, we have been making regular journeys to the city for various reasons. 

As retirees with more time on our hands, we continually strive to “up the adventure ante” for each trip to Wellington. In the process of being parents, we also try to make the journey a richer experience and not just a commute. 
For our most recent trip, we were travelling as an extended family to celebrate a combination of our son’s 21st birthday and his graduation ceremony from Victoria University, as a newly minted geologist. Grandma and Auntie were travelling from Auckland and we were travelling from Whitianga. After a bit of brainstorming, we all decided that we should get on the train to add a scenic and adventurous component to our journey. So, we booked the Kiwi Rail Northern Explorer for the Thursday before the big weekend.    

The Northern Explorer is truly one of New Zealand’s gems. The voyage, starting in Auckland, meanders through a diverse selection of the North Island’s most beautiful scenery. Passengers enjoy a variety of landscapes, ranging from the fertile Waikato and King Country farmlands to the rocky foothills leading to the Central Plateau and its volcanic peaks, then onward through the gorges of the Rangitikei River and the shimmering Kapiti Coast. 

The service terminates close to the “Cake Tin” in Wellington at a fairly reasonable time in the evening, which leaves room for more adventure once you alight from the train. 

Passengers can enjoy the journey from very comfortable seats in carriages outfitted with brilliantly large windows geared for absorbing the scenery. The service also provides some pretty decent food and beverages, which are incredibly well-priced.

Grandma and Auntie, who are Auckland residents, boarded the train at the Strand Station in Parnell at 7:45am. Grandma is rather elderly and on a walking frame, but she easily got onto the train and to her own very comfortable seat by the window. They clearly got themselves into the swing of things straight away, because by the time we saw them at 10:15am when we boarded in Hamilton (after a drive from Whitianga the previous day), they had consumed their first bottle of bubbles and had made fast friends with their fellow passengers and the staff, who seemed to be keeping quite entertained with their excited banter.
We chose to stay in Hamilton at the Airport Hotel the night before, so that we could easily make our 10:15am boarding time and also because we were flying back to Hamilton on our return. We boarded the train with a hearty welcome from the staff and we found out seats straight away, following the jovial sound of our relatives.
With more bubbles in our possession, we took off through some lovely Waikato farmland, sporting a beautifully green hue from the recent rains. Passing through the foothills towards National Park, we were treated to rock formations, waterfalls, forests and so much more.  The Northern Explorer train journey takes you through landscapes that you would never encounter or be able to enjoy driving in a car. 

Once we passed through Taumarunui, we started making our ascent onto the Central Plateau where the dramatic landscape was made even more special by the experience of climbing around the tight curves of the historic Raurimu Spiral. The Raurimu Spiral is an engineering marvel designed in 1898, to make the 139-metre ascent onto the plateau possible without a lengthy diversion. It is an experience everyone should have.

Coming into National Park, where some of the passengers got off for a weekend at the famous Chateau Tongariro, our view was dominated by the snow-capped volcanic cone of Ngauruhoe, which starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie. 

We continued on across three breathtaking and very tall viaducts, which bridge the deep ravines carved out by rivers off of Ruapehu. Grandma, afraid of heights, was less impressed and started to wish she had not chosen the window seat after all.  Along the way, motorists on the viaducts had stopped to take photos and wave at the passing train. 

Once the train left the next station, Ohakune, we were presented with the best view I have ever experienced of the snow-capped Ruapehu. We were able to enjoy this view for quite a while as we circled Tongariro National Park. Our carriage on the train was abuzz at this stage, with multiple selfies and group photos being taken. I think everything got even more social at this juncture.

The stunning view of Ruapehu continued even as we entered the Rangipo Desert, which is home to Waiouru Military Camp. The wild tussocks, although bleak, had their own style of drama.  

My favourite leg of the journey started south of Taihape, where we were treated to the amazing papa cliffs of the Rangitikei River, a geologist’s paradise (so I am told by my son). Comprised of soft sandstone, the gorge created by the river is narrow and very steep with many hair pin turns. The train passes through this amazing landscape via five towering viaducts which were awe-inspiring. Two of these original iron truss viaducts were built in the early 1900s. Our height-challenged Grandma offered up her window seat at this stage, but we simply told her to close her eyes.

The final part of the trip took us through the lovely coastal cliffs of the Kapati Coast, before we went through a long tunnel that put us inside the Wellington basin. Coming into Wellington at 6:30pm and after dark, we were treated to a landscape of twinkling city lights. 
For anyone looking for an adventure, I cannot recommend the Northern Explorer enough. It is truly a great way to experience the beauty of the North Island.

Pictured: Mount Ruapehu is one of the many breathtaking sites passengers on the Kiwi Rail Northern Explorer experience.


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