- Depart Wellington on the early morning Northern Explorer train
- Photograph the rising sun as it ignites the countryside
- Enjoy the journey of long distance train travel
- Spy some of the North Island’s scenic, and tragic, destinations
- Feel just a little closer to Middle Earth
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We’ll be honest: Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city, but like a lot of capital cities (think Canberra, Australia, or Albany, New York State) it’s not high on most people’s itineries. This is probably unfair – indeed, there are a lot of wonderful things to do in Wellington, from a seal colony on the coastline to the artifice of Wellington as a global film-making destination. Ultimately, however, we have an early train to catch – and we kind of think that any place that calls itself “The Capital of Cool” probably isn’t.
So it’s with mixed feelings that we depart from Wellington’s impressive 1937 railway station, on the early 7.55am Northern Explorer train. Today is an epic train journey across the heart of New Zealand’s North Island – plenty of sights without even standing up. Good thing we brought snacks – in fact, grab some popcorn now and sample this 2-minute video from Kiwi Rail.
It’s only minutes into our journey that the city falls behind us, revealing a morning sun rising to the east and sparkling over the coastline to the west. The colours – blue and gold here, green in the rich grazing pastures that follow – are made for photography, and impressively so is the Northern Explorer with open-air platforms to ensure our photos (with the right shutter speed) truly do capture the countryside. If you’ve ever suffered window-glare or reflection in a travel photo, this is the train journey for you!
Some of our group have never made a long train journey before. Done well, a full day train experience can be the highlight of any trip (we’re thinking Norway in a Nutshell, or Switzerland’s Golden Pass). Done poorly (we’re thinking cattle class, London to Edinburgh) the only thing they have going for them is that a bad train experience is always better than a bad bus experience!
On great train journeys, from Wellington to Auckland, you will truly live the mantra “it’s about the journey, not just the destination”.
Here are our long distance train journey tips
- Make sure someone in the group has a window seat, so people who want can take photos
- Check in advance about powerpoints, bathroom locations, and other amenities close to your seat. You don’t want the kid’s dvd player to die halfway through, or the entire trip to smell like a railway toilet
- Buy your day’s food in advance – it will almost always be fresher and cheaper than the on board options
- You may be tempted to plan for lunch at a long stopover station – but be mindful all station food options will be swamped within moments of your train disembarking
- Understand the terrain you’ll be travelling through, to avoid tedium. Coming down into Lake Como is spectacular; Siena to Rome sounds gorgeous, but you will want something else to keep you occupied!
The Northern Explorer train provides some commentary about the main North Island attractions that you pass along the way. Some, like the post marking where the Wellington to Auckland train lines met during construction, will whiz past; others, like the Mt Pirongia at 959 metres high, will be visible long enough to take plenty of photos.
The joy of a long distance train journey is the variety of the scenery, and the Northern Explorer doesn’t disappoint. As we head through Palmerston North station, we leave the coastline behind and journey through the centre of the North Island.
Here we cross over the Tangiwai Bridge, site of New Zealand’s worst ever railway disaster when the bridge collapsed one flooded Christmas Eve. There’s the Makatote Viaduct, one of many that we cross and the highest on this journey ascending 77 metres (258 feet) into the sky.
Trainspotters, rail journey fanatics, and world-travellers love the Raurimu Spiral track. A feat of Victorian-era engineering, we descend 132 metres via two tunnels, a circle, and three hairpin bends. In a straight line it’s a 2km stretch of track, but with a gradient too severe for even modern trains; following the horseshoe route (see the picture above) takes us 6.8 kms, but avoids a 20km detour (which also would have required 9 additional viaducts be built!). The great age of trains is behind us now, which is why experiencing man-made marvels like the Raurimu Spiral is all the more enlightening. To think we could have flown over all this and missed the experience!
As night begins to fall, our train arrives at today’s destination: the city of Hamilton. There are others who will take the Wellington to Auckland train line all the way to its end point. One such traveller was Peter Jackson, who read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings for the first time on this exact train route. He said it was this train journey that made him realise how similar New Zealand’s landscape was to the middle earth of LOTR and The Hobbit.
But that’s a story for tomorrow. Tonight, after a 11 hours spent together on a train, is an opportunity to separate. Not because we need the space, but because we want to experience some of the best Bed & Breakfast’s Hamilton has to offer. Enjoy some local Kiwi hospitality, but be warned – we have a Hobbit tour tomorrow morning, so there won’t be time for second breakfast!
Want to go? Need to know!
- You can buy Northern Explorer train tickets (Wellington to Auckland, or Auckland to Wellington) online, BUT you are best served to read this website first. The ‘Man in Seat 61’ has some tips on ensuring you grasp the best, local price when booking.
- The Northern Explorer ‘Train’ probably changes trains along the way, as diesel and electric alternate. Be sure to Check-in at about 20 mins before departure. Seats aren’t allocated when you book, but you can call Kiwi Rail ahead (0800 TRAINS in NZ; +64 4 495 0775 outside NZ) if you’re particularly keen to get a specific seat or group section.
- Another popular stop for those breaking the Wellington to Auckland train journey is Te Kuiti, home to the Waitomo glow-worm caves and the self-proclaimed “sheep shearing capital of the world”.
Have we been unfair to Wellington? Have you any other helpful long distance train advice? Please share your experience in the comments below.