From Auckland to Christchurch via Wellington
02.12.2013 - 04.12.2013
Trains in New Zealand have been in decline for some years and the mainlines are now mainly used by freight. Two years ago KiwiRail relaunched its Scenic services just for train geeks like me, complete with luxury carriages with huge windows, audio commentary and a viewing car. The longest of these is the trip from Auckland to Wellington, which takes 10 hours and I was lucky enough to have glorious weather from start to finish.
In order to ascend 139 vertical metres to the plateau of Tongariro National Park, engineers devised the Raurimu Spiral (see geektastic diagram here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RaurimuSpiral.jpg) meaning the tracks loop back on themselves during the climb. Ruapehu (more famous for its role as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films) was shrouded in cloud but still impressive.
Having descended from the plateau there are several impressive viaducts and cliff faces, as Middle Earth rolls past the window.
The approach in to Wellington along the coast was stunning in the early evening light.
Te Papa (roughly translating as Our Place) is the huge Museum of New Zealand and a really thoughtful presentation of the history of the country. After a couple of educational hours I took the cable car (actually a funicular railway, not that I'm pedantic about these things) to the top of the Botanic Gardens, followed by a beautiful walk back down.
Early next morning I took the Cook Straits ferry to the South Island. As you approach the Marlborough Sound it's impossible to see where the boat can get through as a wall of rock looms. Then you find yourself in a stunning network of bays carved by the river.
The harbour is a short walk from the railway station where I boarded the second scenic train, taking me to Christchurch along the pacific coast, catching my first glimpses of the Southern Alps.