24 May 2009

You can get to Taumarunui going north or going south

Ohakune signal hut
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
Back in the days when Air New Zealand was a monopoly and air travel was prohibitively expensive, travelling by train up and down the main trunk line between Auckland and Wellington was much more commonplace than it is today. Many people have dim and possibly grim memories of cheapskate overnight journeys on the Northerner overnight train that delivered travellers to their destinations wracked with sleeplessness and crusty from a long night in uncomfortable seats. I did the Northerner twice, and memories of both trips elicit strong recollections of drunken fellow passengers boarding down the line after a long session at the pub, leaving them reeking of beer and ensuring that they lapsed into a stupor that even their window-rattling snores failed to interrupt.

The day train, however, was a much more agreeable journey. The Overlander day service isn't speedy, taking the best part of 12 hours to travel between the two cities, but it does offer splendid scenic views of the central North Island and a relaxing day spent in relative comfort. When I moved down to Wellington in January 2000 I took the Overlander, and thinking it would be a boring day I brought along the ultimate time-absorbing read: a three-volume set of The Lord of the Rings. But despite the foul weather that day that saw most of the journey swathed in rainclouds thick with precipitation, I never once opened my Tolkien. Watching the rolling countryside change from the green Waikato farms to the rugged plateau tussock and then down to the wind-swept Kapiti Coast occupied the hours with ease, and boredom was never an issue.

I'd not taken the Overlander for many years, and when it came time to plan my most recent visit to Wellington I decided it was time for a repeat journey, just in case the rail company decides to pull the service. Even now there's only three trains a week during the long winter low season, with daily service only returning in the summer months. A ticket offer meant I could travel for only $49, and conveniently placed friends and relatives meant that I could shorten the journey by starting at Paraparaumu rather than Wellington and alighting at Hamilton instead of Auckland. (Thanks to Catherine and the Woodtuckermortons!)

The Overlander journey isn't for those in a hurry - a coach ticket is probably faster and cheaper. But it's a relaxing way to spend a day and to enjoy the North Island's spectacular scenery en route, or to reach Ohakune for the ski-fields. And from the perspective of someone who has journeyed up and down State Highway 1 far too many times, it's great to be able to take the train and see a different view of the journey while someone else does the driving.

The crews are pleasant and helpful, and frequently point out details of scenery viewed from the carriage windows, or details of the viaducts and horseshoe bends of note to train buffs. This goes a bit overboard during the transit through the Raurimu Spiral, which is an impressive engineering feat but is not exactly gripping from an average passenger's perspective.

Let me reiterate that the staff were excellent... because I'd also like to sound a note of caution. Don't travel on the Overlander if the sound of Rull Kiwi Accents sets your teeth on edge. One lady mentioned on the intercom that we could view the township of Raurimu out of our left windows if we could see through the "thuck must" (yes, it was foggy), and as I neared my destination the same lady begged us to be very careful when we alighted at Hamilton station, because builders were working to refurbish the platforms. She asked train passengers to be "vujulunt", and while my Cub Scout training has taught me to maintain a constant state of vigilance (and to ensure my woggle is in good repair at all times) I had to wonder if the train's overseas passengers had the slightest clue what she was saying.
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