Palmerston North to Auckland. March 1, 2019
Just as we'd done exactly two years earlier, we set off on foot across Palmerston North to catch a train on March the first. We'd started before sunrise way back then because that train was a red-eye commuter to Wellington. This time we would be catching the Northern Explorer - a tourist train that leaves Palmerston North at a very civilised 10am.
As with last time, the day was a perfect Autumn morning. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky - I'd marvelled at this weather two years earlier and naively saw it as a portent of things to come - two weeks later we were suffering from rain induced foot rot.
I decided not to curse us with blue-sky fantasies this time, but we both noted that the longterm forecast was for dry-dry-dry. We were a bit worried that we wouldn't have water in Northland.
Taking the The Northern Explorer is a lot like tramping - it's very slow and there's not much cellphone coverage. But that's its charm. It crawls through some really rough country. It winds around the Raurimu Spiral. It crosses some dizzying viaducts.
It's bloody great.
Hiking is a low carbon way to holiday and we reckon that trains are the perfect companion for green holidaymakers. Sadly there is a bit of a stoush brewing between old-school libertarian Treasury wonks and New Zealand's new Green/Socialist(ish) government:
It's emerged that the government has forced (shock horror!) the state owned KiwiRail to backtrack on a decision to ditch its electric locomotives. According to the Treasury, a branch of government, it's the first time a state-owned enterprise has been directed by a minister to make a decision that didn't stack up commercially.
As we trundled past Ruapehu behind a belching old diesel locomotive I wondered if Treasury’s commercial cost calculations took into account the actual cost of global warming.
Speaking of environmental do-goodery - we planned to do this hike in the most low-waste way possible. Hikers generally leave a trail of smelly plastic behind them as they buy any high energy food they can to keep themselves alive on their road to emaciation. We know this because we've had about eighty of the buggers stay with us at Whiowhio Hut this season. Most arrive with thick non-biodegradable Countdown bags full of food. Most leave without realising that we debag and wash the plastic wrapping they put in our bins.
With this in mind we decided to try to buy as little plastic wrapped sustenance as we could on our trip to the top of Aotearoa.
But...things nearly came unstuck before we’d begun - as the train sauntered through the King Country, we realised that we needed a coffee fix but had left our keep cups (our fold up rubber tramping cups) in our packs.
I had a feeling that we would be out of luck as I approached the three attendants at the dining wagon's counter with a request.
“Am I right in assuming that Health and Safety rules mean that you can't sell us coffee in paper cups without a plastic lid?” I asked already knowing the answer as the train pitched violently from side to side.
“You would be very right about that,” said the more senior, largest and oldest of the three.
“What about selling me two coffees in four cups...half full so I don't spill them?” I countered pathetically without calculating that this would be more wasteful than just a standard cup with a plastic lid.
“That isn't going to fly either,” came the cautious reply.
“Bugger. I thought so. This sucks...we have almost bought no food in a plastic container for more than 18 months…” I replied as imaginary tears streamed from under-caffeinated and bloodshot eyes.
“Hey me and my boyfriend are trying to do that,” attendant two chimed in, rescuing me from a pathetic retreat to my caffeine DTs.
As I tried to figure out some sort of compromise the conversation lit up. They were all trying to do their bit. They were all worried about all the plastic we and the world were all stuck with. Apparently New Zealand Rail had just employed a couple of people to reassess the organisation's waste minimisation strategy.
Things were looking up!
Except we STILL didn't HAVE ANY CAFFEINE!
As the cafe staff saved the world, I looked amongst the plastic-boxed sandwiches and plastic-bagged cakes for a solution to my problem.
Thank you Mr Whittaker. Your paper wrapped Dark Chocolate bars were almost what the doctor ordered. I retreated to the Whiona’s table in the dining car with the solid caffeine blocks and we promised ourselves that this wouldn’t happen again.
One of the best things about the Northern Explorer is its open-decked back carriage. After snoozing through Hamilton we decided to get our money’s worth and pay it another visit.
As a golden sun sunk we rumbled into Auckland el fresco. The city’s backyards and industrial underbelly rushed past us as a cooling wind tried to take our breath away.
We were ready for another long walk.
Note: Less than two weeks after we made this trip, KiwiRail closed down the viewing platform at the rear of the Northern Explorer.
“Despite the number of signs and announcements on board our trains pointing out the dangers of this, KiwiRail have seen passengers leaning out with selfie sticks, ipads and their bodies often unaware of an approaching tunnel which could cause a tragic incident for themselves and others in the carriage.
“Outdoor carriages like these are predominantly used internationally on heritage or very slow moving trains. Our award-winning Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific and TranzAlpine trains travel through beautiful often windy topography. We are a hilly country that requires a lot of tunnels.
“We know some of our passengers will be disappointed that they will not be able to use these outdoor carriages while a solution is found. We offer our heartfelt apologies, but cannot risk a safety incident like this at any time.”
KiwiRail’s Group General Manager of Zero Harm, Katie McMahon. March 2019.
Gallery - click image to enlarge