Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Scenic Northern Explorer Railroad

Tuesday we headed to Auckland on the KiwiRail Northern Explorer – this is the train that runs from Wellington, the capital, (south end of the north island) to Auckland, the largest city (technically somewhat in the middle of the north island, but considered the north end of the north island, because you don’t count the long peninsula that is north of that, but isn’t well populated).  Got all that?

This is an incredibly beautiful train ride, one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips.  We were lucky and our assigned seats were on two sides of a table, so that we had great views and plenty of room.  (No seatmates, just the two of us with four seats.)  The train has only three passenger cars, one café car, a luggage car, and the engine – plus an open air observation car at the end, perfect for viewing the scenery.  Each car is designed with huge picture windows, again perfect for viewing everything as we chugged along.

Heading out of Wellington, we went through several long long tunnels, ran alongside the Tasman Sea and several bays for a while,  and then entered farming country – field after field of sheep, cows, even farmed deer (which just seems so wrong).  Then vineyards, and fields being plowed.  And random flowers: clumps of lavender daisies, tall Scotch broom (called “gorse” by the Scots), unexpected calla lilies, and red orange flowers that looked like paintbrushes.

The sheep – New Zealand is known for it’s wool, and the lamb.  But many farmers are switching to raising cows and exporting the milk to China.  There are still plenty of sheep, but we were told there were once over six million sheep in this country (which only this month reached 4.4 million people.)  

But I have to tell you about the sheep.  These are most chubby sheep I have ever seen – seriously fattened sheep!  Granted, many of the sheep still have their heavy wooly coats and haven’t been shorn yet.  But even the baby sheep were as wooly as a stuffed animal.  And as chubby as a stuffed animal!  

With nothing else to do, we watched the sheep.  There were the very young sheep, following around their mums, being quite docile.  There were the teenage sheep, starting mini-stampedes and bounding into the air and kicking out at each other – rather like boys playing at karate.  There were pregnant sheep trundling along, obviously wishing these babies would be born any minute now.  And there were the occasional rams, stately and proud, looking over their family and making sure this noisy train didn’t harm anyone.

The train tracks slowly carried us away from the coast and up into the central plateau, the hills less rolling and more rugged, more craggy, until we entered the Volcanic Plateau.  There are three major volcanoes, and the most recent eruption was last August.  There’s a fourth volcano far to the west, Mt. Taranaki, but we couldn’t see it.  However, the three volcanoes we did see were amazing!  The peaks were hidden in the clouds, but these definitely were majestic snow-capped mountains standing guard over the land.  (Just for the record, the volcanoes are Mt. Ruapehu, the oldest and highest; Mt. Ngauruhoe, mid-sized; Mt. Tongariro, the shortest, with several peaks; and Mt. Taranaki, second tallest, and apparently very symmetrical, like Mt. Fuji in Japan.)
I love the Maori mythology explaining the volcanoes – it’s essentially a love story, a love triangle.  The volcanoes began all the central region of the plateau.  They all fell in love with Pihanga [I think she’s the forest, but that isn’t clear] and the mountains fought with each other, erupting and blowing ash and lava into the sky.  Mt. Tongariro won, and Mt. Taranaki fled west, gouging out the Whanganui River as he went.

We rode past the volcanoes and through the national park, people pouring into the observation car for better views, braving the cold for better photos and better views.  

On and on, over rivers (HIGH over rivers!), we continued past white chalky cliffs, until we reached The Spiral.  The Raurimu Spiral is considered a feat of civil engineering, and basically allows trains to descend the 132 meter difference (over 400 feet) from the Volcanic Plateau to the Whanganui River Valley below.  It was built in 1898, as basically is a series of wide and slow switchbacks, so that the train slowly and gently zigzags down the hillside.  Considering the fact that it was built over 100 years ago, it really is amazing – and I think it might be even more impressive when one is going from Auckland to Wellington, so that you ascend the Spiral.  

Then we were on through more farming country, more bucolic scenes, small towns, happy lambs, contented cows, occasional incongruous llamas or alpacas looking strangely at home on the wrong side of the Pacific.  We saw numerous hawks and falcons, I have no idea what kind.  And a few pheasants, strutting around with their lovely tails.  Ducks, geese, swans (mostly black swans) filled ponds and streams.  And rabbits – really big rabbits!  One was bounding along looking like a smallish dog, except for the ears and tail!  

Another long tunnel, and we arrived in Auckland, complete with the Skytower (tallest building in New Zealand, where crazy people bungee jump) and universities and students from all over the region, including Asian countries.  We find our hotel, and the receptionist tells us the reason we had trouble finding a room for tonight is that Radiohead is playing tonight.  It’s a busy, bustling city, we seem to be in the Asian district (with the occasional massage parlor), and we’re off to find a campervan to rent for the next month or two.

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