Waking to the warmth of sun on my face and strands of lose hair across my cheek, I blink in the passing scenes. The green hills roll across the glass.
I wipe the wisps of hair away, before realising they aren’t mine. They belong with the rest of the waves covering the small face buried into my chest.
Gentle snores disappear beneath the sound of juddering wheels on the train track.
At some stage, while encouraging Hazel into a midday nap to counteract our early wake up, I fell asleep too.
I relish the fact my five-year-old is actually midday napping, and take the moment of prized peace to soak in the scenes of the central North Island. Vibrant farmland spills as a backdrop from the windows of the Northern Explorer beneath an almost cloudless Sunday sky.
It has been five hours since Hazel and I boarded the train, just before 8am at Wellington station.
Now we’re about halfway through our trip to Auckland, just the two of us, on a day-long adventure crossing New Zealand farmland and sliding through country towns.
Other passengers, like me, sit and absorb the scenes with quiet satisfaction, appreciating a day away from the usual routines. Today they, too, have acquired the duty to simply just be.
For someone who isn’t fond of driving long distances, today’s train journey is a relief. It means I can switch my eyes from the road to the pages of my book, or walk to the communal lounge lined with brown sun-touched leather seats. It means I didn’t have to spend extra money on accommodation for a halfway stop off, or that I’ve had to calm a grumpy child imprisoned in her carseat. It means no time was lost on what would feel like a hundred toilet stops.
It means I can let my thoughts drift to the clouds that are pulling their way across the tips of native trees.
I can enjoy the time with my daughter and hold her as she sleeps, taking in the warmth of her and noticing that even as she sleeps she manages to clutch a small plastic pony. It also means I can contemplate a beverage with a shade of alcohol to accompany the sunset.
Above the door leading to the toilets is a screen showing the North Island speckled with the names of small towns; a black track carves its way upwards.
We’ve already stopped at stations in Palmerston North and Ohakune, and our next stop is the much anticipated Tongariro National Park, which comprises the big three: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. For guests keen to learn about the 500,000-year-old mountains, a GPS-triggered audio commentary is available in five languages.
I realise that no matter how old you are, or if you’ve lived amongst New Zealand’s scenery your entire life, the sight is always a little special.
Suddenly I feel a small elbow dig into my ribs as Hazel shuffles awake. She checks that her lunchbox is still on the table top beside half-filled colouring books and a collection of crayons. Fortunately, I packed an entire bag of entertainment for the trip.
Along with a never-ending supply of food and drink, Hazel is also kept occupied by a small purple camera. Now, for what feels like the hundredth time today, she wants to go back to the outside viewing platform, where the wind rushes through the open sides and brings the smell of farmland and smoky rails. She drags me by the hand, through carriages and past now-familiar faces, wiping the strands of fallen hair from her face.
Reported by Cloe Willetts for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue
The Northern Explorer operates six days a week, departing Wellington on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, and Auckland on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.