By the time we emerge from Britomart station we have covered our table in books, coffee cups and muffin crumbs. The last time I caught the Northern Explorer I set up an elaborate board game and an antipasto platter. The train is luxuriously spacious like that – a bit like travelling across the country in your own living room.
We are going to Ohakune on the main trunk line, but it doesn’t really matter where we end up. This 100 tonne-hulk of groaning, clanking steel – with its warm wood-panelled carriages and generous picture windows – is the real destination.
Even the industrial bit at the start is exciting. We pass graffiti-covered shipping crates and old trains, rusty car yards and factories puffing white steam. In South Auckland, we can see right over fences into yards crowded with trampolines, swing sets and washing lines. It must be a bit annoying to live here, I think, and have strangers seeing your knickers hanging in the wind each day.
The windows are like huge flat-screen TVs, and for the next few hours it’s prime viewing.
Suburbs blossom into farmland and I’m suddenly glad it’s winter. The low morning sun casts a gold polish over the land, making the colours of the Waikato pop. At Taupiri, a Saturday morning rugby game has brought half the town to the school field, while the mountain behind them, dotted with gravestones, keeps score.
Nine out of ten people on the train are tourists. You can just tell. An Italian family is sitting across from us and they’re not speaking English, but we can hear their voices rise in pitch whenever we pass something of note – such as swishy-tailed lambs running away from the train.
The windows are like huge flat-screen TVs, and for the next few hours it’s prime viewing: boggy wetlands thick with mist, tiny settlements dotted with railway cottages. Sometimes the train squeezes through tight crevices and the banks either side seem close enough to touch, then suddenly the land bursts wide open, offering boundless views over valleys and pine forests. We snooze and read and miss bits, knowing we’ll have a chance to catch it all again tomorrow.
People have been travelling the main trunk line for over a century, but the journey wasn’t always so comfortable. For decades passengers had to get off the train at midnight, swarming Taumarunui station for a pie and weak tea. These days, there’s a dining carriage serving Wishbone meals and a bar if you fancy a beer with your lunch, which we do.
Headsets provide commentary for those who want it, and I pop mine on in time to hear about the Raurimu Spiral. This is the MTL’s pièce de résistance: a series of tight loops and tunnels that allow the train to overcome a steep incline. It’s quite confusing when we’re in the middle of it; I have to pull out a map to see what shape we’re making.
On reaching the tough brown planes of the Volcanic Plateau, Ruapehu becomes a constant fixture on the horizon. She rises boldly beside Ngauruhoe, both wearing white and gleaming brilliantly against the sky.
We spend the last leg in the train’s open-air viewing carriage, which is where you go to be reminded that you're moving 100km/h. It’s loud and windy and freezing cold, but the only place to be when crossing the dizzying Rangitikei gorge.
And then we reach Ohakune, which is on the cusp of the ski season and all but dead. We check into our cozy room at the Powderhorn Chateau and wander down the middle of the road, passing one lone bicyclist on the way to the Big Carrot. A swim in the hotel pool, a hot meal by the Powderhorn's open fire, and then bed. We’re just filling in time really, counting the hours until we can get back on the train.
Reported by Alice Galletly for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue