The Northern Explorer train passes through some of the most picturesque spots between Auckland and Wellington. Photo by Great Journeys NZ.

Northern Explorer: train journeys and forgotten worlds


On the road to Whangamōmona, a sign, emblazoned in stark black against white declares: ‘S*** happens quickly.’ It’s meant to deter speeding motorists, but deep in the North Island King Country, I discover that the words can be read a little differently.

My journey to King Country begins in the grand atrium of Wellington’s train station. I join a queue of backpackers, retirees, families wrestling with prams and a handful of cyclists holding onto saddle-bagged bikes to board the Northern Explorer bound for Auckland.

The journey is less than an hour by air. By car, sticking to the motorways and state highways, you can do it in a little under eight. In contrast, the Northern Explorer takes 11 hours to snake its way from Wellington to Auckland.

Northern Explorer viewing carriage INP

Enjoying bucolic views onboard the Northern Explorer. Photo by Emily Draper.

It would be easy to write off train travel as an inefficient way to get from A to B. However, the views that pass by –an expanse of undulating hills, dark tunnels, glittering ocean harbours and awe-inspiring viaducts – makes me think doing so would be missing the point.

After lunch on board, I disembark in the sleepy town of Taumarunui, where I am met by Scott, my host for the evening. On the way to Omaka Lodge we stop at a lookout where Scott tells me about the town’s history. Taumarunui’s centre consists of four main streets that once heaved with local commerce. Taumarunui Hospital was once home to a leading orthopaedic unit, now hosting a meagre 10 beds. Centralisation, electrification and the loss of lifeblood key industries like coal and forestry have taken what was once an epicentre of Kiwi industry from boom to bust.

It's not all doom and gloom. The Forgotten World region now boasts three canoe companies, granting adventure-seekers access to the mighty Whanganui River. Forgotten World Adventures offer tourism packages that include rail carts, jet boats, helicopter rides and fine dining. Recent years have also seen artisans move into the region, setting up flower farms, berry orchards and more. My hosts are also newly-minted residents, moving to Taumarunui eight years ago to set up the bed and breakfast.

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The lovely garden at Omaka Lodge in Taumarunui. Photo by Emily Draper.

And what a bed and breakfast it is. Purple hydrangeas frame the driveway as we come to a cottage with a triangular roof, paying homage to the mountain peaks behind. I’m greeted with freshly-baked lemon shortcake and a friendly sniff from Millie, the cocker spaniel. The pièce de résistance is the garden: gorgeous English florals sit against a jaw-dropping vista, often used as an altar for boutique weddings. I’m not surprised to learn it’s recently been named a five-star Garden of National Significance.

The following morning, rising rested and ready, I am picked up by Kara of Forgotten World Adventures and shuttled through low fog to the rail cart line.

The rail carts themselves are a marvel: old golf carts running on 91 unleaded, refurbished to take advantage of the decommissioned stretch of railway line between Taumarunui and Stratford. The carts’ steering wheels are just for show; operation is solely by the push of a pedal. Give it all you’ve got, and you can zip through the countryside on the nylon-covered wheels at maximum speeds of about 22 km/h.

The heavy fog begins to lift as our small squadron of carts traces the line through hillsides dotted with fuchsia foxglove and flowering mānuka. 

I soon come to realise that I’ve been given the best gift in the form of my driving companion and guide: Ray is an ex-milkman, ex-mailman, and lifetime resident of Taumarunui.

Northern Explorer Emily INP

Writer Emily Draper on the Forgotten World rail carts.

He speaks with reverence about the golden age of the 1950s and 60s, when the town population peaked at 7,000 and functioned as the main centre between Auckland and Wellington. Kids across the region used the train to get to school in New Plymouth, and prohibition-era bootleggers would use the line to smuggle crates of alcohol to gentlemen’s cosmopolitan clubs, or ‘cossie clubs, Ray tells me. In its heyday, the line saw 10 trains a day – five west, five east, plus a night express train, running native timber and coal out from the region and across the country.

We travel through some of the 24 tunnels on the biggest of any rail lines in New Zealand, built by around 520 men over the course of 30 years. Cool air hits us well before we cross into darkness. The concrete is a foot thick and does a stellar job of creating the feeling of entering a large refrigerator. I understand now why my guides side-eyed my thin jumper and forced me to borrow a windbreaker. We stop in the pitch black to learn of the small bays where workers would run when a train approached. The tunnel is higher on one side, creating a faint breeze on our faces in the dark.

We continue on through Matiere, Ōhura, Tokirima, Haeo,and Tangarakau, once-bustling centres, now empty ghost towns and home only to the most stalwart holdouts.

Northern Explorer tunnel INP

One of the many tunnels on the Forgotten World Adventures rail cart journey. Photo by Emily Draper.

We stop for a picnic before venturing on. Occasionally we pass shells of vintage cars along the trunk line; at one point our journey halts when a stray sheep decides to stroll down the track. I don’t mind the pause. The entire landscape is magical with beautiful rolling hills, yellow wildflowers, the peak of Mount Ruapehu in the distance, white against clear blue sky.

The trip ends at the historic Whangamōmona Hotel, a truly authentic country pub where the locals greet each other with a raised eyebrow and a grunt before pulling up a stool.  

Having said goodbye to Omaka Lodge the next morning, I head back into Taumarunui to rejoin Northern Explorer for the final leg of my journey.

It's a full train on a hot day, so I make my way to the café for a drink before heading to the open-air carriage where a delightful breeze awaits. As the more dramatic landscape flattens into farmland and townships, I reflect on the past few days.

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Refreshments onboard the Northern Explorer. Photo by Emily Draper.

Travelling by rail forces you to enjoy the journey. The train frequently drops out of range and doesn’t have Wi-Fi; you can’t but help meet other passengers and simply soak in the passing scenery. You’re forced to hit pause on the cult of busyness.

Perhaps in our full schedules, it’s not just towns and highways we’ve forgotten – perhaps it’s also a way of living. Maybe train travel is one way we can try to remember.


 Story by Emily Draper for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Emily Draper is the Deputy Editor of AA Directions magazine. 

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