As somebody who makes a living (and loves) driving people around New Zealand, it’s hard for me to admit it, but Kiwirail Scenic’s Northern Explorer train ride between Auckland and Wellington is an incredible experience.
Before taking the ride, I viewed an all day train journey through the central North Island as something that took up too much time and didn’t allow you to see enough of the country. Obviously you can’t just pull over and stop for a photo or take an interesting looking detour when the mood takes you. What you can do though, is completely relax and immerse yourself in the views and enjoy the service of the friendly and attentive crew.
I did the journey as a very quick return trip between Wellington and Auckland. We departed from Wellington Railway Station on time at 7.55am, arriving in Auckland a few minutes early at about 6.45pm. I stayed a 5 minute walk from the Britomart Transport Centre, and found a quiet pub for dinner (Sunday roast!) before retiring early. The next day I was up early again, enjoying a quick cafe breakfast at Britomart before boarding the train for my 7.50am departure back to Wellington. Again we ran on time, arriving back in Wellington at 6.25pm, just in time for dinner.
Our train was made up of the diesel locomotive, two passenger cars, a dining car/cafe, a luggage car and the excellent outdoor viewing car. I imagine it gets busier in the summer but my winter trip had enough spare seats that every solo traveller had a window, and every couple or group had a 4 seat table. Every seat has a mains power outlet, a folding tray table, and a headphone jack & supplied headphones to provide very interesting commentary. The windows are huge, and clean on the inside (pretty good on the outside too, considering the elements). If I had to sit still, I’d get uncomfortable in my seat, but there is total freedom to move around between the cars, to the cafe and outside for photos. The toilets were nicer than I expected
and always clean.
I had a different on board crew for each journey and both teams were great. All the boring safety stuff was dealt with nicely over the PA, and information about the amenities and services was easy to understand. The crew came through the cars frequently, and I loved that we could order food and drinks from our seats or at the counter. You can start a tab with your first order of the day and settle it before the end of the ride. If you were ordering drinks the tab could get a little large, so keep an eye on that! The menu was basic but the food was tasty and good quality, offering something for most dietary requirements. Here’s the menu they had on my trip.
The crew also gave plenty of notice when there was a good photo opportunity coming up. I always had plenty of time to go to the outdoor car and get some shots.
The views you get on this journey are breathtaking. I love New Zealand scenery and I enjoy showing my clients the very best of the views from our highways. On this ride I was reminded how stunning New Zealand really is. When I’m driving I obviously can’t take my eyes off the road to take long views at a river or a mountain, so it was refreshing for me to see it as the client does. My return journey from Auckland had excellent weather and we were gifted with clear blue skies as we came through the North Island’s volcanic Central Plateau. Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and Mt Ruapehu (used for Mordor in the same films) had a good coverage of snow on the upper mountain, vividly contrasting against the green forested foreground as we approached. The Rangitikei River section of the journey has the most awesome viaducts, crossing far above the steep sided cliffs that have been carved out by this mighty river. The Rangitikei was one of several rivers used in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring to portray the River Anduin as the Fellowship left Lothlorien. The rolling hills of the Waikato farming region just outside of Auckland is worth mentioning, with the mists clearing as the day warmed up to reveal New Zealand’s biggest dairy farming region.
I always thought the cost of taking the train meant missing out on too many other things. The truth is, every time we make a choice, we have to give something else up. In this case, the trade off is worth it. Not just train enthusiasts, but keen photographers and nature lovers will also enjoy the Northern Explorer.
If you are travelling New Zealand independently and you intend to drive via the middle of the North Island, you should seriously consider the Northern Explorer. The best part is that nobody has to drive and everybody gets to enjoy some of the best views in the world as you sit back with a coffee or a wine, and perhaps a book. I even took a couple of naps on the ride, something that doesn’t work in the car! If you are interested in booking a private tour of New Zealand with me, we could very easily work this into an itinerary, while still having the option to drive back up or down the North Island on a different route. For example on my North Island Middle-earth Film Location tour, we could add a day at the start of the tour to take a train from Auckland to Wellington. This might be a fun way to ease into your time in New Zealand.