The Steam Dreams Rail Co is running a 3 week tour of New Zealand in Autumn 2021. See the online brochure for more info. This blog reveals how the 12 day research visit in October 2019 panned out.
“Would you like to go to New Zealand to do a site visit to scope out the Kiwi Explorer?”
My heart skipped a beat. Me? Go to New Zealand? But I have 4 jobs, 2 kids, a dog and a husband.
“Yes. We need to see the decision makers at KiwiRail face to face. We need to meet the steam loco owners, the owners of the carriages, see the carriages, see hotels, research excursions, look into catering. There’s lots to do and we can’t just do it over the phone or by email. Sometimes you need to look people in the eye and know that they will deliver.”
So, after much discussion (and pleading with husband, children and clients) I researched flights, set up meetings and planned the route, said goodbye tearfully (to the dog) and I was off to Gatwick on the start of a 40 hour journey to Auckland. It was a long journey as it was broken up by stopovers along the way – cheaper than going direct – and actually fine once I got into travelling (without children) mode. I could eat/sleep/watch films whenever I wanted. Bliss.
I had a wonderful few days with lifelong friends in Auckland, who showed me the sights, took me to Waiheke Island (to be highly recommended), took me to a street market in Takapuna, and gave me blisters and sore stomach muscles (from the walking and the laughing). I managed to get over any jet lag in record time.
Auckland is a small city, tiny compared to London, but strangely familiar thanks to the high rise buildings , the hustle bustle feel, the endless construction sites and the cosmopolitan outlook. The surprises (to me, having never been to New Zealand before) were that Auckland offers great modern food, has a positive, yet laid-back vibe and a large port taking up much of the prime waterside real estate. Walking around Auckland and its leafy suburb of Devonport with my ex-pat friend, Clare, who’s lived there for 10 years, we bumped into a different friend of hers on nearly every corner. Everyone equally charming, friendly, open and excited to meet Clare’s English friend. I felt thoroughly welcome. Unusual for a city these days.
A Kiwi explained why the locals are so friendly. He said that they’re so grateful that you’ve come all that way, they are so proud of their beautiful nation and there are only 4 million people in the whole country – they want to welcome you, show it off to you and they are delighted to meet someone new!
They warn you to expect four seasons in one day in New Zealand. I was lucky to only experience three on my first few days – cold wind, then showers, then glorious sunshine. Taking lots of layers was good advice.
After taking a few days to settle in to the new time zone (12 hours difference to UK time during October), I met up with Marcus and Marianne to start the tour of the country including attending meetings with the great and the good of Kiwi railways. The work was about to start.
Marcus Robertson was the original founder of Steam Dreams back in 1999, and since handing over the reigns to David Buck in 2018, has been a consultant to the company on marketing and holidays, with responsibility for the Kiwi Explorer. He has a knack of instilling in everyone he meets his infectious enthusiasm for pulling off the impossible.
Whether it’s the chap serving coffee in the corner cafe, a receptionist at the uber-smart hotel, a woman selling tickets on the harbour steamboat or the Head of Planning for New Zealand’s Network Rail equivalent (KiwiRail), Marcus is happy to share his plans for the Kiwi Explorer with anyone and everyone, and everyone is happy to listen and LOVES the idea!
Day 1 of research trip – we’re off to a good start. Meetings with hotel groups and site visits to hotels that our colleague, Judy, has already booked, go well. KiwiRail meeting in Auckland goes better than we could have hoped. We meet senior managers in planning, engineering, mechanical, technology and customer innovation. They are more than happy with our plans and are helpful, positive and enthusiastic. We leave the meeting, and despite the rain, walk on air to the car to set off on the first leg of a very long road trip.
Day 2 to follow soon…