The Steam Dreams Rail Co is running a 3 week tour of New Zealand in Autumn 2021. See http://www.steamdreams.co.uk for more info.
This blog reveals how the 12 day research visit in October 2019 panned out.
As our first work day in New Zealand had been spent in meetings or site visits in Auckland, we set off from Auckland in our Nissan saloon hire car mid-afternoon. Marcus had decided to split the journey between Auckland and Palmerston North (some 320 miles) with a stopover in Hamilton. This also meant we could see Hamilton, as it might be a lunchtime stop on the Kiwi Explorer in October 2021.
As it happens, the only sight we saw in Hamilton was the fabulous Hamilton Gardens; amazing (and free to enter) landscaped gardens with a vast array of styles of garden from traditional botanic gardens to showcase gardens revealing the cultural meaning and context of gardens over the past 4,000 years.
After walking much of its 54 hectares, we were exhausted and hungry – so we checked into the super smart (yet cheap as chips) motel, flew out for something to eat (which is always necessary with me as I have a toddler-like need to be fed regularly), and then went back to the motel for an early night. Marianne had done a fabulous job of finding accommodation in all eight of our stopovers; no mean feat when trying to find rooms for all of us at short notice and on a budget.
Day 2 – up early and back in the car for the long drive to Palmerston North, via National Park. The clouds looked ominous, but somehow the day didn’t feel gloomy. The colours of the landscape were so vibrant and vivid. Like England can be as summer approaches, when we’ve had some sunshine and a fair amount of rain, trees are groaning with leaves and you can’t keep up with the mowing because the grass grows so quickly. The trees were full of leaves and emerald green, and the grass lush and knee deep everywhere except where there were sheep – and yet the landscape seemed different somehow. The hills aren’t rolling and soft like they are in England. You can sense they’ve been created by volcanic activity. They jut up into the skyline, proud and yet awkward. The road stretched on into the distance and there was space, space and more space.
Every now and then we spotted the railway line. Marcus would screech to a halt, I would jump out, take a photo or a quick video and jump back in. Every now and then we’d stop for a coffee and a bite to eat. Afghan biscuits were the Kiwi dish of the day in Taumarunui’s Copper Tree cafe – delicious, chocolaty, crumbly and moreish. Marianne couldn’t resist a couple of bags of homemade cookies from Buy the Gram, run by lovely ladies who could have sold us the whole shop. Mind you, I’m coming to realise that everyone is lovely in New Zealand.
After some hours, the landscape started to change and appeared more like moorland, with views into the distance of snowy capped mountains. We were nearing Tongariro National Park, where we’ll be stopping for two nights on Days 4 & 5 of the Kiwi Explorer in 2021. We turned off the main road and drove for couple of miles into the park itself, rounded a shallow bend and then suddenly there in the distance was a huge hotel, Chateau Tongariro.
The original hotel was built in the 20s and stands alone in the vast expanse of the national park, nestled at the foot of majestic mountains. The area offers unspoilt walks or scenic air tours – but ultimately views and stillness.
From here, we headed to the station at National Park for a quick bite to eat (my snack of choice was a savoury muffin – much maligned by TV’s Miranda Hart, but completely delicious) and then onwards towards Ohakune, for a quick view of the hotels that will host some of our passengers on the tour.
On the way to Ohakune, we made a brief detour to Horopito Motors, otherwise known as Smash Palace. Acres of land covered in vintage cars (which look more like wrecks) dating back to the 1920’s and piled high make for quite a sight!
No rest for the wicked though; a quick stop for fuel in the trusty Nissan and on our way to Palmerston North. The advice we’d been given from an operational point of view was that a stopover in Palmerston North would be a good idea. The reaction we got from every Kiwi we met, when we said we were going to Palmerston North, was at best a raised eyebrow and at worst a derisory laugh or a slightly alarmed “why?”. Even the woman at the petrol station who asked where we were off to said “What for?”
After 250 miles and all day in the car, we arrived in “Palmy”, as it’s affectionately known by some. We could see why it’s a convenient place to stop, however the sight-seeing appeal is well… not very appealing. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our brief stop here, having a light supper (thanks to Marianne) in one of the motel rooms and an early night.
We had an important day ahead – meetings with both of New Zealand’s steam train operating companies (bizarrely both organisations are based in the South West of North Island, not far from Wellington, and only 15 minutes apart by road).
Day 3 to follow…