The Northern Explorer

What do you get for Christmas for the man who has everything he needs? A ticket for a memorable rail journey, namely, The Northern Explorer, which takes you from Wellington to Auckland through the heart of the North Island of New Zealand.  On Friday, we set of on this journey which takes about ten and a half hours.  This sounds a lot, but in fact passes by quite quickly. The weather was…well, mixed, with sun at the start and end, and quite a bit of rain and cloud in between. Despite that, it was still an excellent trip, and we saw so much of the heartland of the North Island of New Zealand.

The train heads north up the Kapiti Coast, a journey we have done many times by road but not so many by rail.  There was an excellent early morning view of Kapiti Island as we sped past.

View to Kapiti Island

In 2016, we took the Coastal Pacific train from Picton to Christchurch (a route that was closed following the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, reopening in December 2017), so knew what to expect on this journey. A set of headphones is provided should you wish to listen to occasional commentary, though the driver also gives pointers as to what was coming up. There is a licensed café on board, and helpful staff to answer questions and constantly pick up any litter.  We only had overnight bags, but luggage can be checked in for the journey.

Looking out of viewing carriage – you can see how dry it has been
The changing landscape
Morning tea – cuppa and an Anzac Biscuit
Sheep beneath a tree

From Kapiti, the train goes to Palmerston North, and then heads into the Rangitikei region, passing by Taihape, marked by a giant gumboot (Wellington boot) – the town’s icon.   The surrounding landscape is marked by deep gorges carved out by the Rangitikei River, and is quite spectacular.

One of the gorges
Buildings from the train
Looking down from the train

From there we crossed the Central Plateau, about 800m above sea level.  The weather was not that good as you can see from the pictures, and I was glad I had a jacket for the viewing carriage.  Still, it didn’t spoil the trip that much, though the clouds obscured our views.

A rather grey day unfortunately

The train stops at a few points, and you can break your journey should you wish, staying a while and picking up the train again.  Because of the weather, we couldn’t see the three volcanic mountains, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu which was such a pity.  Anyway, between Ohakune and the stop at the National Park, there are a number of viaducts and bridges, such as the one pictured in the featured image at the top of the post.  It is quite fantastic to look down and see the land below.

Looking down

From there, we approached the Raurimu Spiral, an amazing piece of Victorian engineering that loops around on itself to overcome the 132 metre height difference encountered on the rail line. It is a single-track  6.8m spiral that loops around on itself, which in a straight line is just 2km.  This ‘engineering masterpiece’ is designated as a significant engineering heritage site by The Institute of Professional Engineers in New Zealand.

Going round the spiral
Looking ahead

From there we headed towards the Waikato and Hamilton.  The weather was still a bit grey, but began to clear a bit the further north we got.  I think it is a good idea to have a play list, podcasts downloaded or an audio book to hand, to listen to as you travel through the countryside.  I didn’t want to read, but found having something to listen to a good idea.  Note that there is no wifi on the train, for obvious reasons given the nature of the terrain the train goes through.

Heading north

Food can be purchased on board, with a decent range of things, though if you have special requirements, it is probably best to bring your own.  I had sandwiches for lunch, and Karl a hot pie, and later in the trip we treated ourselves to a wine.

Wine time

The next stop was Hamilton, which seemed to attract all the anoraks, out to spot the train coming through.

Train spotters

As we moved north to Auckland, the sun came out.  The skies turned blue, and the approach to the City of Sails was just perfect. It was a great journey, and one I highly recommend if you have the time to travel this way between Wellington and Auckland.

Looking at the blue skies through the window
Approaching Auckland

You can check out the website for more information and booking details. We flew back to Wellington the next day with Air New Zealand.

You can find Thistles and Kiwis on Facebook, and also on Instagram@thistleandkiwis.  As for Twitter….am totally inactive these days.  If you want to get in touch, email me on






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