Wellington, NZ to Otorohanga, NZ

3.6 mi / 8.0 mph / 184 ft. climbing
Home: Stuart and Tae’s AirBNB

As we wheeled our bikes out to the street in the darkness, our AirBNB hosts continued their above-and-beyond by coming outside from their warm glowing house to give us more fresh-baked sweets, and a bag of pineapple chunks (and an offer to keep an eye on our bikes while we ran back to grab our bags to load!) That certainly made heading off in the dark a little easier, and while traffic on our pre-dawn crossing of Wellington to the train station was far busier this time than it had been for our New Year’s even-earlier ride to the ferry terminal, it was still fine. Until we got to the last couple blocks, and something about the time or topography inspired Wellington’s famous winds to suddenly explode into us. We dismounted and walked the rest of the way, but it was still a challenge to keep the crosswind from blowing the bikes over, and simply getting Rett’s helmet removed (to keep her brim from tugging her neck off) was a careful and stress-filled operation between the two of us.

Fire at dawn above Wellington’s harbor, just before the winds descended.

After taking three local trains around the Wellington region over the last week, we were now getting on “The Northern Explorer”, another long-distance tourist train run by Great Journeys/KiwiRail, similar to the “Coastal Pacific” that we recently took from Christchurch to Picton. This is the one where bike space wasn’t available until a week after we initially wanted to travel, but in retrospect it was pretty great to be “forced” into that extra week exploring the southern end of the North Island. Our Coastal Pacific experience made me much less-nervous about the whole bikes-on-the-train bit, and it was in fact just as painless. The boarding process was a bit different at this train station where the tourist train is just one of dozens, vs. Christchurch where it was the main event. Rather than quickly checking in, sitting in the waiting room until boarding time, and then all piling on, we instead waited in a long line snaking through the station, and once checked in proceeded directly to the platform and baggage car (where, after passing up Rett’s unloaded bike, the baggage handler jokingly hopped aboard and “rode” it to its parking spot at the end of the car), and then did our “waiting” in our train seats.

The existence of the Harry Potter movies means that all the muggles now know about Platform 9¾, so at the Wellington train station they try to hide it a little more by sticking it between platforms 5-6 and 7. But of course Rett can still find it quite easily.

There was a couple already in our assigned seats, and when we pointed out their error, they moved to the seats behind us. But as they searched around for their seat numbers, we realized that they hadn’t checked in at the ticket office, and had simply boarded and taken two available seats. He went racing back to the office when we told him how the system works here, and successfully got their correct assignment. The sounded European, and in my memory, that’s how a European would expect even a long-distance train to work (or, seats would be assigned when you booked online). Which is of course the more-sensible way for trains to work, so it was informative to be reminded that the New Zealand procedures are closer to the much-maligned Amtrak boarding procedures in the US, which seem to assume that trains with their multiple cars and doors are more like single-door airplanes. Not surprising, I suppose, in this country whose car-culture is nearly as strong as the US’s, and where long-distance trains are maybe even rarer than in the US. The conductor took our tickets, something I don’t remember even happening on the Christchurch train, but obviously was necessary at this much-busier station where anyone could easily hop aboard!

Second-breakfast from our AirBNB hosts, to be eaten aboard the train.

We hadn’t really paid attention to the fact that this train trip would take seven hours, two more than our South Island trip. Maybe that’s why it felt a bit less touristy, and more like actual transportation; on the Coastal Pacific, there were people taking the train one way and then simply turning around and taking it back to their origin, but the longer times/distances on the Northern Explorer makes that prohibitive. And while it passes through plenty of nice scenery, it doesn’t quite have any “dolphins leaping through the air” highlights like the Coastal Pacific did.

Rett excited to leave me behind on her train journey to the North. (ok, or maybe this was really a leg-stretching stop where I got off while she was still snoozing).

One railfan couple near us was taking the train one way, and then flying back home; the fact that their flight from Auckland to Palmerston North cost less than the train shows that even if more people are taking this train mainly for “transportation” (like us), it’s certainly not very cost-effective transportation! (US$300 for the two of us plus bikes).

Rett looking down to a river valley crossed by one of the many tall viaducts on the Northern Explorer route.
We wish that more roads were built with tall viaducts like this to keep us from having to dive down to the river and then climb back up!

The train goes right through the town of National Park, where we had stayed for five nights when we hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Luckily we had stayed there long enough to see clear views of the three volcanoes, because today we got nothing; they were completely covered in clouds. I felt bad for the people going through the Volcanic Plateau for the first time, since it’s one of the main highlights of the route!

Despite the less-thrilling route, Rett spent more time being a “tourist” on this train, vs. reading/media. These trains have regular “point of interest” segments played over headphones, and she listened to most of them, and then kept an eye out for whatever they were talking about. That engagement made it a lot more fun for me then too.

The South Island train had the pink salt fields, here we got an unusual yellow crop of something.

The railfan couple was especially interested to see/ride the Raurimu Spiral, an “engineering masterpiece”, though it almost seemed like they were as unclear on its actual construction as the 9-year-old girl near them, who upon hearing of a “spiral”, assumed (reasonably!) that the tracks would coil around themselves multiple times. In reality, this spiral (like most/all railroad spirals) its just a single loop back over itself, though this one adds a couple of hairpin curves on either side of the loop to additionally lengthen the tight area in which it has to gain significant elevation (this is very similar to what I do when I zig-zag back and forth on my bike on really steep roads to effectively lower the grade). The concept is cool, and there was a point where we could see where we were crossing over a tunnel that we would soon be passing through, but I feel like watching a train from above and being able to see the whole route might be better than being enclosed within a carriage tied to the rails. However, while railway spirals aren’t especially rare around the world, it’s certainly the first time I’ve circled one myself, and the Raurimu Spiral is one of only a handful with its own Wikipedia page, so that presumably means it’s pretty special!

Seeing the back end of our train as we do a tight curve around the Raurimu Spiral.
Getting into “King Country”, we really began seeing the not-quite-spectacular but still gorgeous green hills of New Zealand that we love so much, and that told us our date at Hobbiton in the Shire is not far away!
More Shire-like hills.
The back end of our train as it leaves us at Otorohanga.

One other family got off with us at the small town of Otorohanga, presumably also on their way to Waitomo Caves and/or Hobbiton. A short but uphill ride took us out to our old, cheap, but great-value motel, one with a full kitchen big enough to be an eat-in kitchen!

Looking out the window above our bed, I saw a small flock of sheep, and then a 12-year-old kid who came from the house above and was literally counting sheep, though not to help himself go to sleep. Satisfied with his tally, he sprinted to close a gate (presumably concluding that none were outside the gate). But, then minutes later he transformed from dutiful farm-hand to goofy kid, opened the gate again, hopped on the back of one of the sheep, and rode it around, chasing the other sheep in various directions. After dismounting he proceeded to have a battle of wills with his steed, with both man and beast feinting charges at each other. Ahh, fuckin’ New Zealand!

This kid is apparently training for a career in mutton busting in North America (despite all the sheep, I don’t think kids-riding-sheep is actually thing in New Zealand!)
Lamby saying hi to one of her friends hanging out right behind the wall of our bedroom, once the kid had left them alone.

Day 2

We had two nights booked here on the edge of Otorohanga, and then would ride 10 miles to Waitomo for three more nights there. Yesterday afternoon, when the train dropped us in the center of Otorohanga, we hit the grocery store to get two nights of food, and then would restock as we passed the store again on our way to Waitomo. Except..the day we head to Waitomo is Good Friday, and New Zealand seems quite serious about the Easter holidays! All major grocery stores are closed on both Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday is also a school holiday. This meant I needed to ride back into town today to stock up in advance of the closures. And the fork that the holidays threw into our spokes is actually more-significant than the annoyance of an unexpected grocery run: Waitomo doesn’t even have a proper grocery store, so we had been expecting to depend more on restaurants there, but those had limited openings too. So today we essentially needed to buy enough food to keep us fed until we were sure to again have access to an open grocery store, which wouldn’t be until Monday, four days from now! That’s a “crossing a desert” level of food-stocking, which is happening to us in this relatively-populated area just due to an unfortunate combination of the holidays and the small Waitomo Caves gateway “town” that we’re going to. Well, at least I realized that the stores were closed tomorrow, otherwise we really would have been in trouble!


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