Chateau Tongariro, Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand – March 28, 2018
It was a drizzly, and sometimes rainy, morning. As soon as the taxi dropped us off at Platform 9, we got into the queue to check-in for the journey. The woman at the ticket counter gave us our tickets; Carriage D, seats 12A and 12B. We tagged our bags to our final destination, National Park, and delivered them to the baggage carriage.
Our seats faced two others with a table in between. Luckily our seats looked to the front of the train. It was the same configuration we had when we traveled on the Tranzalpine from Greymouth to Christchurch in February 2016. The seats are excellent except for the fact that it is impossible to stretch one’s legs if another passenger is sitting across.
I have always been fascinated with locomotives. The 7000-series model that was preparing to pull our train is one of the largest of the KiwiRail fleet. While it is impressive, it is nowhere near as aerodynamic as the locomotives used in Spain to pull the bullet trains. Regardless, I knew it would do just fine for our journey.
When I originally purchased the tickets for our trip, I also bought two breakfast wraps and two long-black coffees. Talking with the woman in the dining carriage, I discovered she would be able to serve as soon as the train departed. Since that was just a few minutes away, I decided to stand and wait.
While I was waiting, I noticed several KiwiRail workers outside the train pushing empty shopping carts. They bring carts full of food and beverages from the storage area to the train to stock the dining carriage. When I walk to work from the train station, I had often seen the workers coming from a small warehouse in the train station building along Featherston Street. I had always thought they were stocking the restaurant in the train station building. That morning, I discovered the true nature of their business.
Just as she had promised, the attendant provided the wraps as the train departed, 07:55. The coffees were not quite ready. She said she would bring them to our seats.
I went back to our seats. Leslie and I both tucked into a delicious breakfast wrap of scrambled eggs and ham. While it may not have been haute cuisine, it was delicious. When the coffee arrived, the circle of our happiness was complete!
Above the aisle in the carriage were several video screens. The screens displayed a view of the North Island. The route of the train was visible, stretching from Wellington to Auckland. Our stop, National Park, was roughly halfway. We were to reach our destination in just over five hours. Quite frankly, I was delighted we were not going to Auckland. I am not sure I could have lasted an additional five hours.
Periodically, the video emitted a bell tone. That indicated an audio commentary was available. Each seat had a pair of headphones. One could plug in and listen to the explanation in a variety of languages. I listened a couple of times. While it was interesting, I spent most of the time talking with Leslie and watching New Zealand pass by the train.
By the time we reached the Tasman Sea coast, the rain had stopped. It was still cloudy, but not raining. I walked to the rear of the train to take photos. The last carriage is for observation. That carriage has no windows. That translates to photographs with no reflection from the glass. That said, it was very challenging to take photos while the train rumbled and bounced along at about 60 mph.
The good news is the observation carriage was nice and cool. The passenger carriages were intolerably hot. The internal temperature only got worse once the cloud cover cleared.
Even though the clouds were still quite low, Kapiti Island was easily visible. The dark, dreary photo I made sets the tone for what the weather we experienced. That lasted until we passed the Otaki stop. From then on, we had beautiful blue skies with a few clouds.
The Northern Explorer made two stops before our stop; Palmerston North and Ohakune. Other than that, awe-inspiring expansive sheep stations (ranches) and magnificent river gorges provided a visual treat. I am still amazed at how much of New Zealand is such a beautiful green.
The river gorge that was my favorite had to be Rangitikei. The white cliffs against the azure-green water were beautiful. The fact that the train crosses the canyon on a high viaduct adds to the stunning perspective.
As we rattled through Taihape, I caught a glimpse of the large gumboot sculpture. Taihape is the home to the annual North Island championship gumboot throwing. The competitors throw rubber boots as far as they can. The best throw I could find for women was Kristen Churchward’s 34.35 meters (113 feet) in 2016. The best throw I could find for men was Brent Newdick’s 48.5 meters (159 feet) in 2015. That is quite a distance for a rubber boot to travel!
Nearing Waiouru, we got our first glimpse of Mount Ruapehu, one of New Zealand’s active volcanos. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most active; Ruapehu rates a 1. That is the same level we encountered with White Island when we were at Ohope Beach. New Zealand lists twelve volcanos; Ruapehu and White Island are the only two considered currently active.
In addition to being an active volcano, Mount Ruapehu is the highest point on the North Island at 2,797 meters (9,177 feet). In Maori, Ruapehu means “pit of noise” or “exploding pit.” It last erupted on September 25, 2007. Our destination, the Chateau Tongariro, lays at the base of Ruapehu.
After our stop at Ohakune, we crossed two spectacular viaducts; Hapuawhenua and Makatote. Hapuawhenua dates from about 1907. At its highest point, the 284-meter (932 feet) viaduct is 45 meters (148 feet) above the bottom of the gorge. The Makatote is not quite as long, 262 meters (860 feet), but it is taller at 79 meters (259 feet). They both demonstrate just how rugged the terrain can be in New Zealand.
It was about 13:15 when we arrived at National Park. I did not realize it until I wrote this blog, but National Park is the highest urban township in New Zealand (825 meters or 2,707 feet). Waimarino was the original name for National Park. In Maori, it translates to “calm waters.” In 1926, the railway changed the name to National Park.
Workers laid the foundation stone for the Chateau on February 16, 1929. As part of a government subsidy, the Chateau could not cost less than £40,000 nor more than £60,000. The other stipulation was that the project must be completed by March 31, 1930. The final cost was £88,000. It was a spectacular facility and setting for the time. To put those numbers into perspective today, it would be a range of £2,363,600 (US$3,312,569) to £3,545,400 (US$4,968,877). The final price equates to £5,199,920 (US$7,287,652).
Our room was nice. It was spacious, but most importantly, it had a gas fireplace. We placed our luggage in the room and went outside to explore. We ended up at Tussock, a restaurant about 100 meters north of the Chateau. We had a glass of wine on the front terrace, overlooking Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. They were beginning to be obscured by clouds.
Mount Ngauruhoe is the taller of the two at 2,291 meters (7,516 feet). Ngauruhoe translates as “the peak of Uruhoe.” Mount Tongariro is a mere 1,978 meters (6,489 feet). Tongariro translates as “south wind borne away.” They are both volcanos. Ngauruhoe last erupted on February 19, 1975. On the other hand, Tongariro’s last eruption was much more recent, November 21, 2012.
All three mountains; Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro, played parts in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They and the surrounding area were the shooting location for parts of the movie depicting Modor’s Gorgoroth region. Ngauruhoe, although digitally altered, played the role of Mount Doom. It seems that nearly anyplace one goes throughout New Zealand; parts of the films were made there.
The real draw to the area is the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is a one-way hike of about 19 kilometers (12 miles). Since parking at the trailhead is limited, shuttles take hikers to the start and then meet them on the other side. The trail begins at about 1,100 meters (3,609 feet), climbs to a high point of 1,900 meters (6,234 feet), and finally descends to the finish at a little more than 700 meters (2,297 feet). According to a brochure at the Chateau, the crossing takes six to eight hours. If Leslie and I had tried it, I am confident it would have been more like six to eight days, not counting the helicopter rescue!
After speaking with staff in the iSite, instead of the “long” walk, we opted for a couple of shorter walks; the ridge walk and the Whakapapa nature walk. It was a little drizzly while we walked, but it was not uncomfortable.
Just outside the iSite was a commemorative stone. That is when I realized the Tongariro National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I can see why. The park is beautiful, gifted to the people of New Zealand by a Maori chief in 1887. Visiting the park makes the 20th World Heritage Site Leslie and I have been fortunate enough to visit. Regardless, that is not much of a dent in the over 1,000 sites worldwide.
The ridge walk begins just beyond the iSite. The sign indicated it was a 1.2-kilometer return (roundtrip) walk, taking about 30 to 40 minutes. Nearly half of the trail goes through a forest. The remainder winds through alpine shrubland. On the way up, it is definitely up. We frequently stopped to gain our breath. Just after we began, a young man passed us, going up the trail. We were about one-third of the way up when he passed us again, going down the path. I assured him we would make the summit in time for dinner. The end of the trail offered a commanding view of the Chateau and the land around. The low cloud cover limited our sight.
Whakapapa nature walk was much, much more manageable. It is a sealed trail that winds through some of the beech forests. There were plaques near plants identifying many of the species and describing the plant. However, my favorite part was the two detour trails I took. Both led me down to the Whakapapanui Stream. I thought it provided some excellent photographic opportunities.
That evening we splurged, opting for dinner in the Ruapehu Room. We selected the Chateau Briand for two. I do not think I had ever had that before. I would definitely have it again. It was delicious.
The next morning, Leslie was not feeling well. I walked up the road to a small store to see if I could find something like Pepto-Bismol. They had nothing of the sort. On my way to the store, I saw the old building across from the Chateau was open. I had not previously seen it open. The sign out front touted “authentic Maori art.” I went inside. I immediately saw two massive logs lying on the floor. They were being carved for a display in the area. The wood had a diameter of nearly three feet, and each was about 12-feet long. The carving was very intricate, with numerous Maori themes. The man I talked with about the project said it takes them about four months to complete the two sculptures. There were some art objects for sale, but nothing interested me.
At about 12:15, a woman from ROAM picked us up at the chateau for our short ride to National Park to catch our train. When we arrived at the station, she explained that the station has absolutely nothing to do with the train. Instead, it is a restaurant. Our ticketing and baggage would be handled right at train-side.
The train was a few minutes late, but soon we were on our way south. At the start of this blog, I waxed poetically about the romance of riding the rails. Quite frankly, that had worn off for both of us. After all, with a plane ride of a similar duration, we could be in Tahiti. We were tired and ready to be home.
Our seats on the return journey were in Carriage D, 7C and 7D. These were much more comfortable than on our initial trip. These seats were akin to airline seats in that they all faced forward and they all had trays stored in the seatbacks. We were able to stretch our legs out with no problem.
The only problem we had to endure again was the heat in the carriage. We were both amazed at the number of passengers wearing heavy jackets. Regardless, the time seemed to pass quickly. We were back in Wellington by 18:30.