The Northern Explorer and Ruapehu
The Northern Explorer and Ruapehu (image: Kiwirail).

Girl on a train: the pure joy of nothingness on the Northern Explorer

In the first instalment in a three-part series on the Great Journeys of New Zealand, Madeleine Chapman travels from Auckland to Wellington on the Northern Explorer.

I watched a cow give birth. The cow, standing alone on a hillside, was facing away from me when it happened. She looked like every other cow, and as something slid out of her and splayed on the ground, she didn’t even move. Two legs kicked out, stretching, and a thick umbilical cord, red throughout, hung between the newly separated bodies. As the calf struggled to stand, both mother and child disappeared from view.

I was aboard the Northern Explorer Scenic train and my journey had just begun.

Working in Auckland with family in Wellington means I travel between the two cities more than the average person. I usually fly, though have driven a handful of times and taken the bus once.

I never knew there was a train. There is.

The Northern Explorer travels from Auckland to Wellington, and back again, three times a week. It leaves from Auckland Strand Station in Parnell, located behind the stunning former Auckland Railway Station, two more things I never knew existed. When I boarded at 7:30am on a Saturday, I assumed I was boarding an extremely long and slow 680km commute. And I thought that as if it was a bad thing.

With tickets starting at $99 the Northern Explorer isn’t the cheapest option to transport yourself from Auckland to Wellington, or vice versa. And 11 hours isn’t the quickest option. But on the Northern Explorer you don’t pay $99 for a fast commute, you pay $99 for nothing. Sweet, blissful nothingness.

Scenic train thoughts (Images: Madeleine Chapman)

I stumbled across the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” as a 16-year-old, and fell in love with the song not for its lyrics but because I liked that it sounded mournful and optimistic at the same time. Only recently, often feeling as though I’m living the life of someone much older than I am, have I realised the truth in the lyrics.

Heaven
heaven is a place
a place where nothing
nothing ever happens.

Nothing is the goal now. When everything is being crammed into every day, the best thing in the world is for nothing to happen. The Northern Explorer did an incredibly good job of making nothing happen.

Before the train had even left the station, I fell asleep. When I woke up we were gliding past Papakura. There was no turbulent take-off, no safety demonstrations, and little noise full stop. It actually took me a moment to realise we were moving.

The carriage was filled with sun, and had the feel of a conservatory, with windows stretching up the walls and across part of the ceiling. Wood panels covered the remainder of the ceiling, and the overhead baggage areas were see-through. It looked futuristic and old-fashioned at the same time. Sharing the carriage was an over-55s tour group, complete with bottles of water and snacks provided by a guide who looked like the lovechild of present day Timothy Olyphant and 1995 Val Kilmer. The passengers skewed old-fashioned, Val Olyphant skewed futuristic, and the little packets of raisins given to grown adults reminded me that life is a circle.

The Northern Explorer in the Hapuawhenua Viaduct heading south (image: Kiwirail).

At 11am, after two hours of laughing at sheep’s arses as they ran from the loud, giant snake, I made my way to the cafe carriage stocked almost exclusively with Wishbone products.

Wishbone has carved itself a niche in the food industry by becoming synonymous with hospitals, airports, and now long-distance trains. Wishbone tastes like waiting. It’s what you eat when there’s nothing else to do. I ate my soup and pie and watched a large hill get slowly closer for 15 minutes. 10/10 experience.

Back in the carriage, I had an empty seat beside me. It’s a privilege you only acknowledge when it’s gone, and one shared by every other solo traveller around me. I thought about taking out my laptop to do some work (there was a man typing away across the aisle) but decided against it.

Just because I had time didn’t mean I had to fill it. I didn’t even want to ruin the peace by listening to music. Instead, I sat in silence and watched hills, cows, sheep, rivers, and the occasional person pass by.

Here’s a list of the people that waved at us:

A boy holding his mum’s hand at the rail crossing in Otorohanga.
A girl and her dad playing in their backyard in Te Kuiti.
A man smoking a cigarette, standing next to his pet cow in Raurimu.
A man driving a quad bike with a dog standing on the back in Erua.

It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.

We all know that the North Island has beautiful rolling hillscapes and beautiful snow-capped volcanoes, but did you know that it also has a lot of beautiful, tall bridges? I did not. The semi-regular bridge crossings provided some welcome unfamiliarity in a familiar trip.

We made a short, scheduled stop in Palmerston North to pick up passengers. Shortly after, we made an unscheduled stop in Shannon. “Somebody got off in Palmerston North and didn’t get back on,” began the announcement. “So we’re now waiting here in Shannon for our long-awaited guest to arrive.” The carriage groaned but we were laughing too. It was a sunny Saturday and we had all boarded a slow-moving scenic train for an 11 hour journey. No one was in a rush. Except the man with the laptop across the aisle, who postponed a meeting.

He then consumed half an avocado and a wheel of brie in the space of ten minutes. I still don’t know what sight was more thrilling: a cow giving birth or a man eating a whole wheel of cheese with a fork.

As we rolled slowly by the final stations, passengers all down the train, almost subconsciously, spoke the names of each one out loud. Paekakariki delighted everyone in its difficulty. Porirua. Then Tawa.

“Tawa”

“Tāwa”

The word passed from passenger to passenger, mutating a tiny bit with each utterance.

“Tawā”

“Taaawaaa”

Dozens of people speaking a word for the very first time. Tawa was so new to them.

The Northern Explorer and Ruapehu (image: Kiwirail).

Tawa wasn’t new to me. Tawa meant playing cricket on an artificial pitch at Linden Park. Tawa meant going to Dressmart for sneakers and bras. Tawa meant trudging down to the post office to drop off a pile of letters because the mail for 45 Beauchamp St, Tawa, always ended up at 45 Beauchamp St, Karori. Tawa meant ordinary life.

But for many passengers on the Northern Explorer, Tawa was a brand new name for a brand new place. Anything can be exciting to someone, even when it’s nothing.

When we arrived at Wellington Train Station, the sun was still out. It seemed implausible to start and end such a long journey in the sun. Everyone disembarked the same way as the short commuters on the trains that had arrived around us. We weren’t weary travellers or tired drivers. We had simply arrived. On my walk through town I wondered if that cow and calf were doing OK.

I took the Northern Explorer from Auckland to Wellington and nothing happened. It was heaven.

Read more:

Part two – Girl on a train: to the edge of the world on the Interislander and Coastal Pacific

Part three – Girl on a train: How the TranzAlpine made me at last notice New Zealand

This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwirail. Learn more about our partnerships here


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