The Northern Explorer is one of the great journeys of New Zealand, an Auckland to Wellington train trip on the North Island’s main trunk line. Join us as we experience the scenery, service and serenity of train travel through this beautiful country.
Despite having had several of New Zealand’s great rail experiences on our wish list for over a decade, way back when we still lived there, we’ve only recently taken our first Kiwi Rail adventure.
If you’ve been around here long you’ll know how much we love train travel. We never miss the opportunity for a new rail adventure, whether it’s a super-fast bullet train across Japan, a heritage steam train into a hot spring valley or floating over small towns in a hanging monorail on the way to Enoshima. Why then, has it taken so long for us to do a long-distance train trip in New Zealand?
In reality, we just never got the plan to fit together. This year when we started planning to visit both Auckland and Wellington we knew it was the perfect opportunity to include the Great Journeys of NZ – Northern Explorer. We’ve driven up and down the North Island many times over the years and were excited to see how the train trip would compare.
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The Northern Explorer journey
Our tickets were pre-booked online so when we arrived at the Auckland station we only needed to exchange our booking voucher for seat tickets and drop our tagged suitcases at the luggage car to be stored.
The luggage compartment can’t be accessed by passengers during the trip so you know your gear is secure and you don’t need to fuss with it. Just make sure you have anything you might need during the trip in your small cabin bag. The check-in process was fast, smooth and welcoming and we were settling into our seats within a few minutes of waving goodbye to the family.
The Northern Explorer runs in each direction 3 times a week. From Auckland on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, then back from Wellington on the Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
At the Auckland end you leave from a dedicated stop on the city fringe, our train was ready and waiting when we arrived so we collected our tickets, tagged up our bags and found our seats in the first carriage behind the open-air viewing deck.
Seating and facilities
Specific seats can’t be pre-booked but generally, couples are seated in pairs of forward-facing seats, these have tray tables and good legroom plus a baggage rack above for light items. Families or groups that book together can share a 4-person booth facing each other with a table between them.
The train has a capacity for 198 passengers and on the day we travelled it would have been very close to full. We were seated in a booth and had it to ourselves for part of the trip with another couple joining us at Hamilton. This leaves a bit of a dilemma on how you divide the seating.
We had been allocated window seats (1A and 2A) which was disappointing for the couple arriving later who both had an aisle seat on their ticket and it also meant we would have to ask to be let out every time we wanted to go to the cafe car, outdoor viewing or bathroom. We swapped so each couple had a window and aisle seat and soon got chatting together. Although it did mean having less room to spread out than a standard seat it was also an opportunity to swap travel stories and pick up some tips on Wellington.
The train is kept immaculate throughout the trip. The team came around regularly collecting rubbish so you were never sitting on an empty cup for long and the bathrooms were cleaned frequently throughout the day. It was a fairly small staff carrying out all the duties so they were on the go non-stop and you got to know them. They were all excellent, friendly and very knowledgeable about the train and regions we were passing through.
I have to give a special mention to Simone though, she was there to greet us at check-in, stopped by regularly during the trip and was still looking fresh as a daisy when we arrived in Wellington in the early evening.
The configuration of the train has 7 sections. The engine is followed by the open-air carriage, passenger car A, passenger car B, the cafe car, passenger car D and finally the luggage car. At the front of each of the 4 main carriages are toilet facilities, these are a decent size for those dealing with children and are set up for wheelchair accessibility.
Eating and drinking along the way
You can walk through to the cafe car at any time and either take items back to your seats or use the seating in there while you eat or drink. Alternatively, the crew walk the train regularly and you’re able to order from them directly and have food delivered to your seat, it’s an easy option if you feel a bit unsteady in the moving train.
Purchases can be made in cash or you can open a tab by leaving your credit card in an envelope in the cafe car. The reason for them running it like that rather than individual card purchases is that you’re travelling through some fairly remote countryside and a connection for the payment network isn’t always available so it’s tallied up at the end of the trip.
The food options are quite diverse with a range of more healthy options from Wishbone, full hot meals such as lamb shanks or Thai chicken curry and who can go past the ubiquitous train pie. We felt the food and drinks were priced fairly, you expect to pay a bit more in such a captive environment but they didn’t seem unreasonably marked up. You are also able to bring food and drink on board with you.
Getting even closer to the view
The carriages are designed to show off New Zealand’s scenic beauty and not simply a way to get from A to B. The picture windows allow incredible views from your seat and the sky windows above the luggage rack allow in extra light and enhanced viewing experience.
The thing I was most looking forward to experiencing was the open-air carriage. This feature turns the relaxed pace of the Kiwi Rail journey into something very unique, you just couldn’t do this in bullet train or in a more built up country.
With such incredible scenery outside the window, we found we spent an even bigger portion of the trip out there than we would have expected. It wasn’t particularly cold on the day we travelled but I’d suggest having something a bit warmer than the weather would suggest with you and for those with longer hair something to tie it up with to avoid the tangles.
The outdoor carriage is for all passengers to use freely throughout the trip. It’s designed without seats which maximise the viewing space and there’s a rail to use if you need to steady yourself. Despite a full train, it was the right sized space, it never seemed so busy that you couldn’t get a spot out there when you wanted it and was a good place to meet and chat with fellow travellers.
During the day you have the ability to move around the train freely and are even be encouraged to, it’s one of the things we love about rail travel. This car is a favourite with photographers whether they are touting oversized L lenses or their phones.
Because you’re travelling through some undeveloped parts of the country you have a spectacular view out of the window and time to connect with those you are travelling with or meet en route but you may not be connected digitally the whole time. The train doesn’t have WIFI available to passengers because of the difficulty maintaining a connection but we did have decent coverage on our Wifi2go router for most of the train journey and throughout the rest of our time in NZ.
We’ve been travelling internationally with their device and data plan for the last couple of years and find it so convenient. We usually connect both phones, both tablets and a laptop to it when we arrive in a country and then only need to remember to put it on charge in our room overnight. WIFI2GO offer our readers a discounted price of $8 per day if they mention the 2 Aussie Travellers deal when they book.
The train is set up to be accessible to those using wheelchairs.
There are dedicated spaces in the cafe carriage where wheelchairs or mobility scooters can be locked in place and an option that can be set up in a booth arrangement if travelling with other passengers.
Toilet facilities were accessible for wheelchairs or other mobility aids and the team were well tuned in to which passengers wanted regular attention or assistance and who was happy just to do their own thing.
The exception for easy accessiblity would be the open-air carriage.
What you’ll see along the way
The trip takes 10.5 hours and travels 680 km, leaving Auckland at 7.30 am and arriving into Wellington just before 6 pm.
Along the way, it passes through a variety of environments highlighting the diversity and contrasts of the North Island. Starting off in the Auckland inner-city, we travelled out along the city beaches with glimpses of Rangitoto and the Waitemata Harbour before passing behind the Orakei Basin, an 85,000-year-old volcanic crater and heading inland.
Through the next stage of the trip, you’ll pass briefly through industrial areas of South Auckland, the Manukau Harbour and start seeing rolling farmland quite early in the trip.
The mighty Waikato River is a feature for a while as you transit through the region with the train tracks running parallel to the river. It’s New Zealand’s longest river at 425 km stretching from Lake Taupo, over the Huka Falls and north to Port Waikato, south of Auckland.
In the central North Island, the train tracks run through the Tongariro National Park with stops at National Park and Ohakune stations. On a clear day, you’ll have spectacular views of the 3 mountains, Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu. The weather around the National Park is unpredictable and changes rapidly as hikers or skier will tell you. Despite great weather for most of the day the sky was ominously threatening during our brief stop.
As the train travels through the loops of the Raurimu Spiral the main thing you’ll notice is that those in the front of the train start to get glimpses of the back and vice versa but this is an impressive piece of engineering history. Back when this main trunk line was built in 1898 a major hurdle was how to negotiate the 139-metre escarpment between the valley and gorges of the Wanganui River to the west and the volcanic plateau to the east. The answer it turned out was a hairpin turn, 2 x 90 degree turns, 2 tunnels, a full loop crossing the larger tunnel and twice as much track as the distance would suggest.
Another highlight of the journey is the heritage viaduct along the banks of the Rangitikei River. The three iron truss viaducts date back to 1902 and provide stunning views of the soft mudstone cliffs and the river flowing below.
The journey wouldn’t be complete without a grand finale and the final stretch where the track meets the coast at Paraparaumu, north of Wellington, is really something special in the soft afternoon light.
The Lord of the Rings Connection
If you’re a fan of Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings film trilogy you may feel like you’re traversing through the movie set at times and its no coincidence. As a teenager, Peter Jackson took the same route from his Wellington home to Auckland. The scenery outside the train’s window looked a lot like the land he’d been reading about and already with the eyes of a filmmaker it undoubtedly influenced his planning for the movies all those years later.
During the journey, if you watch carefully you’ll see Mount Ngauruhoe the set for Mt Doom in the movies, the Rangitikei River which was one of several used in filming the great Anduin river scenes and Mt Ruapehu where the volcanic plains of Mordor came to life.
Have you seen the movies of followed his career? In Wellington, fans will have the chance to see more from Peter Jackson including a tour of Weta Studios, and the acclaimed Great War Exhibition.
Arriving in Wellington
We arrived into Wellington in the early evening, refreshed and energised to start exploring. Starting with checking into the Sofitel, our chosen hotel for this trip and heading out in search of the great foodie scene we’d been hearing so much about.
Instructions from the crew as we approached the station were very clear and simple, bags were offloaded quickly and we were on our way out through the gorgeous heritage station. The train arrives on Platform 9 and the taxi rank is right outside the nearest exit.
We had a fantastic time on this train ride. The scenery is incredibly beautiful and this is a great way to see the middle of the North Island. As train trips around the world go this one has it’s own unique draw cards, travelling through the Tongariro National Park and with the opportunity to enjoy the passing scenery in the fresh air.
It’s inspired me to push some of those other New Zealand rail trips further up our wish list. The northeast coast of the South Island and TranzAlpine, especially as the Coastal Pacific, has recently been reinstated after massive rebuilding work to the track in the wake of the earthquake damage.
We were already fans of train travel and this trip has re-enforced that even further.
We travelled as guests of Kiwi Rail on the Great Journeys of NZ – Northern Explorer.
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Monday 24th of December 2018
What a cool way to see an amazing island Toni! We spent 1 month in Opotiki and 1 month in Paekakariki earlier this year. I walked right through those very doors at the Wellington Station, which was quite the place. Reminded me of something I'd see in NYC; super old skool.
Monday 24th of December 2018
Thanks Ryan. We both grew up in the North Island and those 2 towns have some great memories from years back. Was it your first visit to NZ?