Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Steam Train, Day Nine: Wellington to Napier

I am happy to report that I did not expel the contents of my dinner while riding the InterIslander ferry last night. Nor did I sleep, like the rest of my compatriots: I was still awake when we docked in Wellington at 1:30am. We then caught a shuttle to the hostel, and by 2am were checked into our rooms for the night. I tried to enter my room as quietly as possible, so as not to disturb the other people already asleep in there (I even used my flashlight rather than turning on the main lights). What greeted me was two guys, fast asleep, or so I thought... one of them started talking to me in German! I whispered, “I don’t think I am who you think I am”, hoping he would realise his mistake and fall silent. No such luck... he continued to talk to me (in the dark), even when I went to brush my teeth in the bathroom. It was only when I came back that I realised he was likely sleep-talking and my entrance into the room had triggered it... nevertheless, it’s interesting (and slightly creepy) to have someone talking to you, in the dark, in a foreign language, in their sleep.

I started this morning with a decent breakfast of eggs and toast in the hostel cafĂ©, then it was off to the Wellington Railway Station to catch the train. There’s something magical about walking through that stately old building toward the platforms, seeing a steam train hissing and puffing beside the platform, and knowing that one is clear to board it... I felt quite special, like I was stepping back in time.

Today’s journey from Wellington to Napier went smoothly, with no major hiccoughs along the way (although we were behind schedule again; I’ll try to contain my amazement). I think we would have been even farther behind had we not acquired a new steam locomotive, J 1211. A 4-8-2 built in 1939 by North British Railway Company, J 1211 is a streamlined locomotive (you can see a picture and its history here), and as part of Ian Welch’s fleet has been given the name “Gloria”, after his wife. I have to admit, while not being partial to streamlining, I actually don’t mind it on J 1211; the pointed headlight nose gives the train a bullet-like look, which was certainly appropriate because it is capable of moving at quite a clip: there were parts of today when we were parallel to the highway that we were steaming along consistently at at least 70 km/hr... now that’s a rush!

J 1211 at Eketahuna Station

Only 80km/h. Only...

We stopped just outside of Wellington in Upper Hutt, where two disel engines were attached to the front to pull us through the Rimutaka tunnel. At 8.8km long, the tunnel passes under the Rimutaka Ranges, and it is the second-longest tunnel in New Zealand (yes, longer than the Otira tunnel in Arthur’s Pass on the South Island!). The tunnel was completed in 1955; previously, rail traffic had had to go over a large hill called the Rimutaka Incline, which used the Fell railway system: a third, raised rail in the centre of the track for extra traction and braking. (Information all about it can be found here.) Like the Otira tunnel, steam trains are unable to work through it due to its length... for humane (and likely union) reasons we opted to have the steam engine crew inside closed, ventilated cars whilst passing through the tunnel.

A North Island pastoral scene

After passing through the tunnel and disconnecting the diesels at Featherston we continued on to Woodville, where we went through a balloon loop (a large loop shaped like - you guessed it - a balloon) to turn ourselves around and then switch tracks over to the line that would take us to Napier. We stopped for water and maintenance in Woodville, and again later in the day in Dannevirke. 

Wellington and Auckland are the only two
NZ cities with decent train metro services.


J 1211 stopped at Woodville Station

A lubrication stop at Dannevirke

We also had two photo stops at two different viaducts about 1km apart or so, and neither in very accessible locations. At the first we all had to clamber over a barbed wire fence (not an easy feat for some of the older passengers, as you can imagine), and at the second scramble down a bramble-covered road. At the second site I broke away from the group and climbed up a steep hilly embankment to the top of a bluff and was able to get a shot of the entire train as it passed over the viaduct. While the guys (including Mike) were all teasing me good-naturedly about how I jump over fences and climb hills with ease, they were indeed envious of the shot of the train I was able to get... as Mike said, “the only way to get shots like that is to be flexible, thin, and young!” Oh, dear. That rules out most of them...

Shots like this really call for a camera with a
long-range lens, not a point-and-shoot.

Shots I got perched atop my steep muddy hill

As the daylight faded in the hills behind us, Allan bought a bottle of wine from the dining counter, and he, Ray, myself, and Maude sipped glasses of a Pencarrow sauvignon blanc as the sun set over the verdant hills. I quite enjoy my travel companions; we’re halfway though and aren’t on each other’s nerves yet, so I’ll take that as a good sign.

We arrived in Napier an hour behind schedule (gasp), which thankfully wasn’t too much of a problem: I am staying with my uncle’s parents, who have very graciously opened their house to me, and I had called them earlier to let them know I would be late. It was a little awkward at the railway station because I haven’t seen Frank since I was 15 or so, but I figured he wouldn’t have any trouble picking me out of a crowd of mainly retired Caucasian men (I was correct). He brought me back to their home here in Napier, and after an hour or so of conversation accompanied with tea and a hokey pokey cookie (yum!) I am now off to bed in my uncle’s old bedroom. It feels nice to sleep in a house again!


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