Friday, October 8, 2010

Steam Train, Day One: Auckland to Ohakune

I happily left behind my stifling windowless sauna of a room at Base ACB this morning and headed off down Queen Street, dragging my travel case down the road behind me. I made my way to the Copthorne Hotel on Quay Street and met up with the other passengers for the Mainline Steam Train, as we were catching a coach (bus) to the train station. I am not sure what station we caught it from (not the old railway station in Auckland, because it has been converted into apartments; nor Britomart Station because it is underground and they would not allow a steam train down there), but a sign on the platform warned us to "Beware of falling masonry", as the platform is closed, but "The Auckland Regional Transport Authority plans to refurbish parts of this station prior to Rugby World Cub 2011". Comforting, to know it's potentially literally falling down, yet considered safe enough that our train could leave from it...

Oh, yes. I feel safe.

Ah, no matter. I wouldn't care if the train was leaving from a rubbish heap, I would still catch it! Our train consists of four passenger cars, the last one being an observation/snack car, a baggage/refrigeration car, and two tanker cars, one for fuel and the other for water. The train is fired on a form of bunker oil; of what composite I'm not exactly sure (one of the mechanics at Mainline Steam yesterday told me it was marine waste), but either way it has a unique smell which reminds me faintly of burning plastic.

The Dining / Observation Car

The passenger baggage is actually not being carried on the train; instead, the coach is following the train along for the entire journey, and the driver is ensuring the luggage is transferred on and off to each hotel the passengers are staying in. For poor students like me who cannot afford to stay in a hotel every night (which is actually myself and another man from Australia who is also staying in hostels), one's baggage is loaded directly onto the train.

We pulled out of Auckland around 8:44am, heading south through the suburbs. Being used to the speed and scale of Samson, it was another experience entirely to be zipping along at 60 km / hour! Aside from my own excitement of being on a real live passenger steam train on a main line, the greatest part of the journey so far has been seeing the expressions of joy on people's faces as we sail merrily by. They come running out of their houses, pull their cars over to the sides of the road, and stand at crossings waving, smiling, taking pictures, or just looking on in wonder. I am only too happy to smile and wave back. :-)

Our first stop of the day was Hamilton, where we refilled the water tank at the train station platform, giving us an opportunity to get out and take photos once again (I have a feeling by the time this trip is done I am going to have several hundred photos of steam locomotives). We also made three photo stops throughout the day: the first one at  Waitete Bridge, the second in a field outside Taumarunui (a town where we made our second service stop, this time to refuel), and the third in the midst of the Raurimu Spiral. The spiral ascends 132 m, and starts with a large horseshoe curve to the left, which allowed me to get several shots of the locomotive from my seat in the penultimate carriage. You can read more about the Raurimu Spiral here:

Ja 1275 stopped at Hamilton Station

Taumarunui Station platform, showing
the double-tracking and electrification
of the North Island Main Trunk Line

A cool Dodge I took a photo of at Taumarunui for Ron

As we steamed through the countryside, passing one dairy farm after another, it was highly amusing to watch the cows startle and run away as we drove past. I understood the cows' distress, however, after our first photo stop: as I stood on the bridge and the Ja 1275 roared past under me, my stomach churned a little at its immensity and the intensity of its noise. I'm so used to #25.... ah, Carolyn, you ain't in Kansas no more!

The first photo stop

Adrian and Michael keep all of us crazy
ferroequinologists in line.

One interesting thing I noticed at the Raurimu Spiral photo stop was a pile of old railroad ties; they are made up of concrete bars reinforced with iron rebar! I'm not sure why this is the case; if it is stronger, or suitable wood is not available, or another reason (cheap concrete?). I will try and find out.

Ja 1275 enters the Raurimu Spiral

Old sleepers at the top of the Raurimu Spiral

The final stop of the day was National Park, where the coach was waiting to take the passengers up to the Chateau Tongariro for their waiting dinner and rooms... myself, the train crew, and Alan, the other person opting to stay in hostels, stayed on the train and rode it another 36km down to Ohakune, the town and station where the train is going to be serviced for the night. Alan told me he was staying at Station Lodge, a hostel/motel right beside the tracks. The location couldn't have been more perfect; the Lodge is literally thirty feet from the tracks! Alan and I joked that we had better service than those who paid the big bucks, being dropped right to our door.

Ja 1275 at Ohakune Station at dusk

Station Lodge, directly opposite the... station.

Station Lodge is worlds better than Base Auckland; for the same price per night, I am in a nice airy room with 3 m ceilings with two guys (both named Brad, amusingly) who work in National Park. There is a spa pool, two lounges with comfy couches and a woodstove, and a spacious kitchen. One of the two Brads very graciously invited me to share dinner with them: they had been given two pounds of venison hamburger by a colleague and were going to make nachos, so after a quick run to the supermarket in Brad 2's car, we cooked up a delicious concoction of venison, onion, tomatoes, cheese and (of course) carrots! I say of course carrots because Ohakune is the carrot capital of New Zealand. They even built a giant carrot, fittingly called the "Big Carrot", on Rangataua Road. (All I could think of was the episode of "Corner Gas" when Dog River wants to build the "World's Biggest Hoe", and I snickered to myself). It was a surprisingly delicious meal, though it amuses me that I had to travel to another hemisphere on the planet to taste my first venison hamburger when deer regularly run through my backyard at home.

Ka 942 waiting in the siding at Ohakune Station

I should head off to bed now; the train leaves at 8:30 sharp tomorrow morning (and judging by how we almost left a guy behind at Taumarunui I know I need to be punctual!). That being said, I do think they would notice if I were missing; I am easily the youngest in the group (the average age is likely 60), and I am the only female there not accompanying a train nut of a husband. As such I have already been the butt of several good-natured jokes... apparently the manager Mike is keeping an eye on me. ;-)


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