A New Zealand SF fan told me about how you can see the sperm whales at Kaikoura when I was chatting to him at the natcon in Brisbane back in 2006. You can get there by train, he said, and that sweetened the deal for me, as public transport is my preferred option when I'm on holidays. Let someone else drive who knows the way, I don't want the stress!
I started out in Auckland because the last time I was in Auckland I was about 7 years old, and I figure the place has changed a bit, and also because their Overlander departs from there and travels through NZ all day reaching Wellington, the capital, roughly 12 hours later. (You can also do the trip from Wellington to Auckland, but I reckon it's easier going "downhill" than "up".)
I caught a small shuttle bus from the Airport. It dropped me in front of my hotel for $30. The driver commented on the old NZ$ notes I'd given him to pay for my bus fare - um, it's been 19 years since I was last in NZ, and they've moved from paper money to polymer notes. While they still exchange the higher denominations of old paper money, I came acropper with about $8 I had in small paper notes and they turned out to be useless. Couldn't spend them, and not even the banks wanted to cash them in for me. Oh well, I now have an unusual and unexpected souvenier.
In Auckland I stayed in the City Central Hotel because it was central and cheap. It was also clean, and the staff members I encountered were all friendly and helpful. My room was small, but functional. It had an ensuite, but it didn't have a fridge. Eh, I could survive without the fridge! They offer breakfast & lunch from an in-house cafe. I had the buffet breakfast there and thought it was reasonably priced.
Day 1 was spent just wandering around Auckland. I caught the bus to Parnell, and found the Museum by accident more than design.
I found a Pro-Cathedral the same way (sometimes going without a plan is a good way to travel.) Back in the 1970's they'd moved the entire thing across the road to sit beside the bigger, "proper" Cathedral. (photo to come, hopefully.)
Day 2 saw me checking out of the hotel and heading for the Britomart railway station, suitcase in tow. I thought the Auckland streets would be empty before 7am, but there were still people going to work, and tourists wandering about. I had a muesli bar, a chocolate and a 600 ml bottle of coke as "emergency provisions" for the trip. I was assigned a seat in Car A - where they have an indoors lounge/viewing area. I wasn't expecting to make much use of that, because I had a panoramic window seat. I got into conversation with the lady sitting beside me, who was traveling with her niece and niece's husband across the aisle. They all took turns to share the window seat on that side of the carriage, so they played "musical chairs" and I got to talk to all of them. By the end of the trip, I felt I'd made three good friends.
While nosing around the net trying to find out about my trip before leaving home, I thought I'd read, in someone elses blog. they served decliscious Devonshire teas on the train, but there were none on the menu everyone is given, or in the buffet car when I checked the buffet for an early lunch. They'd also already run out of egg sandwiches! There's something about long train trips and egg sandwiches for me. They just go together. I had to make do with a roast beef and salad sandwich, which turned out to be a great second choice...none of this processed meat product - this was a generous slice of real beef and it was deliscious!
Speaking of beef - I saw an awful lot of it on the hoof as we got out into the countryside from Auckland. Far more than I was expecting. Dairy cows also grazed contentedly in lush green paddocks, but where were all the sheep? New Zealand has a reputation for having a lot of sheep that it was failing to live up to. I asked Judy about it, and was informed cattle and dairy were where the money was these days, so that's what many farmers were turning to, but there were some NZ'ers who weren't impressed as cattle tend to churn up the soils and cause erosion worse than sheep do. Further away from Auckland we did start seeing sheep farms, and many lambs were grazing beside their mothers, or gamboling as the train incaded their world.
I was also fascinated to see all the paddocks had neat hedgerows running along their fence lines in one area we travelled through. I also remember the white flowers that grew along the tracks. They reminded me of drifts of snow. Later the white flowers gave way to yellow ones.
An "operational problem" (I love that phrase, it covers all sorts of things going awry!) with the engine slowed us down a bit. We stopped at a station where they said they had to call for a second engine to be coupled to the first. I have memories of being holed up in a carriage in the pouring rain at Tarago for a couple of hours, and worried we'd be doing the same thing this time, but they'd obviously summoned the second engine well before they'd told us of the problem, and we were soon back in action and on our way.
There's a sort of corkscrew in the tracks that gets the train up into the higher altitude just before the national park. It's something of an engineering feat, and I wish I understood it better , so I could explain it better.
I can explain the mountains. Judy was the first to glimpse Mt.... an impressive snowcapped peak. (I'm from Sydney, Australia, so I don't often get to see snowcapped peaks, and if you think I'm making a fuss now, just wait until I start writing about Kaikoura!)
The Overlander stops for a while at National Park, where the crew change over onto another train for the return journey back to Auckland (and passengers doing the Auckland/National Park/Auckland day trip get on this train as well.) The station had a tea shop, with a nice varnished wood interior, paintings, and painted saws decorating the walls, and once we all arrived, a queue to buy food as well as a queue to the toilets. It was here that I spied "lemonade scones" (scones made with lemonade so that they're sweet and light.) I should have indulged myself, but I opted for something savoury instead. They also had carrot cake. My whole trip of NZ seemed to be punctuated by places selling the best looking carrot cake I'd seen in quite a while, but I only succumbed to trying it twice.
The 45 minute "whistle stop" at National Park gave us plenty of time to eat, freshen up and walk around a bit. I took a few photos of the impressive snow-capped mountain range that doninated the horizon on the station side of the tracks, and began to get a niggling feeling about my camera. It's an older model with a small screen and this was only the second time I'd taken it on holidays. The pictures didn't look *right* on the screen, but I'd had a similar problem in Perth too, so I wasn't overly concerned...yet.
Judy, Graham and Mary had a late on-board afternoon tea a couple of hours later which included a few G&T's and a meat pie bought from the train's buffet car which smelled absolutely delicious! Unfortunately, it was the last pie on the train, so I was out of luck there as well. (Maybe I should be calling this LJ entry "New Zealand by Food??? ; - ) The others had ordered their dinner at the buffet car, and seeing as how I'd missed out twice already, and we'd be getting into Wellington a fair bit later than expected, I decided to put my order in as well, opting for vegetarian lasagne and a can of lemonade. they'd run out of diet coke by then too, and what was left of the bottle I'd taken onboard with me was nice and warm by this stage. The friendly buffet staff said they'd deliver it to my seat. They'd made the same offer to the others who'd tipped me off about the service, and I'd selected the same delivery time they had so we could all eat our meals together,..only Judy, Mary and Graham's meals arrived on time, looked ans smelled fantastic...and mine didn't. I waited. and waited (and could have easily have mugged one of the other three for their roast dinners!) and finally went up to the buffet to collect my lasagne. The buffet host was very apologetic for forgetting me, but I wasn't really worried. Getting up to the buffet car had probably burned a few calories that would have lied idle if I'd been served at my seat.
The tray tables on the Overlander are ingenious things! They are heavy metal clip-board shaped thingies that you get in your pouch pocket in front of you, along with the literature about the train and the buffet menu. At first I thought you used them "as is" on your lap, and had observed someone returning from the buffet car with two cups of coffee balanced on one earlier in the day...but how the hell were you supposed to eat a meal off them without balancing the tray on your lap? Then I noted the people in the seats across from me had a tray that seemed (from my view point) to levitate in mid ear above the lap. Curiouser and curiouser!
I started fiddling around with the between-seats armrest. The tray had a tim and a lip, but didnt seem to fit into the armrest anywhere, until I discovered the arm rest has an extra portion that folds straight out, and the metal tray slots into that.
Anyway, back to dinner. I found the serves very generous, and the vegetarian lasagne was delicious.
After dinner I went up to the lounge area at the back of our carriage and got to talk to a few more of the passengers. I think I started seeing deer farms around about then too, noticeable by their very high fences...oh, and if there are deer in the paddocks, that's usually something of an indicator too. : - )
I was always on the look out for horses, and had spotted some pretty young foals earlier in the day, and *maybe* I caught sight of the lower part of two grey donkeys. They were up an embankment from the trainline, and a wide wooden plank post obliterated the rest of my view of them.
Dusk was falling as we rolled down off the mountains, onto the straights and began to catch glimpses of the sea. The cabin crew even announced we had a very good view of the South Island, which we did. We passed an island that serves as a sanctuary for NZ wildlife. Many of NZ's flightless birds have become endangered by introduced predators such as rats, cats and dogs, so they've set up a number of these sanctuary islands around the place.
I think it was close to 9.30 pm when we pulled into Wellington railway station, and then we had to wait for our luggage to be taken off the train, but again everyone was in a good mood and didn't seem to mind. The train staff had made an announcement about the free bus that connects with the ferry terminal. My ears pricked up at that, I'd have to investigate further, but not tonight.
Once I got my bag (it was among the last to be taken off the train, I was beginning to wonder if it'd got lost somewhere) I asked one of the railway staff if he knew the street where my hotel was on. I'd booked The Holiday Inn because it was walking distance from the railway. He wasn't sure, so he ckecked with someone else, and I was on my way in no time, pulling my suitcase behind me.
I was a bit wary about travelling around a strange city late on a Friday night, but there weren't many people around, and I ended up following a couple from the train anyway, so at least I had the illusion of "safety in numbers". And the Holiday Inn wasn't too far away either, but I was glad to see it. Despite sitting around watching the scenery most of the, I was tired and looking forward to getting out of the clothes I'd been wearing for the past 15 hours.
I had a blissful room! Two double beds offered a small mountain of pillows each, and the wall-to-wall window offered a good view over the harbour. Lights from the boats and the houses twinkled like ferryland!
The room had a fridge (it also had a mini-bar, and there was room service, but looking at the prices I was glad I'd had dinner on the train after all.) The bathroom was spacious, I quite liked the wall of frosted glass seperating bathroom from the bed area, the complimentary toiletries were high quality, and oh joy! The room had a bath!
Now, I'm from Sydney, which has had below-average rainfall for quite a few years, and conserving water has been etched into my psyche...but ,Toto, I wasn't in Sydney anymore. I was in a country that got plenty of rain, had just passed through lush green countryside to prove it got plenty of rain. I was feeling grotty after a 14+ hour train trip and that bath was calling me. I can't remember the last time I indulged in a bath. (And before you jump to the wrong conclusion, I had been indulging in plenty of timed short showers!) I ran the bath and had a nice long soak and it felt wonderful!
In my PJ's I crawled into bed, and I would have turned on the bedside lamp so I culd write for a bit if I could have worked out where the switch to the bedside lamp was! It wasn't in "the usual places" and I became frustrated being unable to find it (there's *another* intelligence test I've failed!) In the end I figured I could do without it, crawled into the very comfortable bed, admired the pretty view of the harbour through the sheer organza curtains and went to sleep moments later.
Next morning I found the bedside lamp switch! Half-way along the electrical cord. Didn't think to try and look there, though I *did* look at the end of the cord where it slipped into the wall just in case. The cord was black, the switch was black, the wall they were next to was black and I'm visually impaired, that explains why I didn't find it.
The day was grey and overcast so I packed my raincoat and headed off to see Wellington.
I had to chuckle when I glanced down a side-street and saw their distinctive beehive shaped parliament house. a few clocks from the motel. Linda Cox Chan had led Helen Small, Gary Armstrong and I a merry dance to find it - or rather a stamp shop very close to it - the last time I'd been to Wellington (also the first time I'd been to Wellington) about 19 years ago. We'd all seperately come over for a NZ con, all had a late flight out of Wellington and had spent the day sight-seeing together. Now here I was within stones throw of the place!
I made for the wharf and what had seemed like their cultural precinct on the maps I'd studied, but very little seemed to be open that time of morning. (The cultural centre I was after was actually up the other end of the wharf complex and I discovered that later in the day.) While wandering around trying to get my barings I stumbled upon "The Old Bank" building which had the look and feel of a NZ version of the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney - lots of boutique shops, and an added surprise! It had the remains of an old sailing ship buried in its basement. It had been discovered while they were excavating the bank's basement, and you can still see part of it through a viewing area underneath the stairs. The ship had been purchased by a local merchant when its former owner couldn't afford to repair it to make it seaworthy.Tied up to the pier It served as a warehouse and auction rooms in its...bu t what was it doing several blocks away from the waterside where I'd been earlier in the morning?
Turns out an earthquake had lifted what had been the earlier waterline a couple of metres into the air in the 1800's, leaving the locals to develop the new wharf area and redevelop the old. They'd done that, and the ship had been forgotten about until it was rediscovered.
TO BE CONTINUED