• train trip to Rotorua New Zealand ( sort of )

  • Discussion about railroad topics everywhere outside of North America.
Discussion about railroad topics everywhere outside of North America.

Moderators: Komachi, David Benton

  by David Benton
Trip organisiser John Ward is never short of rail facts and anecdotes. Picture / Rafael Caso

Nostalgia on the line to Rotorua

By Karen Kennedy

We're not ones to read instructions carefully and we were soon to discover that the starting point for our weekend expedition by train was not at the grand old Auckland Railway Station, now the Railway Campus, but at a rather less impressive set of platforms accessed off The Strand.

The new station's graffiti decoration was a sharp contrast to the marbled pillars of its predecessor, where the lobby has been restored to its former glory, and it was also quite tricky to find.

But heading for the wrong departure point was just about the only hiccup we experienced on our rail outing to Rotorua.

The grand old Silver Fern railcar is a little battered and more grey than silver on the outside, but it is warm and welcoming on the inside, and the sheepskin-covered seats are extremely comfortable and you get a good view.

As we rounded the first bend, heading south on a journey back to the great days of rail, our enthusiasm gathered speed.

I have done the road trip to Rotorua many times and I was impressed with the different perspective a rail journey provides.

This change in perspective started as we travelled along Tamaki Drive - a daily commute for me - where I was able to take note of little things that often go unnoticed - the colour of the water, the boatsheds, people water-skiing on Okahu Basin.

Once all the guests - we really did feel as though we had been invited - had been picked up along the route out of Auckland we were briefed on safety procedures, then it was time for morning tea and getting to know each other.

Meanwhile, the train carried on through Auckland's industrial areas and suburbs until a green tapestry landscape took over.

By the time we were passing Pukekohe everyone was playing the old "Where are we?" game, trying to pick out landmarks.

But even when passing familiar places, being on the train made it all new and exciting.

As I became better acquainted with the tour group, I discovered there was an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life.

Most had taken the opportunity for a new experience as an alternative to their usual mode of travel.

Despite being a popular destination, Rotorua wasn't the main focus of the weekend - it was the journey itself that was important.

Most people on board weren't train buffs, although some knew a bit about trains or had travelled on the Silver Fern previously and were there for the nostalgia.

So we were definitely not a group of trainspotters, just a group of people set on having a good time.

This camaraderie was heightened by the first announcement of "bar's open", which was received with a delighted "Hooray".

Rail is a soothing way to travel and I was soon a convert.

You can lie back or get up and walk about if you want to stretch. There is have ample leg-room and you are looked after like first-class passengers.

But probably the most remarkable aspect is the sights and landscapes unfolding before your eyes giving you a visual smorgasbord.

We travelled on through Mercer, winding alongside the Waikato River past Huntly, Ngaruawahia, Hamilton, Morrinsville, Matamata and Tirau, with a running commentary from tour leader John Ward.

His repertoire is knowledgeable and interesting, but not overpowering, which makes for easy listening.

We disembarked the Silver Fern at Kinleith and changed to a coach for a 40-minute drive to Rotorua.

There were murmurs of, "Why Kinleith? Why not direct to Rotorua?"

The answer, sadly, is that the tracks into Rotorua are no more.

Once in Rotorua we were given plenty of options to fill in our time.

Some chose to go on a group excursion to the Polynesian Pools.

Others decided it was a good chance to do some shopping in a different city.

I opted for a quick trip to a souvenir shop near our hotel, the Geyserland.

Then it was straight back for a soak in the hotel's thermal pools.

And - I'm embarrassed to say - a wee snooze before meeting the group again for some pre-dinner drinks.

This at first reminded me of networking events that you are duty bound to attend in business.

The difference this time around was that I really wanted to talk to the people in the tour group because they were interesting and a lot of fun.

Dinner was served buffet-style at the hotel.

The food was good Kiwi tucker, including - of course - the usual pavlova.

The backdrop to the meal was spectacular, because the hotel overlooks a steam-spouting geyser at Whakarewarewa.

Sunday started blazing and sunny and after a quick walk around the hotel's garden we refuelled with a full buffet breakfast.

We enjoyed a lazy morning before boarding the coach to Tauranga for the first leg of the journey home.

As we headed past the Rotorua lakes and then through kiwifruit country, Ward again providing a running commentary on the passing landscape, loaded with plenty of interesting trivia.

After an hour's stop at Tauranga for lunch and a stroll around, we reboarded the Silver Fern at Mt Maunganui.

From there our journey took us along the Tauranga foreshore, then through the city centre and out into the rainforest that is typical of the Bay of Plenty.

Before long we were plunged into darkness as the train entered the Kaimai Tunnel.

Ward and the team started bar service again and held a short trivia quiz as we retraced the tracks for the return journey to Auckland.

We stopped at Frankton to stretch our legs, then made our way home, with drop-offs along the way.

As the different couples disembarked there were exchanges of phone numbers and confirmation that they would be keen to do this type of excursion again - and definitely for a longer time.

I left the train satisfied that I had experienced something a little different, impressed with rail travel as a mode of transport, and overjoyed with the hospitality and service.

But my most lasting impression was that of total relaxation. I felt completely refreshed, not like some short breaks when you need a holiday to recover from the holiday.

Clickety-clack, I'll be back.

And next time I'll know where the train leaves from.

Further adventures
Skytrain Travel and the Herald have three more rail trips coming up.
* A repeat Rotorua Railcar Weekend on January 21-22.
* A North Island trip on April 7-16.
* A South Island trip on October 1-15.
For further details see www.skytraintravel.co.nz (link below) or phone 0508 759 872

• Skytrain Travel

  by george matthews
* A South Island trip on October 1-15.

Do they have to take the rail car across the strait? If so, how? Is there a rail ferry?

  by David Benton
Yes they do take it across on the rail ferry , ( which also takes trucks , cars and foot passengers ) . the passengers would board the ferry as foot passengers however , no passenger access to the rail or car decks .

  by gravelyfan

When was the line to Rotorua abandoned? As I recall Tranzrail (Tranzscenic?) operated the Railcar between Auckland and Rotorua for several years in the 1990's.

When I visited in 1986 (wow almost 20 years ago!) there was no passenger rail service to Rotorua (I used the NZRRS coaches on my Travelpass to get there) but I think I have a photo of a DC locomotive in the yard there.


  by David Benton
Hi Rich ,
i think it must be around 1990 , in what was quite a surprising move to try and improve rail passenger services . the silver fern railcars were used to run a service form Auckland to Rotorua , ( an unheard of 2 trips per day !) , and a return trip to Tauranga . all without any subsidy .
i think they lasted around 3 or 4 years , dropped down to 1 trip a day , then , when the rotorua branch frieght services were discontinued , amd passenger services sold to an australian firm , the rotorua , tauranga , hawkes bay , and southerner trains were scrapped .
Now the rails are owned by the government , there is talk of restartng a train to Rotorua , but i would say the govt will want to concentrate on fixing the mainlines first .

  by gravelyfan

Thanks for the reply. Does anything (goods) still operate up to Gisborne? I have a photo I took in 1986 at the Gisborne airport of a passenger train waiting to cross the runway while a plane passes by having just landed. Wild!!


  by David Benton
the line to gisborne is still alive , at least it was till the latest flood . I'm not sure if theyve reopened it since then . No passenger service , but a goods train does go up one day , back the next 2 or 3 times a week .
The airport system is still in use , i think its one of 3 or so in the world . There is a thread on here somewhere about it .
its possible passenger trains may return to gisborne someday , because there is alot of local support , mainly because the road in is so hilly and windy , that people would prefer a probably slower train service to bus .
but this normally quite dry region really cops it when it gets heavy rain , you probably saw evidence of massive slips etc when you were there .
with the weather extrmes now , its only going to get worst . ( 2 * "50 year" floods this year already ).so the railway lives on borrowed time in a way , waiting for the flood damage thay would make it uneconomic to repair .