“In the past, what had mattered most in any long train journey through an interesting landscape was the motion, the privacy, the solitude, the grandeur. Food and comfort, I had discovered, are seldom available on the best trips: there is something about the most beautiful places having the most awful trains.” – Paul Theroux: “Gravy Train: A Private Railway Car”
There’s something about the prefix “trans-,” something about the myriad words it often precedes all carrying that same sense of wonder or fullness. From the Latin preposition of the same name, its original meaning of “across” and “over” has grown to include “beyond, through, on or to the other side of, into another state or form,” and definitions of words of which “trans” is a prefix span over nine pages alone in the Oxford English Dictionary. In words such as transatlantic, Trans-Siberian, and transcontinental, you get a sense of covering a piece of the earth in its entirety. In transition, transfer, or transcend, there is a sense of movement, yet also completion. And words like transparent and translucent hold the idea of seeing through something, be it glass, plastic, or – worse yet – emotions. A word that begins with trans– gives the impression of being thorough and complete, and that because of this breadth, obliqueness or misunderstanding is impossible.
So I find it no accident that “trans” and “trains” are so similar in spelling, that only one letter serves to distinguish the two. And again, no accident that trans- also happens to be in the name of the commercial rail company in New Zealand, the TranzScenic Railway. Offering three main routes across the country, the TranzAlpine and the TranzCoastal cover the South Island and the Overlander the North. Although I took the TranzAlpine in June of last year, I’d forgotten about the Wellington-Auckland route only until after I moved to the capital and started looking into things to do on the North Island. While the Overlander doesn’t have the allure of the trans- prefix, I booked my place on the twelve-hour excursion hoping it would still offer the same type of journey. I’d spend an entire Saturday traveling up the North Island, stay in Auckland for the night, and take an hour-long flight back to Wellington the following morning in time for my ten ‘o’clock start at the restaurant. It’d be a short-but-sweet stay in Auckland, but then again, the point of the trip was more to see the country in one sweeping motion than any particular city.
Departing Wellington at the unthinkable hour of half seven in the morning, I knew it’d be a painful start with or without good weather to see me off. But still half asleep as I walked to the train station in the early morning darkness, the rain fell and the wind blew just like always. I’d passed the train station before coming from the Parliament buildings, but never from the direction of my flat, so I popped into a petrol station to confirm the directions I’d been following in my head. A woman must’ve overheard my query inside, for as I walked back into the cold she asked me, “Going to the rail station?” I pulled the headphones of my iPod out in time to hear her motioning me inside her taxi. “I’m headed that way right now, hop on in.” I tried to offer her money at the station, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Nothing like a free taxi in the rain to get the trip off to a good start.
At check-in, a man handed me a boarding pass that seemed more excited about announcing what it was – in an oversized, curly-cue font found normally on the cover of a children’s book – than actually serving any real purpose. He scribbled my coach and seat number on the pass – no name, no date, no booking number – before saying cheerily, “That’s a window seat for you. See you onboard.” And while I had thought to ask, “Will you?” it turned out he was right. Once the train left the platform, a man named Allan announced himself over the speaker system as our “conductor” for the day. As Allan came through the coaches to collect our boarding passes, I recognized him as the same man who only moments before had given me that very pass at the check-in desk. Seemed TranzScenic was making poor Allan wear several hats in addition to the royal blue shirt of his uniform.
I certainly wasn’t heartbroken to be leaving the city behind. “Say goodbye to rainy, windy Wellington,” Allan said as the train made its way along the harbor and through the Hutt Valley, and I was delighted to do so. It’d been a long two months in Wellington – it’s funny how once you get settled in a flat and start putting in the hours at your job, you start to feel as if you’ve been there much longer than might actually be the case. But I wasn’t just looking forward to the chance to escape the city, if only for a night, but for my first look at the North Island as a whole.
In the pocket of the seat in front of me, I found a brochure for the Overlander describing the route as a “a journey through the interior.” While the poetry of such a statement invokes images of Conrad-like expeditions into Africa or Asia – of places shrouded in a cloak of darkness certainly not to be found in New Zealand – I liked to believe this trip still had that edge of a journey about it. It went on to speak of the train connecting the political and commercial capitals of the nation; there was a symmetry about it I could appreciate. As we left Wellington behind and grew ever closer to Auckland, I likened it to taking a train from Washington, D.C. to New York City. The statistics felt like a MasterCard commercial: 681 kilometeres. 352 bridges. 14 tunnels. 12 hours. Priceless.
What I’d enjoyed about the TranzAlpine was the set-up of the coaches, the tables in between each set of four chairs that reminded me so much of the trains I’d taken in Europe. There were no tables on the Overlander, but superbly comfortable chairs and an unthinkable amount of leg room more than made up for not being able to set my notebook out in front of me. Theroux has obviously never taken a train in New Zealand, for not only are the views generally beautiful, but there’s food and comfort to boot. A small café in the car in front of mine delivered excellent coffees for only three dollars (even if they were from a machine) and had a wide selection of gourmet sandwiches and hot meals to choose from. I might’ve been tempted to partake if I hadn’t brought my flatmate Emily’s baking along – cheese scones and oatmeal cookies, anyone?
As you do when you travel alone, I wondered about those around me, especially the others on their own in the seats around me. Who were they? What had brought them there? One girl my age heaved a backpacker’s backpack around with badges of flags sewn on from such places as Scotland, Bulgaria, and Laos. A guy in the seat across from mine had the headphones of his iPhone in and kept laughing quietly to himself. I assumed he was listening to comedy…or just crazy. The woman behind me with a German accent was coloring. She had a set of small white cards on each of which was a circle, with a geometric design or pattern inside. I found by looking in the reflection of my window, I could watch as she took out a small tin of colored pencils the size of those you might use to keep score of a golf game, and filled in each rhombus or hexagon. I could hear the rhythmic sound of the pencils shuffling back and forth – not the dullness of a wax crayon – as it blended with the motion of the train.
When I went to buy a hot drink, a woman named Tina behind the counter asked, “Traveling all the way through today?” I told her I was indeed and asked if there would be good sights along the way. “Aah, should be,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. “Hard to say with the rain, though, might not even see the mountain,” referring to Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand’s biggest volcano. It was the same hesitance I’d gotten from the taxi driver that morning when I asked her the same question. I wasn’t discouraged though. Good sights or not, I was ready to make the best of the trip. Latte beside me, I pulled out Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel in case I lost interest in the view outside. It couldn’t have been a more fitting read:
“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do…Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought: the views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, they move fast enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects. They offer us brief, inspiring glimpses into private domains, letting us see a woman at the precise moment when she takes a cup from a shelf in her kitchen, then carrying us on to a patio where a man is sleeping and then to a park where a child is catching a ball thrown by a figure we cannot see” (57).
The initial path of the train traced along the coast, passing through Porirua and one of the few sheltered harbors on the western side of North Island. Because of this, the harbor was originally expected to play a much larger role than the one in Wellington, but the earthquake of 1855 rose the water level six meters and left it commercially inviable. The Tasman Sea was to our left, and while we should have been able to clearly see Kapiti Island, a thick layer of fog erased the horizon and left the outline of the island barely visible. We rode through a town and I heard the clanging of a bell at the crossing of the tracks and road. There was a queue of cars and cyclists and I thought that it’s not often I find myself on this side of the crossed white bars.
We moved away from the coast until there was only land on either side of the train. I recognized the name of a town called Paraparaumu from the rail schedules on the MetLink website. There wasn’t much to see but a Coastlands Shopping Center, home to the Warehouse, a Countdown supermarket, and Briscoes homewares. Like so many others we would pass through, the town left something to be desired, it left you unchanged and unimpressed. I wondered if the attraction lies elsewhere for its residents, “in the hills” perhaps. But trees suddenly gave way to some kind of bocce club, a large complex of gravel lots with ten or so games going on at the same time. There were groups of people standing around, with silver balls in their hands, waiting for their turn. We then passed a large field where people seemed to be assembling some kind of dog agility course, setting up wooden ladders and brightly colored nylon tunnels and hoops. I remembered a colleague from my office in Christchurch, who, every weekend, would take her beloved dogs to these courses and take part in competitions and events. “So this is what they all do with themselves, then,” I said to myself.
There wasn’t much to see through the rain-spattered windows as we passed through small town after small town. Allan described Otaki as a shopping mecca filled with outlet stores for companies such as Pumpkin Patch and Kathmandu. The sign for a “knitwear factory shop” reminded me of the outlet complexes in such places as Williamsburg, Virginia, or Nags Head in North Carolina, with their special tags and “blowout” prices.
Levin, named after William Hort Levin, former director of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, featured a Pet World and a feedmill factory.
As we passed through Shannon, an old railway town which has recently undergone “revitalization,” Allan described how there “used to be a lot of notorious gangs here, but thankfully all, well not all but most, have gone and it’s turning into a nice wee town again.” I didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not.
Even Palmerston North, with its population of 75,000 and its status as a hub for science, research and education, was anything but memorable. What I wanted to know was why all the big stores were in the small towns. Those commercial behemoths found in every corner of the country seemed to trample any ounce of charm a town might’ve had a chance at having. A sign outside the Fielding railway station proclaimed, “Welcome to Friendly Fielding, New Zealand’s Most Beautiful Town,” apparently drawing on its history of winning the award 14 out the past 15 years. “Fielding is known for its cleanliness,” Allan shared as I counted another Warehouse, a Super Cheep Auto, and a depot constructed from rusting, corrugated tin. “But there’s no scheduled stop here today, so we’ll pass straight on through.” I think that might be best, Allan, for I found Fielding took an impossible leap of faith in making the connection from clean to beautiful. All the rubbish bins and street cleaners in the world couldn’t change a dour town into something more, couldn’t make it what it’s not.
But then, I just happened to look out to the right as we passed another town, if that’s what you’d call it, as I couldn’t imagine more than a couple hundred people residing there. It was only a fleeting glimpse, but what I saw in those few moments were four streets merging into a grassy circle, in the center of which sat an obelisk, two meters high, no doubt a war memorial, and on each corner, old buildings – not dully old, drab, but with a bit of charm about them, like a place that forgot to grow up. The layout was perfect in its simplicity and I longed to explore it. I’ll never know the name of that little town, so it’s not as if I can go look it up and offer statistics of the awards it may or may not have won, but it had all the good aspects of a small town about it, all the loveliness. It spoke again of de Botton, this time writing from Madrid after attending a three-day conference in the city. He wrote of the feeling of waking in a new city with an “intense lethargy,” an utter lack of curiosity:
“On the desk lay several magazines offered by the hotel with information on the city and two guidebooks that I had brought from home. In their different ways, they conspired to suggest that an exciting and multifarious phenomenon called Madrid was waiting to be discovered outside, made up of monuments, churches, museums, fountains, plazas, and shopping streets” (103-4).
What de Botton laments, however, is that at each of these sites and “can’t miss” locations, he will merely be reading the facts which every other tourist and visitor before him has. Getting to know Madrid, for him, will be no mission of discovery:
“…the explorers who had come before and discovered facts had at the same time laid down distinctions between what was significant and what was not, distinctions which had, over time, hardened into almost immutable truths about where value lay in Madrid. The Plaza de la Villa had one star, the Palacio Real two stars, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales three stars and the Plaza de Oriente no stars at all. The distinctions were not false, but their effect was pernicious. Where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, where they were silent, pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted” (113-4).
Instead, he writes about what he would’ve placed importance on if “my compass of curiosity had been allowed to settle according to its own logic” (116). No statement could more aptly describe my own disillusionment with the culture of guide books and the likes of Lonely Planet and Rick Steves, who dictate the agendas and itineraries of so many travelers. And similarly, with the narration of guides such as Allan. Although I know this is simply his job, his script merely something he recites for the enjoyment of elderly tourists, I found myself often left with details on towns I wanted to know nothing about, yet without so much as a name for a town that did catch my attention. And there lay my one frustration with trains – the inability to stop the car and turn around. For if I could have done so, I would’ve driven back to my nameless town, walked onto that grassy circle, and read the names on the obelisk, noting the blessed absence of chain stores.
And so, like de Botton, I created my own ranks of importance and recorded my own details. While Allan shared that the town of Marton was named after one in Yorkshire, England, where Captain Cook was born – “Originally a crop and grazing area…pretty much still is” – what I will remember were two Indian women waving from the platform at someone in a coach in front of mine, smiles across their faces. In Tiumarunui, a little old man with a curved back, wearing a neon vest, blew the whistle for the all-clear before sitting down on his burgundy motorized scooter. And outside Ohangaiti, a 78-year-old man named Kevin stood outside his house in a bright yellow jacket waving a long red cloth wildly in the rain. “He used to work for the old telegraph office in the township,” Allan said as we flew past, “He’s a big supporter of the railway, out there every day.” A smile, a whistle, a wave – these are the moments that mark a journey, that stand out in one’s mind.
The hills outside the window rolled perfectly, dotted with cows and sheep who grazed unfazed by the rain. Much of what we passed through was farmland, with unassuming towns and telephone lines and anonymous figures all there was to break up the landscape. And while I was perfectly contented to curl up in my seat with my book and a coffee, I hoped at some point that the scenery would improve. Finally, though, the landscape did open up. The houses gave way to gorges over which a series of viaducts had been constructed in the early 1900s. A singular waterfall descended the steep grey cliffs, a steady stream of white that flowed through the vegetation and into the muddy waters of the river. Higher hills in the distance were again muted by mist, ethereal and soft. It was the only sight that neared the sublime, that left you feeling overwhelmed, a humbling beauty that wouldn’t be seen elsewhere on the trip.
In Taihape, Allan mentioned a gumboot throwing contest that takes place every March and I made a note to be there for it when I complete my road trip around the North Island that month.
Waiouru, home to an army base and training complex, was the highest railway station on the route and also furthest from the sea.
Ohakune, somehow the “carrot capital of New Zealand,” was our half-way mark for the day, where we disembarked for a forty or so minute lunch break to stretch our legs. A café built in the station seemed fully prepared to take advantage of the onslaught of tourists, a chalkboard outside its door reading, “Only place open this end of town, 10-2, Daily.” I bet you are, I thought. While I refrained from eating in the café – which announced halfway through that they had run out of both hot chocolate and fries, what a situation to find themselves in! – I happily picked up a free copy of Vonnegut’s Galapagos as I had just finished The Art of Travel and was glad for a switch back to fiction.
Established in 1892, Ohakune was also the site of where the Old Coach Road used to begin. From 1906 to 1908, only one section of the North Island’s Main Trunk Line remained to be completed, that which connected Ohakune to Raurimu. During the three-day journey from Wellington to Auckland, passengers would instead board horse-drawn coaches to carry them the 39 kilometers to Raurimu, where they would re-board the train. As a sign explained, one train with three carriages carried up to one hundred passengers. At Ohakune, they would then disembark in order to board ten coaches pulled by fifty horses in total. In this way, the Maori name given to the town, he Ohakune ki te ao, means “an opening to a new world,” speaking of its significant role in early transport across the country.
It was soon back on the train and at National Park Village, the crews switched and Bruce and Michelle, comprising the “Northern-based train crew,” took over as Allan and Tina made their way back down to Wellington. Not far past the village, we came upon one of the more memorable sections of the track, the Raurimu Spiral. Designed in the 1870s by John Rotchefort, the spiral covers one complete circle, three horseshoe curves, and two tunnels to manage the sharp descent, in fact spanning five kilometers of track to go one straight kilometer down. Bruce narrated our way down the spiral like an announcer at a horse race, his voice breathy and the words slightly slurred. “Now if you look just above to the left you’ll see the track where we’ve just come from…We’ve now covered the first half of the circle, and are currently passing under the track we just went over…” and on he went.
Past Ohakune and the Raurimu Spiral, the landscape had yet to change dramatically. There was no sky throughout much of the day, just a solid white background like in a photography studio. Later in the afternoon, however, I looked up to see a small patch of blue open among the clouds, and soon the sky took on some definition, shadows giving it some depth against the foreground of the hills. It had stopped raining, though dark clouds in the distance suggested the reprieve wouldn’t be a long one. The carriage quieted down as well, except for two small children up front with Barbie dolls, Uno cards, and math workbooks to keep themselves amused – and their parents awake.
In Te Kuiti, “sheep shearing capital of the world,” the town was most notable for a giant sculpture of a man shearing, you guessed it, a sheep.
On the platform of the station at Otoruhanga, a sign described it as “New Zealand’s Kiwana Town” and included images of the New Zealand flag, buzzy bee, pavlova, paua shell, and a kiwi bird.
Bruce announced Ngaruawahia as the official residence of the Maori King, and also our first crossing of the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest. We passed a sacred Maori burial ground, Gallagher rodeo arena, the Hillside Hotel, “Cheep Liquor,” the Delta Tavern, and a skate park. I no longer tried to understand the towns outside my window.
A sign in Huntly that read, “Switch On To Huntly,” made no sense until I learned of the Huntly Power Station and could then appreciate the pun. In addition to the steam turbines of its power station, Huntly featured yet another array of outlet stores – Surf Skate Snow, wooden furniture, and pre-fabricated three-bedroom houses among its wares.
Known for its vegetables, fields outside Pukekute were filled with potatoes and onions, and burlap sacks sat upright, filled to the brim among rows that reminded me of hair that’d been braided into cornrows. There was a race track, a Harvey Norman’s, and a Briscoes.
Pulling away from the station in Papakura, I saw a Wendy’s, KFC, McDonald’s, and Blockbuster, and thought for a second I was back on American soil.
As we passed through town after small town, each entirely unremarkable in its own right, repetitive and predictable when viewed in succession, I thought again of the nature of trains. How is it that they don’t induce that sense of stir-craziness often felt on planes? How is it that I didn’t give a second thought of boarding a train for twelve hours, but the thought of a flight of the same duration is often daunting? Is it the ever-changing landscape? The continual mental stimulation? When you’re in a plane, you mightn’t be moving at all, for all you know. Perhaps they should install screens not on the backs of seats in front of you, but in the place of your window, to give your brain a better illusion of movement. The towns we saw perhaps weren’t the most beautiful or charming of what New Zealand has to offer, you can surely tell that by now – and if anything, they were a combination of monstrous chain stores and obscure facts and titles – but there they were, nonetheless, and I was more than happy to be observing them.
Earlier that week at the restaurant, I had an older English couple as one of my last customers of the night. They told me they’d just come down from Auckland on the Overlander and I asked them excitedly how it was, telling them I’d be taking the same journey on Saturday. “Going with your boyfriend or husband?” the man asked. I waved my bare ring finger and declared I was going alone. “Well, you’re going to be lonely,” he responded. It was difficult to say that no, I didn’t think I would be. In fact, I was quite looking forward to the trip. On a walkabout through his neighborhood in Hammersmith, London, de Botton records the same feeling:
“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by whom we are with, we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others. They may have a particular vision of who we are and hence subtly prevent certain sides of us from emerging: ‘I hadn’t thought of you as someone who was interested in flyovers,’ they might intimidatingly suggest. Being closely observed by a companion can inhibit us from observing others, we become taken up with adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, we have to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity. But I had no such concerns, alone in Hammersmith in mid-afternoon. I had the freedom to act a little weirdly” (252).
It is this freedom I have come to love and appreciate over the past year. It wasn’t often that I traveled alone while living in London. Whether going on weekend trips with my flatmates or on more extended tours with the Kiwis, I was often aware of those around me – you feel the need to have something to say, comments like “Isn’t this beautiful?” or “You ready for dinner yet?” taking the place of more detailed observations. On my own, however, I’m free to sit and listen. To soak up the environment in which I’m fortunate enough to be, to eavesdrop, to investigate, and to learn. Movies like Into the Wild espouse the idea that “happiness is best when shared,” and I couldn’t agree more. But I’m starting to see that in a way, my notebook has become a new travel companion. My observations and thoughts aren’t wasted – they’re recorded and shared just as I might if I had someone in the seat beside me. Notebook and camera in tow, sir, I can promise you lonely is something I will not be. Nosy or overattentive, perhaps, but certainly not lonely.
We’d only just left the Middlemore station, about twenty kilometers outside Auckland, when it was clear we were coming to life on a different scale. Small towns gave way to a multistory Hoyts cinema complex, a five-level carpark and a massive Borders bookstore, and the Sky Tower appeared on the horizon above the Auckland skyline. The housing along the tracks was suddenly new and attractive, all identical, attached townhouses, and large cement buildings were covered in layers of colorful graffiti. The sun was just beginning to set on the basin of the Auckland harbor as our journey drew to a close.
The train pulled into the center of Auckland and I marveled at the futuristic design of the station, a row of silver steel domes built into the ceiling. There were escalators to carry you from the tracks to street level, where a large lobby held ticket windows and bus schedules. The Wellington station, with its columns, tiled floors and antique clock, was very much tied to its past, but Auckland was all flash and new designs. I’d made a booking at the Kiwi International Hostel at the airport, thinking their free shuttle would be helpful the next morning when I went to catch my early flight. But I soon discovered that in order to board the hostel’s shuttle, I’d need to catch a bus to the airport anyway, so it didn’t make sense to pay the higher room rate for the airport hostel when one in town would be cheaper and closer that night. I walked down Queen Street, a main shopping street in Auckland, reveling in the warm air – “So this is what summer feels like!” I texted a friend back in Wellington – and soon found a place called the Frienz Backpackers.
A curly-haired English guy at the reception desk informed me they did indeed have one bed free in the cheapest dorm. “Where’ve you come from?” he asked and I told him I’d taken the train up from Wellington. When I said I was only staying for one night, he asked again, “Why didn’t you give yourself more time to see the city?” I explained I’d been here before, had to work in the morning, etcetera, etcetera. “But God, twelve hours? And for one night? What a weird trip,” he said as he handed over my key and towel. I could do nothing but smile and shrug my shoulders. Like with the customer who thought I’d be lonely, some things just can’t be explained.
It wasn’t long after I’d checked into my hostel, though, that I received a phone call from the maître d’ at my restaurant. A few weeks ago, I had asked my boss for two days off at the beginning of February. While I didn’t expect to get them – on top of being a Friday and Saturday, it also happens to be Waitangi Day, the International Rugby Sevens tournament, and a big music festival called One Love – he looked at the calendar and said yes. A hospitality-oriented temp agent had asked if I would be interested in working those two days in a corporate box at Westpac Stadium where the Sevens are taking place. The allure of the Sevens is something I’ll write on later, but let it suffice to say that tickets sold out in something like seven minutes, so it is a huge deal. And here I was, with the chance to go…and get paid for it! I quickly called her back and told her to put my name down.
But last week, I walked into work only to hear my boss say that he’d changed his mind. He hadn’t realized what days they were and he needed me at the restaurant. It seemed he wasn’t able to understand he’d already given me them off and that I had made commitments, so after a few days of deliberation, I decided to hand in my two weeks’ notice. I did so on Thursday, but here the maître d’ was, only two nights later, calling to tell me that they wouldn’t need me to come in the next day for my shift and that she and my bosses “wished me all the best.”
I was shocked, for a number of reasons compounding on top of this actual dismissal, but overwhelmingly sad about all that was wrong about the situation. I boarded the plane Sunday morning with a heavy heart. I was glad, though, that this news had come after the train ride. Then, I had needed to be open, engaged with the environment, my curiosity in peak condition. On the plane however, I felt numb, in that state of disbelief that often follows a break-up or the death of a loved one. The state of being on a plane was the perfect reflection of how detached I felt from my environment – entirely opposite of my “eyes wide open” approach to the train ride. How fitting that our modes of transport can relate so well to our moods and emotions.
And is it not interesting that these various modes exist at all, and the various purposes they serve? I’ve clearly laid out an argument for trains here, but then again, they’re not always practical. My boss in Christchurch used to fly up to Wellington every so often for one meeting. Up in the morning, down in the afternoon. That kind of schedule requires the practicality of a plane, not the leisurely pace of a train. What had taken me twelve hours the day before, I now covered in a single hour – one hour, one packet of veggie crisps, and a cup of coffee later.
But when you’ve got the time and the inclination, isn’t it good to know that trains still run? I thought back to the café in the Ohekune station. There was a wooden snowboard that was broken in half and mounted above the fireplace, painted every shade of the spectrum, with a design of puzzle pieces all over. A quote had been written on it: When the world erupts, the earth breaks into a different puzzle. This, I had no doubt, related to the volcanic activity of Mount Ruapehu not far from the town, but I liked to relate the trip itself to a puzzle. When you fly from point A to point B, you see only two pieces of the puzzle. As you soar above the landscape, you leave gaps behind you, empty spaces of what you didn’t see. Trains, however, give you the full landscape in one sweeping, comprehensive, transcontinental view that keeps you connected to the world around you at all times.
Back in Wellington, I caught my second bus of the day and thought of the tour de force I’d completed in a mere twenty-six hours of all the various transportation options there are available to the modern traveler: taxi, train, plane, bus. It’d been a mission but it’d been worth it. It didn’t matter to me that others thought of my trip as “weird.” It didn’t matter that I spent more time in transit than I did in one place. It didn’t matter if most of the towns I saw were small, insignificant or even boring.
What matters is that I went, for as I always say, you don’t know if you don’t go.