It has been an absolute joy being on the tour with you. I have felt like I was travelling with friends rather than a tour group.

On a fine summer's day in January, a small group gathered aboard the world-famous Northern Explorer train from Auckland and set off on the first ever New Zealand rail tour led by Great Journeys New Zealand.

Over the next 15 days, the group  will travel the length of New Zealand, from north to south, finishing in Queenstown with a wealth of wonderful memories and host of new friends. 

This is the inside story of our brand new New Zealand rail tours.

Part 1: Northern Highlights Tour

Included in the New Zealand Highlights Tour and Cities & Coastal Highlights Tour


Scenic train to volcanic Tongariro

The benefits of travelling by train are immediately obvious. With fresh barista coffees and a tempting selection of muffins and cakes being served from the Scenic Cafe, our tour group is soon sitting back and admiring the gorgeous New Zealand views with the stimulating aromas of fresh coffee wafting through the carriage.

And the spacious carriages are perfect for our touring group. There is space to walk around and chat with one another, but also space to enjoy moments of contemplation watching the fantastic scenery glide by.

The views start immediately after leaving Auckland Strand Station, with the train briefly following the Hauraki shoreline before floating through the middle of Hobson Bay on a narrow track of railway. 

But it is after leaving the Auckland suburbs behind that the views really begin to open up. Within an hour, the expansive Waikato Plains begin to roll away for miles in every direction. After a quick stop to pick up passengers in Hamilton, the winding climb into King Country begins. Meandering through picturesque river valleys past remote farmsteads, the train's vast panoramic windows showcase intimate views of real New Zealand.

Raurimu Spiral

By late morning, the Northern Explorer approaches one of the wonders of the railway world. Constructed between 1905 and 1907, the Raurimu Spiral was (quite literally) a groundbreaking solution to the impossible ascent onto the Central Plateau.

The 139 metre climb in 2km from Raurimu was far too steep for the railway, and the alternative 20km diversion required nine expensive viaducts. An ingenious solution was proposed by engineer Robert West Holmes. Using the contours of an accommodating hill and a cunning mixture of cuttings and tunnels, the railway twists around and loops beneath itself. The spiraling railway transforms the 2km distance into 6km, and reduces the gradient from an  impossible 7% to a reasonable 2%.

Even aboard the modern Northern Explorer train, the squealing wheels and the thundering engine are an audible sign of an uphill struggle. And although the views of steep banks and tunnels aren't top billing on this scenic journey, there is still something magically engaging about this unique experience.

Tongariro National Park

After climbing onto Central Plateau, the scenery changes dramatically from narrow tree-lined river gorges into open plains of mountain grasses.

The formal name for this enormous elevated region is the North Island Volcanic Plateau. Stretching north all the way to the Bay of Plenty, the Volcanic Plateau is an elevated flat expanse punctured with volcanoes. Some are dormant, and most are extinct. Two exploded dramatically, with one appearing in written history when it darkened the skies over China in 232AD.

Upon leaving National Park Railway Station,  the view is magnificent, with two mighty volcanoes standing proudly on the horizon - Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu. But it is the volcanic cone of Tongariro's secondary vent, Mount Ngauruhoe, that stands out. This perfect cone became globally famous when it appeared as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy

Arriving in Ohakune

After a delicious light lunch on the train, the Northern Explorer eases into Ohakune Station at 1.45pm. Accommodation is at the Powderhorn Chateau - a character-filled Alpine ski lodge at the foot of Mount  Ruapehu. 

The Signature Tours come with included activities, whereas the  Classic Highlights Tours allow you to pick your own path. The itinerary includes plenty of options for you to book through the Travel Centre when organising your tour. However, if you decided against prearranging activities, then your Tour Director will help provide some inspiration and organise activities on arrival.  And with Mark being the local internet, he has plenty of ideas for this inaugural tour. 

Ohakune lies in the foothills of Mount Ruapehu, and there are plenty of things to do. Suggested activities include a Tongariro Sunset Guided Walk, Forgotten World Adventures, Splash 'n' Dash canoeing, Guided Fly Fishing, Clay Bird Target Shooting. Walking around the charming town - including a photo in front of an enormous metal carrot - is also a good half-day activity.

Day 3: Exploring Ohakune

Over breakfast, Mark chats through the various options for the day. Today is a free day, where people can choose what they want to do. As a small group that is loving each other's company, the inclination is to do something together.

And with glorious New Zealand countryside in every direction, the decision is to "go bush" and explore the native forest tracks and trails for cycling and hiking. 

Biking Old Coach Road

Now, a three-hour mountain bike was not something most of the group had considered before today.  But Mark's enthusiasm meant it quickly won the majority vote.

Two factors helped swing the vote: firstly, the Old Coach Road was in the opposite direction to the mountain and along an abandoned (and reasonably flat) coach path; secondly, there were e-Bikes on offer! However, it is worth noting that experience with off-road biking is preferable. Sections of the track are rocky and can be slippery when wet.


The Old Coach Road is closely tied to railway history. Before the astonishing viaducts between Ohakune and National Park were completed, the railways from Wellington and Auckland were divided by 39km of difficult terrain. While engineers grappled with constructing the soaring viaducts, passengers were ferried between railheads by horse and cart along the Old Coach Road. 

After being lost to the forest for decades, the road was recently rediscovered and transformed into an easy cycle and hiking trail. Along the 15km trail, you'll be completely immersed in native forest and surrounded by birdsong, with long-abandoned bridges and viaducts to admire. It really is an all-round adventure.


Day 4: Exploring the mountains

The morning of Day 4 was filled with a guided tour of Ruapehu led by the ever-energetic Mark. 

Driving around Mount Ruapehu to its other famous skifield, Whakapapa, takes about forty minutes. There, the shuttle pulls up in the middle of nowhere. It's actually not far from the grounds of the famous Chateau Tongariro. But in the wild expanse of Tongariro National Park, in a small and unassuming parking lot, it feels like nowhere. And that is the beauty of New Zealand - little treasures lie everywhere, and you'll often be the only one there.

The little treasure on this occasion is Tawhai Falls. It's a surprisingly short and easy walk from the road that takes you into a secret world - a fantasy land - familiarly known as Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings. The waterfall's stage name is Gollum's Pool. You'd be forgiven for not immediately recognising it, thanks to Peter Jackson's incredible CGI team transforming it into a cave. But the feeling when standing by the pool is certainly fantastical.

Riding high on the Sky Waka

It sounds like something from Star Wars, but waka means canoe in te reo Māori, making this a ship that carries you into the sky. 

Setting sail from the skifield's base camp, the Sky Waka is Whakapapa's super-fast ski lift. Travelling a distance of 1.8km with an elevation of 390m in 12 minutes, the lift is certainly speedy. There's not even enough time for Mark to explain why it's called a gondola instead of a cable car - a conversation that will be reignited in Wellington. 

At the top of the gondola, you exit a spritely 2020 metres above sea level. On a good day, the views are phenomenal, with Mount Taranaki visible in the distance, some 120km away. During the summer, the temperature remains surprisingly cool and pockets of snow can be found year-round. The air up here is always the quintessential 'mountain fresh' type. 

When there is no snow, the bare landscape is distinctly volcanic. The Knoll Ridge cafe, where the Sky Waka takes you, is still more than a couple of kilometres from the crater of this behemoth volcano. There are designated paths for three walks. The best is the "Sky Line", which takes you even further up the mountain for absolutely breathtaking views. But,  if you are feeling adventurous, you should check the timings with your guide - you probably don't want to miss the train and the rest of the tour. 

The more relaxing option is to enjoy lunch and do a bit of light exploring closer to the cafe. You don't need to be a volcanologist to appreciate the unique environment found here, with its hardy plants and grasses growing amidst the volcanic rock, pumice, and scoria. But for those that are interested, this is really interesting.

And to answer that all-important question: yes, Ruapehu is active, but is very docile. The last eruption in 2007 did little more than ruin the snow. There is a high-tech detection centre that monitors the area constantly, and early warning systems are in place. There is always a risk, but this one is extremely low.

Onwards to Wellington by train

After a couple of days cycling through lush forest and hiking around spartan volcanoes, easing back into the comfy train seats to explore more of New Zealand is a welcome treat. 

The southern part of the Northern Explorer journey is possibly even more beautiful than the northern half. The descent from the plateau is less dramatic - there are no spirals - but the exciting difference is the viaducts that are required instead.

Perhaps the most inspiring sight is the winding Rangitikei gorge with its sheer white cliffs. The river, which is easily recognisable as the River Anduin from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, entwines with the railway for several kilometres, with spectacular views over the gorges. Best of all are the four viaducts that soar over the river and its tributaries in quick succession, bringing you inside the river gorges' intimate confines. The southernmost is the Makohine Viaduct, where engineering mastery elevates the railway over the cliffs in stunning style. It is well with a visit to the Open Air Carriage to take in the sights. 

A lazy afternoon unfolds, with gorgeous New Zealand countryside drifting by our windows. Mark brings afternoon tea and a glass of delicious New Zealand wine to sip upon and starts to organise the activities for our next stop, Wellington.

The journey closes in scenic style, skirting along the Tasman coast with the sun starting to fade behind Kapiti Island. 


Relaxing night in Wellington

After a relaxing day, there is nothing better than a relaxing evening. And there is no shortage of relaxing options in the stunning capital. From the bohemian atmosphere of Cuba Street to the quaint waterside bars and restaurants around Queen's Wharf, there is something for every mood. 

Tonight is a 'free night' to explore, but everyone is keen to continue into the night together. Following Mark's local knowledge of restaurants and bars, a sumptuous dinner and a few nightcaps ensue. 

Day 5: Explore Wellington

With so much to do in Wellington, the day starts early with breakfast at the hotel at 7am. Breakfast in New Zealand is a celebrated affair - deliciously rich and filling. It is often hard to refrain from celebrating a little too much and needing to have another lie-down. But with an easy sightseeing shuttle planned for the morning, this is a good day to treat yourself. 

Congregating in the lobby at 8am, a few of the group have clearly enjoyed a satisfying breakfast and are ready to sit down! 

Wellington minibus tour

At 8am, the shuttle bus arrives, and by 8:15am everyone is aboard and driving through the streets of Wellington. In most capital cities, the bus would be crawling along in rush-hour traffic, competing with tired and frustrated locals battling their way to work. But there's no such sport in Wellington. Everyone is fresh-faced and happy, and there is barely any traffic.  

Wellington is a beautiful, quaint little city nestled around a huge natural harbour. The city's population centre is about 202,000, with most residents living in detached homes with scenic views over the city, harbour, or Cook Strait - some enjoy all three. If you could pick your dream city to live in, then it certainly would be high up your list. 

Being such a small city surrounded by water and hills, the bus tour is both quick and divinely scenic. The coastal roads around Miramar and the south coast pass colourful boat sheds, seal colonies, penguin breeding grounds, surf beaches, secret coves and beautiful beaches - all part of daily life in Wellington.

Along the way, the bus climbs to a viewing point at the top of Mount Victoria for 360° views across the city around to the South Island - with excellent photo opportunities too.


Wellington Botanic Garden

From the top of the Wellington Cable Car, the walk back down to Lambton Quay through the Wellington Botanic Garden makes a very easy hour-long amble downhill through ornate gardens.

Among the themes you'll find en route are the Alpine Rock Garden, Australian Garden, Camellia Collection, Glenmore Meadow, Fern Collection, Harakeke Collection, Grass Collection, Threatened Species and Kauri Rock Garden.  There is also an extremely pleasant bush walk with trickling waterfalls ringing with native birdsong.

The history of the gardens is as colourful as the flowers themselves. Prior to European arrival, the site was used by the people of Te Ātiawa from Pipitea Pā for cultivating plants for food, construction, textiles, and medicines. In 1844 the New Zealand Company set aside a parcel of land on the site to start a botanic reserve.  The current 25-hectare site was established in 1868 and officially became the Wellington Botanic Garden in 1869. 

The Picnic Cafe set in the Rose Garden at the bottom is a perfect spot for refreshments at the end of the walk.

A city stroll

With the minibus tour complete, the rest of the day is free - to be filled at leisure. Several recommended activities can be booked by Mark or in advance by the Travel Centre. However, it's a fine day and the group decides to wander around the city, exploring its charming lanes and waterside walkways. 

As previously mentioned, the city is very quaint. There is no chance of losing your way - even without Google Maps. If you find yourself confronted by a steep hill, then turn around. If you are confronted by sea, then turn around. The entire city sits on a flat section of land between the hills and the harbour. Within these natural boundaries and you'll find plenty to see and do, and you'll never be more than 100m from a bar, restaurant, or café when you fancy a rest.

In all likelihood, you will want to wander around the harbour. On the south side you will find the huge Te Papa museum, Oriental Parade beach, and iconic Cuba Street. Around the middle, you'll find the sheds of Queen's Wharf with the Wellington Museum, Portrait Gallery, and plenty of bars and restaurants to recharge in. Around the north side, you'll find a ferry terminal - in which case, turnaround, there is nothing beyond here but a motorway. 

The main shopping district is along Lambton Quay on the east of the city - at the foot of the steep hills. Alternative and bohemian shopping is up Cuba Street on the south side of the city - it's a gentle hill, which tells you it's heading out of the city centre. 

Hello and Goodbye!

Tonight is the last night for the Northern Highlights tour and a celebratory goodbye dinner is organised for the group to say their farewells.

But it isn't all sadness and goodbyes because tonight is the first night for new members joining the Coastal Highlights and Southern Highlights tours, so the evening doubles-up welcome dinner. 

With everyone meeting at the hotel bar for a few drinks to get acquainted, Mark introduces the new members into the fold. And with the rest group already feeling like an extended family, it really is a warm welcome.

Dinner tonight is included in the tour and is in a delightful harbourside restaurant close to the hotel. With lovely views of the water, scrumptious food and fantastic company, it is a memorable ending for those departing, a sensational welcome for those arriving, and another unforgettable night out for those mid-tour. 

Day 6: The end, or just the beginning?

Today is the last day of the Northern Highlights tour. A free day to explore the rest of Wellington and prepare for heading home.

Enjoy breakfast at one of Wellington's many fine cafes - perhaps try the local favourite, Eggs Benedict with Bacon on Focaccia - and then go back to bed for a lie-down. Try one of the local's favourite coffees - a long black - to keep you on your toes. Have another walk around the sparkling city - that'll help ease the stomach and caffeine buzz.

Breathe in the fresh air from the ocean breeze. 

You can also complete any of the optional activities before you depart. 

However, for those on the New Zealand Highlights or Cities & Coastal Highlights tours, today is the beginning of our next adventure - the Coastal Highlights tour.

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