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Traverse the volcanic heart of the North Island
From the glittering skyline of Auckland to the quaint capital of Wellington, across the great plains of Waikato and the expansive farmlands of Manawatu, along river valleys and craggy coastlines, soaring over viaducts and spiraling up historic feats of engineering on an amazing ascent to the volcanic heart of the North Island.
The Northern Explorer train journey follows the historic North Island Main Trunk railway (NIMT). Completed in 1908, the railway was the dream of Julius Vogel, who wanted to connect the North Island interior - and the people who lived there. In an age before roads, the journey from Auckland to Wellington took several days of treacherous sailing around the coast. The railway would enable the journey to take less than a day. But the terrain along the way proved difficult and expensive to build upon. As a result, the NIMT took almost 30 years to complete.
Today, this is an epic journey of engineering marvels, through the full spectrum of New Zealand's stunning scenery and charm.
Scenic Auckland to the Mighty Waikato
Setting off from Auckland, our cosmopolitan City of Sails, the first chapter of this epic Northern Explorer train journey is instantly wondrous. With Auckland Sky Tower standing proudly on the horizon, the Northern Explorer floats through the extinct volcanic cone of the Orakei Basin on a narrow elevated bank.
After leaving the suburbs of Auckland behind, the Northern Explorer train roams across the mighty Waikato Plains to Hamilton, famous for its gardens and the Hobbiton film set. South of Hamilton, the journey begins weaving through rolling hills of King Country, stopping at Otorohanga late morning, famous for the nearby Waitomo Caves.
On its journey south, the Northern Explorer ascends rapidly onto the southern tip of the Central Plateau, where the often snow-capped docile volcano, Mount Ruapehu, dominates the skyline.
The plateau was one of the major obstacles that the railway's engineers had to overcome. The solution was the historic Raurimu Spiral, designed in 1898 to make the 139-metre ascent onto the plateau possible without a lengthy diversion. Today, the train still squeals around the tight curves of the spiral, travelling beneath itself as it loops around and around. This is one of the journey highlights for engineering fans from around the world.
Tongariro National Park
As you travel through Tongariro National Park, the eastern skyline will feature the distinctive volcanic cone of Ngauruhoe, which starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie. Further south, the massive peak of Ruapehu looms on the horizon as the Northern Explorer skirts around the southern edge of the volcanic plateau.
During winter, Mount Ruapehu is home to the North Island's most popular ski slopes: Whakapapa and Turoa. In summer, the Tongariro Crossing is one of the best hikes in New Zealand, taking approximately 8 hours to hike around the volcanoes of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe and the Emerald Lakes.
Year-round, the historic Chateau Tongariro is an iconic destination and a living reminder of the ostentatious 1920s.
Viaducts of Tongariro National Park
As the Northern Explorer train navigates its way around the foothills of Mount Ruapehu, a series of three steepling viaducts bridge the deep ravines carved by rivers forming on the mountain slopes: the Manganui-o-te-Ao, Makatote, and Hapuawhenua (from the left, this is the order they are pictured above).
The 34m tall Manganui-o-te-Ao Viaduct was the last piece of the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) railway to be constructed. Completed in 1908, it finally connected Auckland to Wellington by train, and an obelisk on the western bank just north of the viaduct marks the spot where the opening ceremony took place.
The tallest of the of the three viaducts is the Makatote Viaduct, which is just a couple of minutes north of Manganui-o-te-Ao Viaduct. At 79m tall and with a span of 262m, it is also the second largest on the Northern Explorer's route.
The Hapuawhenua Viaduct, a little north of Ohakune, was replaced in 1987 with a new 51m high and 414m long concrete viaduct. This magnificent curved viaduct is a photo hotspot, both from on the train and the old viaduct which is now part of the Old Coach Road walking and cycling trail.
Stroll outside for some volcanic views
South of Ohakune, the views of Ruapehu from the train are tremendous. On a clear day this immense, broad, volcano dominates the skyline and captivates the attention of all aboard. This is an ideal opportunity to stroll to the Open-air viewing carriage to breathe in the atmosphere - it can be a genuinely momentous occasion.
Swamps, plains, and deserts
Bleak expanses of tussock and snow-grasses dominate the south-eastern edge of the Central Plateau. The volcanic make-up of the soil here makes it incredibly porous, and the ground remains arid and infertile despite the high volumes of rain throughout the year. This high plain is called the Rangipo Desert, and although it is not officially a desert, it is as inhospitable as any place on earth.
Adjacent to the "desert" is a large area of swampland. Created by the pooling water, it is equally poor for sustaining vegetation. However, this void makes great training grounds for the Waiouru Military Camp and provides magnificent unobstructed views of the imposing Mount Ruapehu from the railway to the south.
Lord of the Rings country
The steady ascent onto the volcanic plateau from the south is achieved by following the Rangitikei River, where the water has carved the soft sandstone to create a narrow gorge with steep white cliffs and several sharp horseshoe bends.
The result is the most fantastical river scenery you're likely to ever see. So it is unsurprising that Sir Peter Jackson used the Rangatikei as the Anduin River in Lord of the Rings.
Soaring viaducts of Rangitikei
As the Northern Explorer train follows the gorges of the Rangitikei valley, it negotiates the river and its tributaries via five towering viaducts. The most northerly is the Toi Toi Viaduct, built in 1904 and standing 62 metres high. The most southerly is the Makohine Viaduct, built in 1902 and measuring 72m tall 229m long.
Between these two original iron truss viaducts is the Mangaweka Deviation, which was completed in 1981 with three new concrete viaducts. To the north is the North Rangatikei viaduct which, at 78m tall and 182m long, is the second tallest on the Northern Explorer railway. This is closely followed by the Kaiwhatau River viaduct, 74m tall and 182m long. A couple of minutes farther south is the South Rangitikei viaduct, which is 75m tall and 315m long, making it the third largest on the Northern Explorer journey.
Although not famed for its sea views, the Northern Explorer includes one of the best stretches of coastal railway in New Zealand.
Between Pukerua Bay and Paekakariki, the railway clings to the cliffs high above the sea delivering spectacular views of the Tasman Sea and Kapiti Island. On a clear summer evening, you'll also get the most sensational sunset as the southbound Northern Explorer train journey approaches Wellington, its final destination.
Probably the least expected highlight of the Northern Explorer journey is Porirua Harbour. Located almost immediately outside Wellington, those heading north are often still sipping coffee and reading newspapers, whilst those heading south are packing away their belongings in preparation for arrival.
However, the short stretch between Porirua and Paremata is a scenic gem, with sailing boats anchored in idyllic calm waters. It's definitely worth looking out for and you'll probably have the Open-air viewing carriage to yourself.
Choose your Northern Explorer experience
Choose from a day trip on the Northern Explorer train, a short break to Tongariro, or a full 17-day tour. All of these travel experiences include the Northern Explorer journey.