It wasn’t the plan all along to take the train to Wellington. We had been messing around with travel routes and possible stopovers for a few weeks. The original idea was to drive the whole distance, but we heard that it could take upwards of 10 hours (more if you are still a timid left-side driver). The Northern Explorer train is 8 hours long between Hamilton and Wellington but a much more relaxing mode of transport (they serve wine. That’s really it).
The Hamilton train station was tiny, dusty, and bare bones—a true small-town stop. The conductor came inside once the train arrived and handed out paper tickets by shouting the last names of purchasers one at a time. We formed a line like schoolkids. Didn’t know what to expect, but the train turned out to be comfortable and spacious. The windows were vast and you could see sky all around you. The best part was the open-air car. The train chugged along as groups of passengers filed into a standing-only car at the head of the train that was void of window panes. As we ventured deeper into the countryside, the view was expansive. The wind whipped our hair into a frenzy as we stood in the open car gawking at every turn, just a stones throw away from trees and hillsides. Snow-capped mountains shot up over hills lined with sheep, and the only prevailing sound was that of gears grinding into tracks.
8 hours whizzed by with little effort (and a lot of free recorded commentary through our in-seat headphone jacks). We ate our way through 2 full meals from the dining car, which had everything from smoothies and curry to wine and cheese (and cookies…and more wine…and a non-negotiable souvenir magnet). The most dangerous part of the journey was opening a tab.
We spent more time in the open-air car than in our seats. The conductor liked to announce his favorite portions of the ride via overhead speakers with enough warning to layer up and hustle “outside”. We passed dirt roads and threadbare homes in these towns that looked almost forgotten until people came out and waved to train passengers. It was humble and organic. The tiny mining towns reminded me of driving through middle America. That juxtaposition of clean green hills, old wooden homes, and searing blue sky looked like a postcard. I am permanently obsessed with train journeys.
We rolled into Wellington by dinner time and quickly checked into our B&B. Upon walking into Gourmet Stay, the owner asked me if I say my name “S-era” “S-ahh-ra” (it’s the latter, like the “a” sound when you say the word “star”). I almost fell over. Apparently its only in America that nobody can say my name right.
I’ve learned that every hotel in NZ provides real mugs, glasses, and fresh milk for your coffee, no matter how cheap the room is. It gives your one-night home a cozy feel. Wasting no time caffeinating ourselves, we wound up at a bar called Bad Grannies listening to a local singer covering Ed Sheeran as 3 other patrons tapped their feet against bar stools. The city felt a little like Brooklyn spliced with San Francisco—a little grit and a little cool. There wasn’t much activity on a Thursday, so we wandered back early past a graffiti-covered church in an abandoned lot.
I was laying in bed back in the room that night and thinking about how travel is so much more than visiting somewhere. It’s discomfort and tiredness. It’s immersion into a foreign place. It’s being up early and then cranky at night. It’s being present somewhere that is totally unknown. That unglamorous state of transition is what keeps me warm at night.