Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | February 17, 2009

Of Sheep and Volcanoes – 4

Sheep finally

Sheep finally

If volcanoes have shaped New Zealand’s landscape to a huge extent, sheep is an integral part of New Zealand life. Before coming to New Zealand, whatever we read about talked of sheep being an integral part of country’s culture and economy. However despite the country having the highest density of sheep per capita (apparently there are 12 to 20 sheep per one human being), one does not get to see sheep as easily as you see cows on the streets of India. Therefore, during the recent trip one of our prime objectives was to see sheep in order to satisfy ourselves of their presence around us.

During the course of our travel in the bus, we passed through Te Kuiti – the shredding capital of the world and saw some. We joked about inane things like why don’t cattle get bored by chewing just grass! What do they eat when they feel like partying? We also learnt a bit about how sheep (as well as cows) here contribute to global warming in a serious way by emitting methane gas in the atmosphere through their burps and farts. Having said that, the bus ride did not seem enough quench our enthusiasm but the train ride back to Auckland from National Park did that.

Sheep though was not the only reason why we travelled on Overlander. Riding Overlander was as if being part of NZ’s history in some sense.

Though we carried some aches from our walk, we were looking forward to the train ride back to Auckland. Personally, I have a fondness towards railways and Overlander was supposed to be a delightful ride.

Station

Station

We reached the National Park railway station fifteen minutes before our train’s arrival from Wellington. The station though very small has a restaurant called ‘Station Café’ which is the best restaurant in the village. Though we did not have food there but we visited the amazing waiting room adjacent to the café . Not all stations in New Zealand has waiting rooms such as this but National Park being an important station has a luxury lounge as waiting room. Having said that, only two passenger-trains pass through the National Park everyday and that too in summer. These are the Overlander that goes to Wellington from Auckland and the Overlander that goes to Auckland from Wellington. During winter the Overlander runs only on the weekends, so you can imagine how deserted the station can be. Despite mountains all around the station can be really haunting at night. We were during daytime, so we did not have to worry about that.

The train

The train

The Overlander from Wellington came on time and out came one of the two attendants – Christine with our boarding passes. All passengers had to put their luggage in the luggage van. The train stops at National Park for around 15 minutes and before it starts towards Auckland, Christine called out aloud for all passengers to get in the train. She even checked the waiting room and the Station Café.

Inside the train

Inside the train

The Overlander runs on North Island Main Trunk Railway that connects Auckland and Wellington. Coincidentally it completes a hundred year of operation in the current month and is considered an engineering marvel. Though we did not do the complete journey from Wellington, but apparently the train passes through nine major viaducts, of which five are over 70 metres high. The National Park station that lies in the middle of route and we crossed through the famous Raurimu Spiral while travelling towards Auckland.

Sheer variety of green is impressive

Sheer variety of green is impressive

Construction of The Raurimu Spiral is regarded as an engineering masterpiece. Essentially, the spiral is a single-track railway spiral, starting with a horseshoe curve, overcoming a 132 m height difference. When you are in a train passing through such a beautiful spiral you cannot possibly take amazing photographs. In order to keep clicking the best shots you have to be on a helicopter following the train. I missed taking lot of pictures during our ride through the tunnels in the spiral. In case you are interested to know about spiral and see some pictures this link may be of interest to you.

What makes the train ride so scenic is that the entire track is through the volcanic plateau. Both sides of the train through the large window offer views of mountain, different kind of tree, the river and farmland. I have not seen such variety of the colour green ever. The landscape colours looked like what I have seen in paintings before.

Tunnel View from the rear glass gallery

Tunnel View from the rear glass gallery

To help you enjoy the train ride the train has two viewing galleries. One of the galleries just behind the engine is actually an open balcony. The second one at the rear is a lounge with a glass covered rear part. Therefore, if someone were seeing the train from behind he would see the rear glass side moving away from him.

Ably managed by two attendants, it also has a pantry where you can buy food and drink. The attendants provide regular commentary on the places you pass. The train partly runs on an electric engine and partly on a diesel one. The speed of trains here is slower compared to Indian trains because for most part the train either climbs up the mountains or down. Railway tracks in NZ are mostly like that.

Riding the train was like moving through the heart of NZ.

Farmlands on either side of the track

Farmlands on either side of the track

While travelling on the train I was wondering whether Switzerland is actually better compared to NZ! Or may be because Switzerland is easily accessible and is an affluent European country it always is regarded special. Whatever pictures I have seen of NZ either in books, internet or Yash Chopra movies, I could relate the similarity with NZ. Further I think NZ has a greater variety and better weather. I am not here to compare though but God has been generous on both these places and people have maintained the beauty properly.

It is unbelievable that because of the high cost of running the train, there was a thought some years back to discontinue the service. Thousands signed a petition to stop that from happening. I was feeling a trifle sad remembering that we possibly did not do that to save the New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling train? I have been to Darjeeling thrice but have never been on that train since it was not running. I wonder why did not we maintain that! Recently, Sabyasachi wrote how he played a part of an activist group that successfully led to the shifting of the construction of a power plant in Andhra Pradesh in turn saving nature from destruction. I hope we could all play such part in restoring India.

In Conclusion

I don’t think many people read this series of mine and even if they did I understand there is nothing much to write on the comment box. However, I enjoyed writing about this trip especially because after a long time we had such a trip.

The travel did take our minds out of many problems that we face. Hope the sacred mountains of Tongariro bless us post our pilgrimage.

In case any of you want to know more about anything I have written about in the post do let me know. I shall definitely research and write about the same here.

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