Sunday, October 23rd, 2011: Dunedin, New Zealand
Our first day back on New Zealand soil came as our ship arrived into port alongside the dock at Port Chalmers. This small town about 12kms northeast of Dunedin is the working port for the city, as the main body of water that borders Dunedin and the rest of the Otago Peninsula is simply not deep enough for most large ships to manuever. So, on a quiet Sunday morning, just hours before The All Blacks would battle France for the Rugby World Cup, we disembarked our ship and enjoyed a fantastic day experiencing the Taieri Gorge Railway.
We had read and received a number of great reviews for the Taieri Gorge Railway, a privately owned train and track that runs for 77 kilometers (about 50 miles) north from Dunedin through some amazingly beautiful scenery, arriving at the endpoint of the tracks in the tiny town of Middlemarch. Passengers are able to enjoy a short period here for lunch and then you ride the rails back to town, arriving later in the afternoon.
As we boarded our shuttle bus to Dunedin, we enjoyed seeing tiny Port Chalmers, a charming little port town, with a beautiful church along the hillside and a majestic view of the harbour and the Otago Peninsula. Arriving into the Octagon, the main center of town, we got off the bus and headed south to Anzac Square, the home of the Dunedin Railway Station, the most photographed building in all of New Zealand. No wonder, it is a beautifully restored building, not only on the outside, with its colorful flower garden and manicured grass, but on the inside as well with mosaic tile floors, staircases, and every detail a reminder of how things used to be on the New Zealand Rail.
We picked up our tickets and headed out to the platform, where on Track #3 sat the goldenrod colored carriages of the Taieri Gorge Railway. A royal blue locomotive sat at the front as each passenger entered their respective car (each had a letter — we were in Car “S”), and found their assigned seats. Though the train cars all looked alike on the outside, the insides of each were distinctly different, a mixture of the past and present. Some of the cars were restored to their old style look with bench sitting, and wood paneling, while the modernized cars all had plush and comfortable seats at a table shared by four passengers.
As we took our seats, our conductor came onboard the loudspeakers and provided us with an overview of the day, the safety instructions for the train, and how to best enjoy the views, take pictures, and make the most out of our time onboard. We departed shortly before 10am, and headed west through the suburbs of Carisbrooke and Abbotsford before turning north and arriving into Wingatui junction.
It is at this point that the train pulls off of the state run rail system and onto the 64 kilometer long Taieri Gorge Railway, the longest “privately-owned” railway in New Zealand. It was bought by the local government in 1990 to run only the Taieri Gorge Railway as it was such a popular attraction for visitors to the area. We also noticed that as we left this station and continued north, the city began to release its grip on the view outside our windows and we transitioned into beautiful countryside, farms, and scenic vistas that seemed to continue for the duration of our journey.
We worked our way through such notable locations as the Wingatui Viaduct, Parera, Mount Allan, and Christmas Creek before arriving at our first rest stop of Hindon. These days, Hindon is little more than a sign along the rails, but offered a view that had the entire train pour out onto the ground with cameras snapping nearly non-stop during the 20 minutes alloted to our short break.
As we got back onboard, the train began its short climb upwards towards our summit at Pukerangi, as we chugged along the edge of a sheer cliff drop to the Taieri River below. We passed through Deep Stream, Arthurs Knob, The Notches, and the Reefs before reaching Pukerangi and beginning a slow decent back into the valley, passing though Sutton, before arriving to our midpoint lunch stop for the day in Middlemarch.
Middlemarch these days is a quiet country town on the Strath Taieri Plain, with a population of just 350. As the train lets its passengers off here, there is a small restaurant, one cafe, and the local Lions Club BBQ providing some tasty lunch options for all and we got to enjoy a nice meal under a nearly cloudless blue sky. We had about an hour before we began to make the return trip home. It is one of those towns that somehow has stood the test of time and continues to maintain its small country charm while attracting thousands of visitors each year.
As we wound our way back down the Gorge and back into Dunedin, we were all full of lunch, grabbing photographs from the huge picture windows on the trains or from the open ends of each carriage, and truly enjoying our day. We got back into town about 3:45pm and had just about a half hour to make the final shuttle buses back to the ship. It was a great day of scenic beauty onboard the beautiful and historical railways of the Taieri Gorge.