Part I – Read about The South Island here.
That was the view from MV Ontario II, my second container ship, as we farewelled the Northern tip of New Zealand in February 2020. It spelled the end of my journey to reconnect with ancestors and elders, friends and Aotearoa herself, the land of the long white cloud.
“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”
― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbongoodreads.com/quotes/tag/home
I am a person in transition, from one status to another, and checking places where I grew up has been restorative. During the three months I travelled between Auckland to Stewart Island I not only revisited my past but also contemplated the future. As I watched landscapes roll past bus or train windows, I asked myself: Is NZ my home? Could I return here to live? Where? Is it possible for a soul have a connection to any one place?
I’d no plans before I arrived, aside from our family reunion in the South Island in January. And so I asked myself if family and friends are more important than place?
What you are about to read mainly describes my NZ public transport journey – all the trains, ferries and network of buses of it, through North, South and Stewart Islands. Please note I found it entirely possible to get around NZ without flying and without hiring a car. No worries about staying on the right side of the road (wrong), missing a spectacular view or losing your luggage. And, hey, just that little bit more sustainable!
I hope you find the journey interesting and perhaps even useful. And you already know from the outset, I finished by leaving the country in a container ship and I’m still going! Remember, it’s the journey not the arrival matters! With heart-felt gratitude to all my Kiwi friends and whanau I met along the way. Kia Kaha
Table of Contents
I-SITE offices – essential!
SPECIAL NOTE: ‘I-site‘ is the name of the information and booking offices to be found in every town in New Zealand. All the i-site staff I met on my journey were swift to assist in any way they could to make life easy. Not only do they book transport (all the companies!) they also book accommodation and tours. Some places in the world could take a lesson (I’m looking at you, Brisbane!)
When I was released from the security gate of the Port of Auckland in November 2019 (you can read about my overland trip UK to NZ here) I was greeted by three good friends from University days. During my stay in Europe, these were the people who had gone out of their way to visit me. I could not have dreamed of a better welcome ‘home’.
At first, I was lucky to be able to stay with Pen. She lived across the road from my old school in Epsom so I was able to reconnect with those ghosts of my youth. I wondered who I was then. I left Auckland when I was fifteen, chickenpox scabs on the outside and a good level of teenage angst on the inside.
How to get around Auckland
Some things have improved – and not just the scabs – over forty-five years! Auckland’s transport network is under construction. The intensive roadwork over the new underground system in the middle of the city is due to complete in 2024. But don’t worry, there’s information officers and plenty of signage to keep locals up to date as well as guiding the hapless tourist.
I was encouraged to download the Auckland Transport app which helps you plan itineraries on foot and train, bus or ferry.
I went up to Whangarparoa Peninsula to visit my mother’s old home in Matikatia Bay. I took a bus from Auckland to the park ‘n’ ride hub near Orewa and another bus along the Peninsula. If it had been a day to visit Tiritiri Matenga Island, a predator-free bird haven off the point of the Peninsula, I could have caught the ferry to make a perfect day round trip, but, sadly, only on offer three times a week.
The central hub of the Auckland public transport system is Britomart. I thought Britomart was the name of a supermarket but it turned out she was a ship and a fort. The Maori name of the place of that fort was Te Rerenga Ora Iti. Now it’s a sparkly new train station.
When I was doing WorkAway in Devon, UK, I heard about an intentional eco-community called Earthsong. West of Auckland, in a suburb called Ranui, Earthsong is easily accessible by train. I stayed there for a fortnight, in the lead up to Christmas. I weeded and planted, doing WorkAway (or Woofing) as I have done in France, Belgium and England.
The buildings are beautifully arranged in an old orchard. A figure-of-eight pedestrian path links all thirty-eight north-facing dwellings of mixed shapes and sizes. The cars are parked to one side. Trolleys can be used to shift shopping and furniture and the neighbours are inclined to prop and plot in the middle of the pathways. I was impressed to learn two of the inhabitants were undergoing scaffolding training. The community, after realising it would be cheaper in the long run to buy their own scaffolding, had commenced the training to obtain the required licenses. That’s thinking ahead.
There are extensive gardens providing fruit and veg and some attractive and productive chooks always up for a chat.
Robin, one of the main instigators of the development, is about to publish a book about Earthsong’s history. I read part of an early draft and highly recommend it for anyone interested in co-housing, persistence and chasing a dream. Here’s a link to the history online while we wait for the book to be published.
Apart from weeding, I was welcomed into the life of the people there, from Earthsong’s Secret Santa party, to a community choir Christmas celebration, an end of term art exhibition and a beach bar at nearby Bethell’s Friday summer hoe-down. Plus, through Earthsong I found out about two other NZ communities, Tui and Anahata, both of which I would visit in the coming weeks. Could they inspire a new way for me to live?
And, as usual, these may vary from day to day. For example, at first Ranui station ticket machine would not accept credit cards and the next day it refused to accept paper notes, just when I didn’t have enough coins! But I was able to pay in person at Britomart with no fuss. It’s not as strict as other places in the world.
Auckland Central Station
Changes in NZ public transport mean you can now stay in the re-jigged Auckland Central Station – a hotel plus serviced apartments.
It’s a mere skip around the corner to the Strand Station where you catch the Northern Explorer, the Kiwi Rail service from Auckland to Wellington. In fact, on foot, I beat a couple who caught a taxi around the corner (they had a lot of luggage) when I skipped around the bend! (As is my wont.)
NORTH ISLAND TRAIN – the Northern Explorer
I’d like to argue with some New Zealanders who spout their commonly-held belief that the train is too expensive – they’d prefer to hire a car or fly. Depending on dates you might pay around NZ $137 – $199, between Auckland and Welly, I found the train considerably cheaper than flying in the peak pre-Christmas rush. Given the station is in the centre of the city so you don’t pay to travel to the airport, and you don’t have to hang around waiting for security, plus you know where your luggage is at any given time, I reckon the Northern Explorer is the way to go.
If leaving from Auckland you need to find the Strand Station. (If from Wellington (Welly), that city train station is easy to find. Watch out for a bit of a search around Wellington train station to get the boarding pass and luggage label – more a case of the staff finding you. )
Even before the engine started pulling us away I’d revved up on the café car – proper coffee and a delicious dairy-free Bircher museli. Our before-Christmas status ensured the train was fully booked – we’d be picking up more folk along the way.
Loved a parting glimpse of the port as we passed the harbour and turned south into suburbs which soon evolved into verdant New Zealand rural landscape.
The staff welcomed new passengers to their seats after picking up extra at Pukekohe, adding a warning about keeping heads, arms and other personal property within the boundaries of the viewing carriage. ‘Anything lost over the side will remain lost.’
As you travel through the North Island, you can choose to listen to an informative recorded narration if you’re interested in history, industry or famous characters of the area. Activated by satellite, a little ‘bing’ on the screens fixed in the middle of the carriages alerts you to pick up your ear buds and tune in to the next instalment.
The recorded commentary is activated by GPS and filled with interesting local colour such as the hero of Pine Tree Meadows used to run up the hills with a sheep under each arm to stay fit. Te Kuiti has an annual sheep muster and Huntly power station provides 17 percent of NZ’s power needs from a combination of gas and coal.
I bought a postcard of the famous Raurimu Spiral where the train goes round in a big loop to look at itself from both ends to avoid too steep a gradient. It is an engineering marvel. It’s also how I’ve been travelling, examining where I’ve been and where I’m going, all the while going up.
Ever since I left Melbourne nearly four years ago for Hong Kong, another childhood site, I’ve held that idea of seeking my past, re-examining who I have been, in order to understand who I might become. And none more so than in the North island of New Zealand, where I was able to visit the place of my last primary schooling, my first secondary years, and see many people I grew up with. Seems my journey has its own logic.
Stops on the Northern Explorer
If you’re not going the full distance between Auckland and Welly, you could choose to leave the train at Papakura, Hamilton, Otorohanga (Waitomo), National Park, Okahune, Palmerston North or Paraparaumu.
As I wanted to revisit the land of my grandparents, Waikanae, I hopped off the train at Paraparaumu. One of my fellow passengers offered me a lift back up to the Waikanae train station – Kiwi hospitality in action. I followed my memory nose and found the charming Airbnb metres away from my grandparents’ old house up on the hill, right next to the Hemi Matenga Reserve.
I spent some time wandering through regenerating bush. But the beach is the best part of Waikanae, the wild west waters tamed by the guardian island of Kapiti, a bird reserve.
The next afternoon I caught the domestic train to Wellington to ‘hang out’ with dear friends and a wonderful cousin for a few days.
Hanging Out is now one of my favourite things to do – especially with such favourite people – exploring Te Papa museum and some of the many excellent cafés that Welly has to offer – or just having a cuppa in my cousin’s kitchen.
NB: You may be interested in exploring a fine (bizarre) tv show called, ‘Wellington Paranormal‘ to discover just how normal Wellingtonians really are. The Bucket Fountain is featured in Episode One, Demon Girl.
Wellington – Picton ferry – Bluebridge
All too soon it was time to move on from Wellington and I jumped on to the Bluebridge Ferry to cross to Picton, on the top of the other island.
The ship originally hailed from Norway and felt a sturdy comfortable place to be.
You are always within sight of land during the voyage and that land is completely scenic. This ferry, with or without car, is very enjoyable. (Yes, obviously comfort is weather dependent. But all life has its ups and downs.)
It was blustery, so if you plan on taking in landscapes or spotting dolphins, or even an orca, bring some warm gear.
Find Part II, where I explore the South and Stewart islands and finally get to that family reunion!