Thursday, 28 September 2017

All Aboard the Taieri Gorge Railway!

Last weekend was a bit of a memorable one in many ways.  Not only did we have Liam with us after eight months apart, but Sunday September 24th also marked 20 years since my Dad passed away from cancer at age 57.  We wanted to do something special to remember him by, so when we heard that the Taieri Gorge Railway had re-opened just a few days earlier after extensive storm damage, we jumped at the opportunity.  For starters, most New Zealanders don't get to ride on a train very often; it's not a frequent or common mode of transport but the Taieri Gorge Railway is also not just any old train journey.  The six-hour voyage from Dunedin to Middlemarch is actually widely acclaimed as one of the top five train journeys in the world, beating Alaska and the Canadian Rockies!  Who knew!  We certainly didn't, but there was no way we were missing the opportunity seeing as we were right here.

Dunedin Railway Station - the most photographed building in NZ!

Upper floor of the station

The mosaic floor in the foyer 

Because EVERY station needs porcelain ticket windows!

It also gave me the chance to do something I had wanted to do for ages, which was check out the interior of the historic Dunedin Railway Station.  This is a seriously cool building - so cool in fact, that it is the second most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere, second only behind Sydney Opera House!  Opened in 1906, the station is impossibly grand both inside and out.  With its mosaic floor, Royal Doulton porcelain balcony and surrounds and gold gilding all over the place, setting foot in it is like going back in time.  It felt even more so as we climbed up into our 100 year old heritage carriage, with its original wrought iron and varnished wood.  As we settled in to our seats for the next few hours, it was pretty exciting to think we were going to be travelling through miles of countryside where no other vehicles could go.  The line was originally begun in 1879 to service the goldfields, however it was finished too late for the miners.  It was used instead to open up the fruit and farming country inland at Cromwell and carried a lot of four-legged woolly passengers before losing out to road transport and eventually closing.  Fortunately, thanks to a team of passionate volunteers, it was later lovingly restored and resurrected as a tourist operation. Today, this 154km railway journey remains quite literally the only way you can see the things we were going to see!

All aboard!

Our cosy little carriage

The train pootled along at a leisurely pace out of Dunedin until we left civilisation as we knew it far behind.  We wended our way along the Taieri River, through the first of the ten tunnels along the way until we began to steadily climb the Taieri Gorge.  Considering how high up we actually were, the train managed the climb with ease and before we knew it, all three of us were madly pointing our cameras out of the window and scrambling outside to get a better view.  One of the highlights of the trip was the Wingatui Viaduct; a 197 metre long curved bridge which is not only a master of engineering but also the largest wrought iron structure in the Southern Hemisphere, built in 1887.  To give you an idea of the size of it; it's up there with the Eiffel Tower, except lengthways.  Incredible to think this amazing feat of construction was built out in this no-man's land, heaven knows how they did it!  As we crossed this viaduct, one of a dozen or more, and emerged through the tunnel into Mullocky Gully, we chugged along past a few quaint 'blink-and-you-miss-them' places such as Parera, Mount Allan and Christmas Creek, before making a brief stop in Hindon to stretch our legs and take photos.

Pootling along the Wingatui Viaduct (and trying not to look down!)

Stopping to admire the view at Hindon - and say hello to 'Sue'!

By now we were totally accustomed to 'ooh-ing' and 'ahh-ing' at every turn but the stop at Hindon was definitely a favourite moment for me.  As we piled out of our little carriage onto the platform and stood looking out over the countryside, along with 'Sue', the monument dedicated to all the sheepdogs who had worked in the area for over 150 years, I thought of my dad and how much he would have loved this journey.  I wished he were here to see it.  I didn't think the journey could get any better than this, but the best was still to come!

Boldly going where no cars have gone before

Rivers and waterfalls, bridges and tunnels, Taieri Gorge has it all!

Higher and higher we gently climbed, heading out of the gorge and over the Deep Stream and Flat Stream viaducts.  Here the landscape became even more incredible, as we travelled through 'The Notches'; yet another mindblowing feat of engineering through seemingly impossible rocky formations. After stopping at Pukerangi, the rocks gave way to miles of open plains, dotted with sheep and cattle.  'I always wondered why people always went on about New Zealanders and sheep', said Liam.  'I never knew what the big joke was about, I've never even seen that many over here!  But now I've been to the South Island?  OK now I finally understand!'  The view was beautiful and made even more so by the snow-capped mountains in the distance.  However it was extremely barren and exposed and Gareth and I had a hilarious time trying to stay upright as we stood out on the little platform at the end of our carriage.  We had never known such ferocious winds!  At last we reached the end of the line at Middlemarch.  A tiny but friendly rural town, we had an hour to browse here at our leisure.  The railway does provide some small snacks and refreshments, however seeing as its a six hour journey we definitely recommend bringing your own food and drink as well.  Fortunately, the Strath Taieri Pub put on a warm welcome for hungry travellers and the food was both excellent and reasonable.  We loved the cosy atmosphere of this little place and its people.

The barren plains at Sutton

Middlemarch - a little town with a lot of character, including this pub!

Time to head for home

Tummies nicely full and photos duly taken, it was time to board the train once again for the ride home.  The journey was just as magical facing the other way and we all lost count of how many photos we took and how many times we said 'wow'!  A couple of hours later we emerged somewhat reluctantly back into civilisation.  It had been a full-on day and wasn't over yet, as we still had to take Liam to the airport to catch his flight home to Wellington.  None of us were ready for him to leave yet, we were all having too much fun and there was so much more we wanted him to see!  It was a shame that we wouldn't get the chance to raise a glass together that evening for my dad too.  As he made his way to the departure gate however, it seemed that Mother Nature had other ideas.  To all our joy, a voice came over the loudspeaker to say that due to high winds, Liam's plane had been unable to land.  His flight had been cancelled and he was unable to get home for another 24 hours! I'm not sure who was wearing the bigger grin, him or me!  So off we went back to the motel, to plan how we could make the most of our unexpected extra day together and to finally have a drink for my dad.  Crazy as it sounds, I couldn't help smiling a little to myself and wondering if somehow he had something to do with it!

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