I braced myself against the safety rail at the end of the carriage and squinted as the wind and splashes of rain caught my face. Nevertheless, I was determined to take a photo. The train was rumbling through a steep ravine. Tufts of green vegetation peeked out from the fissures in the rock and trailed down the precipitous rock-face. Despite a day of changeable weather, this view was a stunner!
As part of our two-week tour of New Zealand’s South Island, we had stopped in Dunedin. Top of our list of things to see and do was the Taieri Gorge Railways train ride – the Dunedin to Pukerangi summer trip. This excursion was a first for all of us, and a great choice since my wife’s parents had joined us on this holiday. My father-in-law is a railway enthusiast and had worked on the railways back in the UK.
The Taieri Gorge train ride is on the AA’s 101 things for Kiwis to do – and since I’m 75% of my way through the list – I decided it was high time I bought myself a ticket! We were staying in Dunedin for two nights and our trip was scheduled for 14 January. On an overcast afternoon, we drove to the station and parked nearby; ready for the 14:30 departure.
What a better way to start a scenic train ride than at Dunedin’s majestic railway station. Built in Flemish renaissance style, this grand building’s facade is chequered white and grey in dark basalt and Oamaru limestone. We walked through the booking hall, over the exquisite mosaic floor and out onto a long platform. A mustard-coloured train greeted us. The carriages were old and wooden; restored rolling stock from the 1920s. Staff scuttled around, as the last preparations were made before departure. We climbed on board and listened to Dave – one of the train hands – who gave us a few pointers about the best spots for taking photos during the trip. I thought about another journey on a single gauge railway that I had taken from Palma to Soller in Majorca, years ago. That trip had been spectacular. Would this one be as good?
The train’s whistle echoed along the platform. Then, we were off, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, rumbling through Dunedin’s western suburbs. On the way, we passed the old Carisbrook Stadium – nicknamed ‘the house of pain’ – as the All Blacks rarely lost there. These days, rugby matches take place in the gleaming new Forsyth Barr Stadium near the harbour.
Outside the train windows, the scenery began to change. We sank back against our velour seats and watched rain splatter against the glass. The train was packed with tour groups and American cruise ship passengers. I strained to listen to the interesting running commentary; difficult over the chatter of a KirraTour group and the laughter of a British couple in the seat behind us. The tempting aroma of coffee drifted through the carriage as an attendant wheeled a refreshment cart towards us.
Green hills slid by, studded with beech and southern ratas. Birds of prey wheeled overhead and the woolly, white dots of sheep contrasted against the velvet-green. Wrought iron viaducts spanned rugged ravines – landscape we would never have had access to by road. As the train rattled over one of the bridges, we gazed down at the 100 metre drop. Far below, I could see a river snaking its way through the belly of the gorge.
The Taieri Gorge line stretches sixty kilometres, from Dunedin to Middlemarch, and was started in 1879. It ran for less than a century until its closure in 1990. A trust bought this tract of line off the Otago Central Railway, so that once the line closed, it was able to preserve the line and run it as a tourist venture. Much blood and sweat would have gone into building the railway line over such rocky, steep terrain, and the tunnels were all dug by hand. These days, this is the only section of rail remaining in Central Otago. In 1993, the rest of the Central Otago network, from Middlemarch to Clyde, was handed over to the Department of Conversation and turned into the Central Otago Rail Trail.
By the time we reached Hindon, the sun was peeking through the clouds. The air was crisp, clean, and laced with the faint smell of diesel. After a short break, we were off again and heading for Pukerangi. Two-hundred and fifty metres above sea level, ‘Pukerangi’ means ‘Hills of Heaven’ in Māori. An old, clapboard station, painted cream and white, with an inviting red door, greeted us there – a testament to days gone by. The train driver climbed down from the engine and joined us for this stop. He cut an unforgettable figure in a blue boiler suit and a magnificent white moustache and beard.
Pukerangi marked the end of the line for us, but on other excursions the train travels as far as Middlemarch. The Taieri George trip cuts through wild country that kept our eyes glued to the window. A return fare to Pukerangi is $86 while a return trip to Middlemarch is $99. For those wishing to explore Central Otago from either of these stops, you can also buy one-way tickets, for $57 and $66 respectively. Taieri Gorge Railways also sells train/coach tickets from Dunedin to Queenstown for $148. Children’s fares are available on all these routes.
Was the Taieri Gorge excursion as good as that trip I took in Spain all those years ago – absolutely! The combination of value for money; incredible, dramatic scenery and a nostalgic trip into New Zealand’s past all make this trip a ‘must’ for any visitor to Dunedin.
For more information on this excursion visit the Taieri Gorge Railway website:
Telephone: +64 3 477 4449
Excursions depart from:
The Dunedin Railway Station