It is a truth known to all travellers that interesting journeys always begin at uncivilized hours of the morning. And so, bleary eyed and tetchy, we took a taxi from our warm, comfortable bed to Wellington Railway Station where we joined the check in queue for the Overlander; the train that takes at least twelve hours to travel between Wellington and Auckland.
The man in front of us pushed his ticket through the window and the lady examined it suspiciously.
"Wednesday 26th?" she asked.
The man nodded. "Today," he said.
"No," said the ticket lady. "Yesterday."
They began to argue. Eventually they came to an agreement of some kind and he slouched away. It was our turn now and the lady was in a bad mood.
"Tickets," she snapped. I handed them over. "Mr Robinson?" she asked as she checked my name against the list of approved passengers and failed to find it.
"No," I said. "Mr Robson." I read her list upside down and showed her my name on it. She looked bewildered, but nevertheless drew a line through my name and wrote my seat allocation on the ticket. "Carriage Q, seats 11C and D," she said and handed the ticket back. We went off to check our luggage in.
"Where are you travelling to today?" asked the baggage check lady.
"Auckland," I said.
"Auckland?" She sounded surprised. "Really? You're going all the way to Auckland?"
"Auckland," I confirmed. "Right to the end of the line."
"All right. If you say so."
She tied a green ticket to our two bags and gave me the receipts. We had a black wheelie case and a backpack. She dumped the bags in a higgledy piggledy pile of other luggage on the concrete floor of the station. A man with a trolley came and picked up some of the bags and trundled them off to the baggage car. Our black wheelie case vanished but our backpack remained forlornly behind. The trolley man came back for another load but still our backpack remained unclaimed. It was now sitting about six feet away from the few remaining bags; guaranteed to be forgotten. I couldn't stand the suspense any more.
"I've changed my mind," I said. "I think I'll take this as hand luggage." I picked up the backpack.
"No worries,' said the baggage lady.
We went to the platform to get on the train. It had four carriages labelled A, Q, B and C. Railway staff use an odd alphabet of their own devising. We entered carriage Q and took our seats. The man who was travelling yesterday was asleep across the aisle.
The train pulled slowly out of the station and our journey had begun. An incoherent lady came on the PA system and explained that we weren't supposed to put heavy things in the overhead rack and that the café counter would open soon for the serving of refreshments. There was a menu in the seat pocket in front of us.
At least, I think that's what she said. Her syntax was so twisted and her words so out of touch with each other that she was impossible to understand. A stream of utter gibberish would be followed by a very long silence as she realised that there was no way at all that she could ever bring the current sentence to a successful conclusion. So she would leave it in mid-creek without a trace of a paddle and start a new one. Also every sentence started with the word also.
To be fair to the lady, we learned later that the person who usually made the announcements was on holiday and she was standing in for him. She was probably scared stiff at the thought of talking to a train full of people; fear does strange things to the syntax.
I went to the café counter and ordered refreshments. The man behind the counter was new and had never seen a coffee machine or a till in his life before and didn't know what to do with either of them. Aeons slowly passed as he tried to figure them out. When I got back to my seat, noticeably older and greyer, I checked the prices on the menu in the seat pocket. He had overcharged me by three dollars, but I had no proof; it was too late to complain.
Later in the journey, I went grumpily back to the café counter. We went through the same tedious rigmarole and this time he undercharged me by five dollars. Again, I said nothing. I felt that my net profit of two dollars was fair compensation for the strain and stress of watching his utter incompetence.
The train went up hill and down dale across indescribably beautiful crags and crannies. Sheep and cattle ran away from the noisy monster and a man called Kevin waved enthusiastically to us as we passed his farm. He makes a point of always being there to wave at the Overlander. Nobody knows why. Recently there were rumours that the Overlander service would be cancelled. Kevin went into a deep depression. However, the news that the service was not being cancelled after all soon cheered him up again.
As we trundled over the central plateau the snow-capped mountains brooded on the horizon. I took lots of movie footage of their stationary majesty. They were a little shy and kept hiding behind trees. We stopped at the station at National Park and now they couldn't escape. I took lots more movies of them as they sat silently aloof.
The south bound Overlander shot past on its way to Wellington. We found this surprising as our crew had told us that they were swapping with the south bound crew at National Park. However a few minutes later the mystery was solved as the train reversed in to the station and parked neatly behind ours. The crews duly changed over and then the south bound train pulled slowly out of the station chased enthusiastically by a small yapping dog who came prancing back to us, extremely proud of his courage at scaring the noisy monster away.
Onwards ever onwards. We crossed spectacular viaducts and wound our way down the Raurimu Spiral to the (relatively) flat lands a long way below. And so to Auckland where we stayed with friends.
A few days later it was time to repeat the journey in the opposite direction. With sparrows farting all around us, we made our way to the modern, hi-tech Britomart station in Auckland. A large group of confused people milled around. There was no obvious place to check in as there had been in Wellington. Everybody asked each other what to do and nobody knew the answer. Eventually the PA cleared its throat and made an announcement:
"Will all passengers for the Overlander proceed to the top end of platform 3 where the train manager will allocate seats and you can check your baggage."
Platform 3 is straight and flat. It has no slope whatsoever. It has two ends, but neither one is obviously a top or a bottom. Where to go? What to do? Somebody stopped a passing, railway-uniformed man.
"Which end is the top end of platform 3?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "No spikee eenglish!"
We milled around some more. The PA got very annoyed:
"Will all passengers for the Overlander proceed immediately to the top end of platform 3 where the train manager will allocate seats and you can check your baggage."
Nobody moved. The PA got really pissed off:
"Will all passengers for the Overlander proceed immediately, in other words right now to the top end of platform 3."
Somebody spotted a dot in the distance. It was a desk with an angry lady sitting at it. She waved impatiently. A queue formed.
Eventually we got our boarding pass and we checked our baggage. We were sitting in carriage Q again. We waited for the journey to start. The lady at the desk continued doggedly to check people in. She worked at the speed of a rheumatic snail; one of the endangered ones that are too slow to escape from predators. The train left Auckland twenty minutes late.
The journey proceeded. Every so often, the PA would announce:
"We have just passed tangled-name "
It would then spend the next ten minutes telling us about all the magnificent things we would have seen if only we'd known about them before they passed us by.
I went to the café counter in search of refreshments. Again a bewildered person took my order.
"Twelve dollars please."
I was fed up with this. "No, I said. It's nineteen dollars."
"Add it up again," I advised.
There was much head scratching and pushing of buttons. Several other people were consulted and they all stared suspiciously at the till. Eventually a consensus was arrived at. I was right!
"Nineteen dollars, please."
I passed over a twenty dollar bill. Rather surprisingly, they managed to work out the correct change. I took my refreshments back to my seat and got there just in time to wave to Kevin, though he probably couldn't see me through the smoked glass.
Children threw stones at the train and once we shuddered to an emergency halt and an engineer got down from the cab and removed a bicycle that was lying across the track. We got into Wellington very late and very tired.
But despite all that we'd both do it again in an instant. It's a wonderful journey with so much to see. However next time we will take our own refreshments