At that time much attention and pride was lavished upon the upkeep and day to day running of stations, and they, like the local church, the Post Office, and the school, were places where communities were drawn together, and sometimes breathed the intoxicating aromas of a bigger and mysterious world!
The Station is still there, but it is a silent and sad sort of a place. Visiting it is like seeing an aging relative who is confined to a hospital bed. Doors are shut, windows closed, and the weather boarded buildings sag a little under shabby paint. Part of the building has an office with a sign that says something about Maori Treaty Claims, but no one is around. Laura's parents join me on the platform, and I appreciate the moral support. Waiting for a train feels like an act of faith, and, as the rain starts to fall, I am beginning to doubt! I had booked my ticket by computer on line. I hoped that the transaction had gone through, and that, if the train appeared at all, it would stop to pick me up.
The yellow-white glare of a train front light focuses and grows. It is an electric engine pulling a freight car and 3 passenger coaches. With an accompanying hiss of air, clanks, and groaning of metal under strain, the train slows and stops. The freight car door slides open, and a uniformed woman tells me to throw my cases up. She seems in a hurry. I say that I booked by Internet, she consults a hand written list of passenger names, asks mine. Finds it, and ticks it off. She passes me a ticket, and waves me to car number 2. I say a hasty "good bye" to Laura's parents, and depart to car two at the double... I am holding proceedings up. There are crashings of train doors, and the train starts to move away just after I climb aboard.
There is something odd going on, I can feel it as soon as I enter the carriage. For a start, there is a collective feeling in this compartment. The people seem to be sharing an experience or a joke.... They seem animated and amused. There is eye contact and appraisal. None of it threatening. Just unusual, not what I would expect on a train. Trains are where strangers tend to adopt the "I don't see you, so you don't see me" huddle. I start to notice other details. The funny hats. The red, yellow, and black scarves. A large toy bird on a seat. I find my place and sit down, and try to catch a glimpse of Laura's parents through the window as we glide out of the station.
Mooloo, that is the answer! On this train are more than 70 people who are on their way to a rugby match in Palmerston North. The Waikato rugby team, known affectionately as "The Mooloos" (the Waikato is Dairy country), are traveling in the front carriage, and supporters are in carriages two and three.
To be honest, sport is not my thing. I was never much good at it. In team sports I was amongst the last to be picked. Team captains had the unenviable choice between me, or a boy that had a balloon-like shape and asthma, or another that was blind in one eye and limped. I am a sport atheist... It's an embarrassing admission really as rugby is New Zealand's national religion. On this train, I had another handicap..., I was from Otago and these supporters were from Waikato. From a sporting point of view we were probably natural enemies. I hope that my team had not won any games against Waikato lately!
Some farmland south of Te Kuiti. The group of trees are Kaihikatea trees.
I take photos of farmland. There are rounded green lumps of hills and dark smears and blobs of bush. I want Laura to see these, for it is a part of the country that she grew up in. Where her father farmed when she was little.
A woman in the seat in front of me, turns and introduces herself. She is called Mitch, and her partner is called Frank. She is friendly, and quickly makes me feel welcome on the train and at ease. I start to enter into the fun and buy myself a bottle of beer from the bar that is at the end of the carriage.
I probably last traveled that part of the railway more than 25 years ago. In those days it was possible to get a "sleeper" from Wellington, and ride through the night. Now, the train has been tailored to making it a great trip for tourists as well as for people just wanting to get from point A to point B. There are very comfortable seats, big windows, and a train "manager" rather than a guard. The manager gives a commentary when there are interesting places or views, and health and safety warnings and advice every time the train seems likely to stop at a station. So different from 25 years back!
This is a fantastic journey, and a great way to see New Zealand. The train runs through rugged and spectacular scenery.
It passes through National Park, which is a wild plateau that is dominated by volcanoes, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe.
One of the impressive railway viaducts that we have just passed over... Yes the track does go in circles here!
And there is the engineering marvel, the Raurimu Spiral where the track ascends 433 feet (132 meters) as if around the coils of a vast metal spring.
There are few people in this landscape
and on the rare occasion that the train passes a village or a town, it becomes a game in our carriage to look for evidence of human life. "Look, there's a dog!" Someone says. "Where are the people?" says someone else.
A smiling, brown, bald-headed man, enters our carriage from the front carriage where the team are housed. He is sparkling with good humour and energy. He introduces himself, "Hi, I'm Wally the team trainer!" Within minutes he has us doing the Mexican wave. I am impressed with his ability to get along with people. He springs a rugby quiz on us, (Being ignorant of just about anything sports related, I hope he doesn't ask me anything!).
A Maori woman, who wears a colourful hat that is decorated with beer cans (Waikato Beer), is amazingly knowledgeable, and is able to pick who will play in the team at the game with astonishing accuracy.
Two men are seated in one of the front seats. Both wear striped woolen hats with artificial dreadlocks hanging from them. One man is nick named "Budgie", and the other is called Paul.
Paul talks to me later. He turns out to be a successful business man who set up his own food business when the farm was not producing enough income on its own. First he made a business out of pop corn, called "Pop n' Good", more recently he developed a new product. Chicken in a can, called "Chop Chop Chicken". I like Paul, and his ability to make opportunities happen.
At intervals tall (huge) "boys" wander through from the first carriage. They are members of the Waikato team en route to the buffet. They bring boxes and trays of food back with them to the other team members. These warriors of the rugby field look shy, well groomed, and quite sweet really.
At Palmerston North most of the passengers depart for the game, and it is oddly quiet for the remainder of our journey. Although I talk to an English woman, who is dressed in practical hiking gear. Tanned and athletic, she has recently competed in the senior Olympics as a swimmer. Probably there are only 6 passengers on the train for this last section, but our train manager still gives us the commentary when we pass places of interest, and also repeats the regular warnings about not opening doors whilst the train is in motion as we slide by stations.
The sea is a deep blue, silvered and bronzed by the low evening sun. As we drift the last few miles down the coast to Wellington Kapati Island is in view. Kapati Island is a nature reserve. Huge effort has been put in to trapping predators and making a safe place for native birds to flourish. It is one of New Zealand's "Noah's Arks"!
Sport never was my thing, I was a sport atheist.... but I have enjoyed this trip, I liked the Moo Loos and their supporters.... maybe belief is flooding in.... "I have see the light"!
Tranz Scenic: the official website for New Zealand Train Journeys
Chop Chop Chicken