Dunedin Railways presented Cher and me with free tickets in exchange for our honest review of their Taieri Gorge half-day tour.
On our recent travels through New Zealand, Cher and I had the opportunity to combine three things I love into a single afternoon – wonderful scenery, a little history and an old-fashioned train ride through the Taieri Gorge on Dunedin Railways. In addition to all that, there was also a surprise first for me. I lived my grandsons’ biggest dream, hitching a ride for part of the return trip in the engine compartment with the locomotive engineers.
Our half-day roundtrip journey on the Taieri Gorge Railway begins and ends at the architecturally and visually stunning Dunedin Railway Station in Dunedin, NZ. The station itself is worth an unhurried walkthrough before boarding your assigned passenger coach. Both the interior and exterior have been lovingly cared for, retaining the feel of the days when railroad was king.
Our journey officially began when we stepped up and into Carriage C, a completely refurbished passenger coach built in 1937. The coach comes complete with solid wood siding, brass seat number plates, cast metal overhead luggage racks, plus a beautiful stamped tin ceiling. How cool is that?
The day was overcast and wet, but our train manager, Julian Evans, announced that there was no cause for concern … the Taieri Gorge is an “all weather gorge”! With that all-time great one-liner delivered and out of the way, the train started up with a surprising jolt and clang at precisely 2:30 PM.
Judy Trevathan, the railway guard on the train, introduced herself as we pulled out of the station. She promised to give me advanced notice of all the best Taieri Gorge photo opportunities and viewing spots. A veteran employee of 11 years, she enthusiastically showed me around the train and introduced me to most of her onboard team. I was happy to see clean restrooms and a great dining coach, complete with scones and Devonshire cream as well as assorted beers and wines.
Judy took special pride in the long tenures of the railway employees, several of whom had been there from the beginning, 25 years ago. Pat Tutty, café server extraordinaire, was one of those 25-year professionals. I talked to her several times as I visited her café at least five times throughout the afternoon. Pride and sincere love for their jobs shone brightly from every crew member I met. Their enthusiasm really added to the enjoyment of our outing!
The Taieri Gorge route took us through many inaccessible-by-auto areas, skirting cliffs and overlooking rushing water. In addition to some wonderful trestles and tunnels bored through solid rock, we passed a former railway crossing station now converted to an off-the-grid vacation getaway. It came complete with an outdoor bath tub overlooking the river. We scared up several sheep grazing lazily on the tracks and did not encounter a single human being once we passed Wingatui Junction.
At our turnaround point of Pukerangi, we picked up a couple dozen tourists at the end of a cycling adventure. At this point I was hustled forward to the engine compartment for a very high-level orientation and great views of the stunning scenery. Mike Lynch, the head engineer, and Paul Jefferies, the assistant engineer, answered all my questions and more. They even let me pull the rope sounding the train whistle! Both men had more than 20 years of experience, each as locomotive engineers, with Paul logging 25 years with Dunedin Railways alone. Neither had ever experienced a derailment or serious passenger injury in all their years. Those are pretty impressive statistics.
Our Taieri Gorge trip ended too soon for me, pulling smoothly into the Dunedin station a little past 7:00 PM. I enjoyed every minute of my time on board. The scenery, comfortable accommodations and amenities were all great. But it was the crew that truly made this a most memorable afternoon excursion. I have added the other train route, The Seasider, to my Bucket List for our next visit to New Zealand.
Have you ever taken a ride on a historic train? What was your favorite part?