It’s seven o’clock on a newly minted Auckland morning when I step on board the Overlander for the twelve-hour journey to Wellington down the Main Trunk Line. The announcements begin immediately. They still have famous railways pies. By which they mean fatty mince pies with the NZ addition of melted cheese. They have coffee in a bag. They don’t have cappuccino, macchiato, latte or mugaccino. They just have coffee in a bag; sounds like ‘beg’. The emphasis on what they don’t have reminds me of an old flatmate whose stroppy two-year-old would be asked what she wanted for breakfast, along with a reminder of everything that was unavailable. ‘I know you love cocoa pops, Lily, but we don’t have cocoa pops’, ‘WAAAAH’, and ‘I know cornflakes are your favourite but we don’t have them either,’ ‘WAAAAHH!’ by the time the list of what we didn’t have was finished the child would be incandescent with rage and thwarted desire. It was as if her mother was directing the scene and she playing her part.
I take my seat beside a tall woman who turns sideways for me to shove my bag under the seat. I can’t pick her accent but she turns out to be Jan from Queensland. When she finds out I’m a writer she tells me she’s done a Masters in Creative Writing and loves the work of NZ writer Janet Frame. She quotes some favourite lines from Frame’s Living in the Maniototo, ‘Memory Country is a place bathed in cloud and light where the planes and ships rarely call now’, as we pull out of Auckland Station past container yards, car yards and increasingly basic housing in South Auckland. Large Mitre 10 Home Improvement stores seem to implore action which the householders are just not taking. The houses look like a child’s drawing of a house.
‘Memoir is fiction’ my neighbour tells me as we come into Papakura Station on the outskirts of town. It’s a bleak day, rain streaking the windows and the platforms are empty. Smokers are told they’ve got time for a quickie. The staff have promised to let smokers know the right time for a smoke and they’re delivering on that promise. Dave across the aisle moans, ‘Only in New Zealand would they tell them that!’
There are vast greenhouses and fields of corn south of Papakura. The volcanic soil looks rich and fertile. The announcements intrude, reminding us that the lounge area is definitely not for sleeping and we ‘have to share’. There are three large lounges at the end of our compartment and people take turns occupying them to stretch out and chat as the landscape streaks by, illuminated in the big picture windows.
Jan tells me she came from Western Queensland and used to take three trains home from her boarding school in Brisbane to Blackall. The guard would wake her in the early hours of the morning on her second train at Jericho, and she’d wait for the final steam-train ride home through the dawn light with tall red anthills beside the tracks wreathed in smoke.
Outside our window it’s low cloud and driving rain. ‘We won’t see much of the mountains today,’ I tell Jan. She says she believes the sun will come out. ‘Not that I’m a cockeyed optimist!’
After the large town of Hamilton, we pass through Otorohanga, Maori for ‘food for a long journey’, named for a Maori chief who passing through town on his way to Taupo used magic incantations to make his food last longer. Dave says he doesn’t think incantations will help the railway food he’s forcing down. ‘You wouldn’t want it to last any longer…’
He tells us he’s been up to the Bay of Islands to buy a property from a failed resort development. It was a steal he tells us, at $320,000 with five-star inclusions right down to sheets, towels and teapots. He’s gloating over five pages of inclusions and waiting for a message from his solicitor to confirm the deal has gone through. Every so often we hear a squawk. ‘Miele dishwasher!’ ‘Egyptian cotton! 200 thread count!’
Outside there are sharp, gorse-covered hills and a rainbow outlines a hill. We can see both ends of the rainbow. Two pots of gold? Jan snaps photos with the passion of a new traveler to this land. I’m an old traveler in this landscape but her enthusiasm is infectious. I remember many trips with our theatre group up and down this main trunk route. Often we traveled by night, which was cheaper, sitting up with the sound of the guitar breathing the night hours awake. ‘Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me. Twice on the pipe if the answer is no…’
The sun is coming out, just as Jan predicted. There are hills like frills and sheep like sleep; witches hat hills and beehives by the rail line, willow blessed creeks. Or cursed. ‘Half a dozen Bohemia crystal wine glasses,’ Dave chortles.
At Taumaranui, a local identity afflicted with some illness that makes him jerk and dance, dressed in an official hat from some unknown office and a yellow jacket that says Intercity Coachlines, cavorts and capers as he gives long sharp whistles to send us off. He looks as if he comes to the station every day to perform this office. A family with kids have also come to see this once daily event. The only passenger train on the line.
The housing is rusty roofed and simple. Sheep scatter as the train clatters by. Autumn trees are changing colour, leaving the evidence of the season on the ground.
Next to Dave a tiny Maori man or woman, impossible to tell which, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses sits silent among us keeping his/her counsel.
Dave reveals he’s bought the property up north because he’s leaving his wife of thirty five years. He’s an atheist and she’s a fundamentalist Christian and her devotion is getting overwhelming. She’s up at 4am praying. She goes to Germany to take missionary courses. She is surrounded by her group of friends, living in a love bubble with 24/7 texting of support.
We pass a road sign that says,’Free Range Children.’ Jan repeats to me the last sentence of The Great Gatsby which she thinks one of the best ever written: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
We’re approaching our long lunch stop via Raurimu Spiral, a great engineering achievement at National Park in an area of still active volcanoes. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that the driver of a long freight train was confronted with some glowing red lights ahead and pulled his train to an emergency stop only to discover he’d caught up with his own guard’s van. Ruapehu… Ngaurahoe… the cloud still lowers stubbornly over the mountains, though, and they remain hidden. Tapu ground, they tell us, forbidden. A man behind calls his friend and asks him to move his cows one paddock forward. ‘Sorry, mate, meant to do it before I left. There’s plenty of fuel in the bike.’
In the hour till we reassemble after lunch the smokers manage two or three smokes. Another announcement as we approach Ohakune, carrot capital of New Zealand: ‘Should there be anybody there to wave us down please remain on board till we come to a complete halt.’ Nobody waves us down and we are requested as we sidle slowly by to have a good look at the ‘heritage station,’ one of only four left on the Main Trunk Line. What they mean is any kind of station building at all. Most seem to be platforms with no infrastructure around. All gone.
The Hapuawhenua viaduct rises above a sea of ferns as we pass Tangiwai, meaning Sea of Tears in Maori. On Christmas Eve ,1953, 151 people passing by on a train were swept away by a lahar. I didn’t know what a lahar was but apparently it’s a mudslide or landfall caused by volcanic eruption. I remembered hearing about it next day on my grandparents’ radio in their lounge room at Drummoyne and everybody saying how awful at Christmas and all.
Suddenly the sun comes out and lordly Mt Ruapehu appears, finally deciding to grace us with its presence. Jan just clicks away and refrains from saying ‘I told you so’.
Taihape next. I know I couldn’t die happy in Taihape. I go up to stand on the tiny outdoor platform. ‘Best seat in the house,’ a man standing there says. He tells me that as kids they always bought tea at Taihape then tried to drink it before the next viaduct, so they could chuck their cups down into the gorge. ‘Gave you a great feeling!’
The outdoor platform is a NZ institution that all their trains have. They sum up the best of NZ. It’s fun to stand there being almost blown off your feet talking easily and naturally with other passengers because you’re in this windblown, rain-sodden, snow-spackled world together. New Zealanders have a great sense of fun. Maybe they caught it from the Maoris. I clutch the rail as the train rushes over the high gorge where cups are to be dropped, as my neighbour tells me he’s got twin daughters but no wife now. His wife’s found a new jockey, he tells me. He’s a floor sander.
‘How do you go with those awful chemicals?’ I ask.
‘They mess you around all right,’ he acknowledges.
‘Can you protect yourself? Wear a mask?’
‘Yep, but then you don’t get the buzz!’
Back in our carriage, Dave tells me he feels lighter than he thought he would about the change in his life. Like a burden’s been rolled away. He’s told his wife she can come too, but she says God needs her to stay where she is, cocooned in the love bubble.
Toitoi fern stand to attention like the feathers in the caps of soldiers in the Light Horse Division. Blasted willows hover near fully clothed neighbours. The river, fast flowing, foaming over rocks, hurtles through the gorge below with stony edges like a grandfather’s rough lap and chalky cliffs above. There is a strange sideways movement of the water as if it’s smiling, trying to fill the width of the gorge.
Dave prepares to get out. He tells us his wife’s friends are always smiling. Only an idiot smiles all the time, the Russians say. Jan tells us the Chinese say, ‘Do not open shop if no smiley face.’
Jan and I wonder if we’ll see his wife pick him up. We press our collective noses to the window and sure enough there she is, in an indeterminate colour car. We see her get out to let him get into the driving seat. ‘Tight,’ Jan says. I nod. Everything about her. Hair. Clothes. Mouth. Set tight. Poor woman. We wonder how they’ll go on. Clearly he still loves her if he’s offering her the chance to come with him. He told us, ‘I’m the last man standing. Everybody else has given up on her.’
His stop, Fielding, is called the cleanest town on the coast. He says it should be called the prettiest. It’s modeled on Manchester in England and has a town square, unusual for NZ, where there’s normally just a main street. Unfortunately he told us the town square is surrounded by Edwardian buildings that they’re thinking of demolishing as an earthquake risk. The Christchurch earthquake, where masonry behaved badly, has set everybody’s nerves on edge.
Jan gets off shortly after. I really like her, but wonder if we’ll meet again despite exchanging emails. She is staying with friends in a rural valley near Palmerston North. That’s where my ex-in- laws, now long dead, lived. Fred and Jessie, small and round like salt and pepper shakers, were a loving and generous couple who fostered many children once their own two were teenagers, including my former husband, Paul, and a boy who later killed someone with an axe. He’d practiced for this years earlier by chasing Paul’s foster mother and sister round the house with a similar axe. Jessie never gave up on him, still writing to him when he was locked up for good. Paul had to share a room with the boy, who stole his pocket money every day on the way to school and, more disgustingly, stored used toilet paper in their shared wardrobe. Fred and Jessie, undaunted, just carried on offering children in need a loving home.
I travel onto Wellington with a smile on my face, despite the weather closing in with the well-known Wellington gloom. It’s like Armageddon, dark, windy, squally and wet as we pull in to the station. Heritage, of course. ‘You’ll pay for coming here!’ Wellington threatens. But I’m game. Wellington threw everything at me in the past. It can’t hurt me now.