The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1 (April 1, 1935)
On the Road to Anywhere — Adventures of a Train Tramp. — Part I
Starting point—Wellington. Not that Wellington is really, as unkind critics aver, a good place to get away from—the capital has both charms and charmers, but the northern sunshine, northern flower-gardens, northern hospitality, all beckon.
Nobody could possibly look at, or around, Thorndon Station (where the northbound trains lie waiting for the unwary) without a very genuine sense of pleasure. For isn't this ancient place to be demolished, almost in no time? Haven't the contractors commenced building a new station, a station which Wellington will be able to show to callers with housewifely pride? I hope that when the new station appears on the scene it will be grey and granite-ish in keeping with the rugged empery of the stormy, sea-girdled old city it is to adorn.
“All aboard, please. All aboard!” Well, we were, and looked with reproach and disdain at the fat man who, as the Limited started to move leapt from the bosom of his wife with the agile grace of an antelope, and sank puffing into his seat. Not for us such cavorting. For us the pleasure of choosing a really satisfactory seat, of raising reproachful eyebrows at the spinster who fusses over the window-catch, of buying the evening paper from the youth whose stentorian yells resound, to the very last moment, through the carriages; a train is, above all things, a leisurely-minded vehicle. True, one buys a paper. But one looks through the news with a delightful, airy sense that it doesn't matter in the least whether wool is up or down, or even whether Sir Oswald Mosley has challenged Miss Ellen Wilkinson to a duel in Hyde Park. For a few hours we are all, consciously or otherwise, naturalised citizens of Trainland, lost in a warm, lamplit limbo of strange places and strange faces, and with the cosiest of high-backed, stoutly padded seats to help us relax. It's odd that so few train passengers realise that they are, for the moment, escaping from the world. The fact must filter through to their sub-consciousness, for I don't think I've ever seen a seriously annoyed person on a New Zealand train. Warmth, change, comfort, the possibilities of adventure, dark dream-blue fields slipping quietly past.
After all, there's a queer fascination in the departure from Wellington. First one's farewell glimpse of those ancient and decrepit two-storey Thorndon houses, about which Nathaniel Hawthorne might have written, as he did about the ramshackle parts of his own home town; and then the great shining grey-blue sweep of sea, a hill grade, and a swoop towards the black mouth of a tunnel, and goodbye to Wellington. Already, where green grass and the fairy gold of a whole world of broom wave greeting to the train from the other side of the tunnel, we are over the hills and far away.
Incidentally, can anyone explain with or without diagrams and scale map just why there is always someone who leaves train windows open when a tunnel is drawing nigh, and who therefore has to wrestle simultaneously with the spirit and the window-catch? For so it is. There is absolutely no teaching these hardened smoke-drinkers, and one can only suppose that they are first cousins to the family of fire-eaters. Tunnel number one appears on the horizon, is passed. Reproachful but forgiving, the other occupants of the carriage survey the offender, who beams charmingly. (Almost every male in the carriage has rushed to her assistance as she struggles with the window-catch, which, simple though its mechanism would appear to the brain of the average adult chimpanzee, is none the less entirely beyond her). The instant that the train has cleared the tunnel, up goes her window once more. Nor does it descend in time to escape the vengeance of tunnels two, three, four, or five. Everybody's patience wears thin except that of the lady with the passion for fresh air who comes smiling through it all.
Johnsonville …. Otaki …. now, wasn't it somewhere about here that a moonlight drive distinguished by fields of glistening purple foxgloves and a dignified 'possum strolling at his leisure across the wild Akatarawa Gorge Road, ended in a strawberry garden where everybody ate incredible quantities of the tiny half-wild, sugar-sweet berries grown by cheery Maori gardeners? Levin …. Palmerston North, and a memory of a sort of wake held in a hotel lounge long, long after closing time, to soothe the heartfelt sorrow of half a dozen of us, who had simultaneously lost our all on a fiery-looking black horse that conducted its race on slightly unconventional lines, galloping round the pretty little Palmerston North racecourse at incredible speed, but in the wrong direction.
I remember Wanganui with great kindness because (a) there I first encountered wild duck properly roasted, and served up in a sensible little restaurant which knew its business; (b) for a much more important reason, because in remembering Wanganui I can remember a smooth, burnished-steel sheen of river and lake waters.
Stately and slow the black swans sail on little Virginia Lake, and the trees all around are yellow-leaved, because, in the country of memory, it is always autumn hereabouts. A cicala threads the afternoon's peace with a tiny silver stitch of song. The leaves are soft underfoot and there is an archway of boughs, and one understands why the residents of St. John's Hill, which favoured locality flows in a pleasant tide of houses around Virginia Lake, are so proud of their neighbourhood.
The little river steamer toots long soulfully in the early morning, and the creamy plumes of toi-toi quiver in the swirl of her wake. Maori women, bright-frocked but with black shawls drawn over their heads, squat on deck and chat with one another in voices plaintive as a tui's call. A live and wriggling something in the stern of the ship turns out to be a couple of frisky young pigs, kept in order by the simple expedient of having a net thrown over them.
We have many things to show you on this river. A first halt where the kowhai trees usually golden flowered, shower down bright red blossoms, red as new minted sovereigns, and a tui laughs for sheer joie de vivre in the ring of the trees; little dreamy Jerusalem, where the Maoris still believe in the kehu, the ghost that brings death and perches uncannily on the doomed one's gate-post. Maori canoes, old and unpainted, but as graceful in their slender, peascod lines as fairy boats; the great stone where green boughs should be laid as an offering to Taniwha, god of the river, enormous rowan trees, laden with brilliant coral berries, guarding the fine Pipiriki Hotel, and after that a river overhung by ferns and native bush which seem entranced by the delicate beauty of their own reflections in the still water. Earth has splendid rivers enough, but can any of them outrival the Wanganui for this pensive charm of green and dusky blue reflections?
But perhaps you prefer to stick to your ship—or rather, to your train—at Marton Junction. Rivers, you feel, can keep for some other time. Very well. In that case, you follow the example of your fellow passengers and equip yourself with not fewer than three detective novels. These will have paper backs and purple contents. The predominance of detective stories at all railway bookstalls (love limping home a very poor second, and the rest of literature nowhere at all), shows how thin is our veneer of civilization. The book which sustained me from Marton to Frankton Junction sported no fewer than thirteen corpses, and I must confess I could have done with more.
Lights out on the Limited … perhaps it's eleven o'clock when the last page is turned and the last yawn yawned. The game then, unless you are travelling by sleeper, is to curl up in such a way that your sleeping-partner can't object, and lapse into the arms of Morpheus.
The sleepers are alluring, of course, more especially the de luxe kind where your bed looks and feels like a bed, and your wardrobe may be conveniently draped about, and there's a non-spill glass which you may use for drinking purposes.
Yet in the carriages themselves, watching station after station slip back in purple of dusk and shadowy grey of manuka is rather fascinating; especially if your compartment contains a mighty man of valour who will, as the night-wears on, stay you with coffee and comfort you with ham sandwiches. And daybreak is “secret, shy and cold,” with jaunty blue feathers of smoke from some nearby farmhouse signalling greeting to your train's great sweeping ostrich plume.
I tried once, being misguided, to interview a railway guard about the life of the Limited. Adventure and lots of it must be compressed into the engine-driver's domain, or the guard's van, where “dawgs is dawgs, cats is dawgs, squirrels in cages is a parrot, but this yar tortoise is a hinseck, and travels free,” to quote a classic of the rail. Nothing doing. The guard blushed in hectic style, and informed me firmly that the train had three sleepers and I forget how many carriages. He also mentioned the names of the stations at which we might or would stop. Further than that he would not go. I gathered that he was very proud of his train.
Flutter of seagulls' wings …. not Wellington's large and formidable sea-gulls, but dainty scarlet-legged, bright-eyed fellows, a whole cloud of them. The train curves sinuously round a bend of sparkling blue sea. “Auckland.”
That very night, ere gentle sleep was allowed to come anywhere near my eyelids, I was given the difficult and dangerous task of making conversation with two amiable children. Both red-headed. Lessons, as a likely topic, proved a dismal flop. They seemed inured to stories of wild beasts, nor did my perfectly good plasticine model of a sailing-ship cause them to evidence the faintest emotion. I tried them with engines. Their eyes brightened. Simultaneously, and with a sigh of heart-felt satisfaction, they uttered the one glad cry: “Trains!”
So the first instalment of the journey north ended in this far from dignified strain:
“Will you crawl a little quicker,” hissed the Austin to the Ford,
There's a Riley on my bumpers, and I'm getting slightly bored.”
But the train rushed past, ever so fast, on tracks that were shiny and broad.
“My Kingdom for a horse,” King Richard cried, in vain—But nowadays, of course, He'd just have caught the train.