In praise of New Zealand's beers and trains

by Greg Dixon / 14 September, 2017

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Model train: the writer’s recreation of his exciting journey. Photo/Greg Dixon

There’s nothing more appealing for the soul than a train journey to a waiting pint of stout.

I took the train to Wellington to see a friend. The DJ – who is such a diehard Jafa he probably chants “Auckland über alles” in his sleep – had come south for a week chock-full of work. However, he wasn’t so busy he couldn’t fit in one night of pleasure, although that rather overstates spending an evening on the tiles with me.

Frankly, the only thing that could drag the DJ to our nation’s capital in winter is honest toil; in his now-distant youth, he developed a fierce dislike for the city’s southerly while studying the shabby business of journalism at the local poly.

For me, however, Wellington holds an older attraction: I was born there. More important than that, though, I like to drink in its boozers. But even more crucially, I can never get enough of trains. So it was for beer, for mateship, but mostly for the love of trains that I took my first Wairarapa Line service, the 10.25am, from drizzling Masterton to howling Wellington City.

I wouldn’t characterise it as a regret, but I feel I haven’t seen enough of the world by rail. With its alternating views of tiny, messy backyards and broad, neat vistas, it’s a much more scenic yet intimate mode of transport than flying. And it’s certainly more relaxing than going by road.

The most tranquil journey I’ve ever taken was a train from York to London’s King’s Cross station. The most other-worldly – and the only one with a hint of Murder on the Orient Express – was in China, when I took the night train from Beijing to Wuhan. The female guards wore crisp blue uniforms, with Thunderbirds hats and bright red sashes. The dining car served godawful food but saved its reputation with cold King Long beer. And in the morning, after a night in “soft sleep” class, I awoke to views of farmers working their rice paddies before we clickety-clacked across the fat, slow snake of the Yangtze River and into one of China’s oldest cities.

I wasn’t expecting the Masterton to Wellington service would be quite so exciting. Yet it had the delightful effect, as all good rail journeys should, of making you feel 12 years old again.

The 8.8km-long Rimutaka tunnel. Photo/One Shot

You don’t catch the Wellington train at Platform 9¾, but you might as well do: it’s a journey to another stranger place, not Hogwarts but the past.

For a start, there’s no swiping of Hop or Snapper cards as you board. You must buy a little cardboard ticket at the ticket office before departure or, once aboard, from one of the cheery conductors, who will clip it for you and wonder aloud at the awful weather we’ve been having.

My advice is to buy a ticket before you board, because the ticket bloke at Masterton Station is a wonderfully friendly fellow who will, if you happen to be a child, offer a free lollipop too.

Much of the Wairarapa Line’s life is spent delivering commuters to and from work in Wellington, and it suffers from crowded coaches morning and night, tracks that need so much work the train has to slow down to a crawl for some sections and regular lateness. Our feisty local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, has been full of stories of this Government’s underinvestment in and apparent indifference to the service.

But don’t let that put you off. The scenery is all messy backyards and wide views of verdant pasture, the rough-bastard Tararuas and shining Lake Wairarapa. It has also the seat-wetting excitement of one of the longest tunnels in the country.

The DJ was already ensconced at a table pretending – I suspect – to be working on his computer when I arrived at a Wellington bar with the least convivial staff in the known universe.

I sat down with a pint of stout. “How about this f---ing cold?” he said as he closed his laptop.

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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