Early starts are, fortunately, never too much of a hardship: by 6.45 we were boarding a commuter train at Sylvia to take us to Auckland's main train station, Britomart. I guess if I had more curiosity I could be interested in finding out the origins of these names - history is always interesting.
The train runs all the way to Wellington. A more expensive and longer (10 hours and 35 minutes) alternative to a short flight, it is well set up for tourists. Comfortable seats, a frequent commentary on places of interest and a cafe.
After the first hour I had heard, misunderstood and forgotten more Maori names than I could ever remember. Enough to last several visits.
Of more personal interest were the birds.
We saw countless Swamp Harriers, usually in pairs. The pale rump was obvious as they lazily quartered the ground, often flying up from the ground or bushes right next to the speeding train.
More intriguing were very frequent sightings of predominantly white birds with black wing tips and tail markings. Pigeons? The feral rock pigeon? They certainly flew like them.
The train dipped and swung its way south, past black wattle trees in full yellow blossom, forest giving way to farmland. Climbing slowly up through forest, parts devastated by logging, the country appeared ever bleaker, the settlements increasingly smaller and poorer: evidence of a once thriving economy fallen on hard times. The commentary was full of detail of the building of the railway and various engineering feats of bridges, aqueducts and the famous Raurimu Spiral, up which the train whirled from the Wanganui River Valley to. the Volcanic Plateau.
From there, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Tongariro reared their massive snow-covered heads. Sandstone gorges dropped away on our left. Then, as we began to descend, the grass-covered hillsides began to fill with livestock. Sheep in lambing season, twin lambs often skipping after an unconcerned mother; beef and dairy cattle; horses cantering alongside the train; even, on occasion, deer and llamas.