We are in Port Chambers the seaport gateway for Dunedin on the southern island of New Zealand. Our tour today is by train into the Taieri River Gorge of gold rush fame. We were actually met directly on the pier by the train whose tracks ran along side our boat. We scored a seat in one of the vintage cars that have been renovated for comfort but retain their vintage charm with a tin ceilings and iron luggage racks.
After passing through the charming port city, we arrived at Dunedin and made a brief stop at the beautiful Victorian Railway Station where we will be able to get off near the end of our tour. Each car has a hostess who brought us snacks and drinks. Margaret, a volunteer, served our car. She works one or two days a week to support the tourist trade. The railway line would be unable to operate without these valuable volunteers.
The opening part of the route through Wingatui Junction is owned by the New Zealand Government. After Wingatui, we had wonderful views of the countryside, passing sheep stations (sheep ranches) and farmland. We saw the Wingatui horse racing track and the farms where championship horses are bred and raised.
Construction of the rail line through the Taieri River Gorge (a gorge formed millions of years ago by natural causes) began in 1879 near the end of the gold rushes when the agricultural and pastoral potential of the land was being explored. The line was used to haul “[t]housands of tons of farm produce and fruit and hundreds of thousands of head of livestock”through central Otago to the port and as a supply train with early morning deliveries to the country towns along the route.
“Transport licensing protected the railway from road competition until 1961 for the carriage of livestock and until 1983 for general freight.” In 1990, it was announced that the line would close. The Dunedin City Council sponsored the Save the Train appeal which resulted in the line’s purchase by Taieri Gorge Railway Limited. “It is the longest privately-owned railway in New Zealand.” The Otago Excursion Train Trust supports the rail line and was instrumental in bringing cruise ships to Dunedin. Our hostess Margaret is a trust volunteer.
We passed through 10 tunnels along the route, the Salisbury Tunnel being the longest. After the tunnel the photographers all jockeyed for position to catch a picture of the Wingatui Viaduct, “one of the largest wrought iron structures in the southern hemisphere.” We passed through several crossing stations and water stops that were part of the original service on the line before reaching Hindon Station where we made a brief stop.
Hindon Station is still used as a crossing station. It is the site where the first section of the line opened in October of 1889. There were beautiful views into the gorge and line accenting the rocky hillside. A statue of a dog is erected here. “Sue” represents all the collie sheep dogs that have worked in this area.
After Hindon, the hillsides became more steep and the gorge more rocky. Boris and I had the more gorgeous views on our side of the coach. The day had warmed, so I was able to open the window and enjoy the breeze. It also meant better pictures shooting without the reflective properties of a glass window. We climbed higher in the gorge. Stone chimneys marked the place were the construction workers had had their camp. At the Notches, we crossed four very deep gulches.
Just before leaving the gorge and reaching the flat plains, we passed the Reefs where a “hotel” for miners has existed since 1906. The Barewood Gold Mines are just over a mile to the south. You better not blink or you will miss the hotel. I was one of the lucky one photographers to get a picture.
At Pukerangi (means hill of heaven), we stopped and got off the train to visit a refreshment and crafts market set up at this sheep station (ranch). This port was our first time to walk on New Zealand soil and Boris and I had not had the opportunity to get New Zealand currency. (We have found that you get the best exchange rates are by using the ATM.) A few of the vendors took credit cards or American currency. Rather than turn the train, an engine was set up on the other end. Unfortunately, this meant we had the same view going and coming. Some people exchanged sides, but we were across from a wheelchair bound patron who was unable to sit on our side. We actually had the better view.
The ride back was downhill and much faster. A picnic type lunch was served by Margaret. She also offered wine and quickly ran out of one variety. With the open window I thought I would get lots of pictures, but we were moving pretty quickly. At one point I went and stood on the outside porch of the coach. It was cool and offered great views of the tremendous scenery.
On the return trip, we made one stop in Dunedin. With only 45 minute left before the last shuttle left the city for the boat and with 15 minutes to take pictures, I elected to use the time for photography and make the rest of the return via train.
Most European settlements in New Zealand were by English immigrants. Dunedin has the distinction of being settled by Scottish settlers who named their city Dunedin, a derivation of the Gaelic name for Edinburgh. Margaret was very proud of her Scottish heritage and told us that the Scottish immigrants here were much better educated that most of the English who came to New Zealand. Traditional Highland Games have been held here for over 150 years.
The Maori people came to this area between 1250 and 1300 AD. The first colonists were the Scots who came in 1800s. The discovery of gold in 1861 resulted in a population boom. New Zealand’s first university, The University of Otago, was founded in Dunedin.
In addition to the beautiful railway station, the city boats several lovely Edwardian buildings and the 19th century botanic gardens. A short walk from the train station is the Octagon, the central hub of the city and a pedestrian area featuring a statute of Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The Cathedral, Municipal Chambers (Town Hall), and the very modern Public Library (donated by American Andrew Carnegie) are all found on the Octagon.
You can also check out one of the World’s Steepest Streets, Baldwin Street or visit the Dunedin Law Courts. If you want to satisfy your sweet tooth, you can check out Cadbury World and see how they make chocolate while you try a few samples.
I spent most of my time at the most photographed spot in Dunedin, the railway station built in the Edwardian Style between 1903 and 1906. At the time of its construction, this was the busiest station in the country. The interior is even more beautiful than the facade. The main hall, or booking hall, features a floor of 750,000 mosaic tiles by Minton and Royal Doulton porcelain on its balcony floor.
After our break in Dunedin, we rode the train back down to the dock. Before entering the station, an official came on board to check our boarding cards and picture ids. Apparently, this is a requirement in New Zealand. It was a full day of touring. We quickly changed for dinner and the evening’s special event, an appearance by a local student group who demonstrated traditional Maori dance and song in the costume and paint of the local tribe. They invited the cruise guests to join them and a few of the men did so shirtless to mimic the boys. It was a great start to our land-based touring of New Zealand and our introduction to the Maori culture.