FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Railways in retreat

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand, Wellington by folkestonejack on March 28, 2013

Although my trip to New Zealand didn’t have a strong railway theme, I was still interested to take a peek at the railway systems in Auckland and Wellington.

A ADK class diesel-multiple unit crosses Hobson Bay on 24th March 2013

A ADK class diesel-multiple unit crosses Hobson Bay on 24th March 2013

The railway system in New Zealand reached it’s highest passenger numbers in the early decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, Te Ara states that ‘in the early 1920s, when New Zealand’s population was only just over 1 million, NZR was carrying 28 million passengers a year.’ As with many other countries, the railways in New Zealand have been in retreat since the 1950s and today the country is very much oriented towards road and air travel.

The commuter systems around Auckland and Wellington are pretty much the only passenger services that see regular use by New Zealanders, with the long distance trains on the south and north islands now solely the preserve of tourists. Even these are under threat, with rumours that KiwiRail is to suspend its Christchurch-Picton passenger service over the winter months.

On my first visit to New Zealand in 1998 I travelled on the overnight Northerner train from Wellington to Auckland, a service which ceased to operate in 2004. The Northerner ran from an impressive station imbued with 1930s grandeur at Wellington to a landmark station in Auckland of similar vintage. However, the location of Auckland’s station and the facilities available on arrival were somewhat less impressive than its southern counterpart.

The old Auckland Railway Station, now luxury flats

The old Auckland Railway Station, now luxury flats, on 23rd March 2013

Auckland Railway Station was located close to Mechanics Bay, which was not great for visitors heading to the city centre and not brilliant as a transport interchange either – I was certainly left scratching my head in 1998 after arriving and finding my way out of a side exit (the main station building didn’t appear to be in use by this time).

I was not surprised to learn that the station had closed in 2003, to be replaced by the Britomart Transport Centre which is well located for the central shopping district and just over the road from the ferry port. Although this is a relatively recent replacement, the building it inhabits is even older – a former Edwardian post office that somehow manages to look as though it was always destined to be a railway station!

We stopped by the former Auckland Railway Station, since converted into luxury flats, around sunset. I thought nothing would remain that I would remember from my last visit but was most surprised to see that a couple of the old platforms still remained at the back, canopies intact.

The old terminus at Auckland at sunset on 23rd March 2013

The old terminus at Auckland at sunset on 23rd March 2013

The network in Auckland is currently diesel operated but work is steadily progressing to electrify the system. I expect it will look quite different the next time I visit, so it seemed appropriate to go out early one morning and get a better look at the diesel units as they crossed the Orakei Basin (a lake created by a volcano) and Hobson Bay. It’s a beautiful location to watch the world go by. The Orakei Basin Walk takes you alongside the railway and round the basin, using newly a constructed boardwalk and bridge.

A two car diesel multiple unit crosses the Orakei Basin on 24th March 2013

A two car diesel multiple unit crosses the Orakei Basin on 24th March 2013

There is no doubting that Wellington is the railway capital of New Zealand. The electrified network in the city is an important part of the local transport infrastructure, which is most obvious during the rush hour. Until relatively recently commuter services were covered by three classes of electric multiple unit, but the last units of the oldest class – commonly known as English Electrics – were withdrawn in 2012. The english electrics had given impressive service given that they were first introduced in 1938.

Ganz-Mavag ET class trailer car 3148 at Wellington Railway Station

Ganz-Mavag ET class trailer car 3148 at Wellington Railway Station

Today, services in Wellington are covered by FP class (Matangi) units, which first entered service in 2010, and EM class (Ganz-Mavag) units, which first entered service in 1982. According to current plans, the remaining EM class units will have been replaced with new Matangi electric multiple units by 2016.

It always seems slightly strange coming to a country where the railways are not an essential part of the national transport infrastructure, since this is what I have grown up with in the UK and Europe. It is a good reminder to me not to take such things for granted!

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Elusive sights and surprising encounters

Posted in New Zealand, Wellington by folkestonejack on March 27, 2013

The prospect of a good forecast gave us the perfect excuse to get out of the city centre by bus with the intention of taking the walk up from Scorching Bay to Fort Ballance, a coastal artillery battery constructed in 1885 to defend Wellington Harbour from the threat of Russian invasion.

Scorching Bay

Scorching Bay

The fear of attack must have seemed very real at the time and the urgency of the work is apparent when you consider that most of the forts in New Zealand’s coastal defence system were built around the same time. Along with its neighbouring battery at Fort Gordon, Fort Ballance effectively ceased to be of significance by the early twentieth century when the emphasis of the coastal defence system switched to Fort Dorset.

Unfortunately for us, we picked just about the worst possible day to attempt this! After reaching Scorching Bay we soon discovered that the fort was completely off-limits during a tricky exercise to remove a rare eight-inch disappearing gun (See the Dominion Post story: Gun defended NZ from Russians). One for next time…

Our walk back through Scorching Bay included a better view of some of the private cable car systems which local properties use as a convenient way of transporting heavy goods up the steep hillsides in the area. As we walked back up the steep hillside in the midday sun we could understand the appeal entirely!

Across the waters at Scorching Bay

Across the waters at Scorching Bay

Although the impressive sight of Fort Ballance eluded us we had better luck with a visit to Wellington Zoo where I was at last able to get a good view of a kiwi. The kiwis at the zoo live in an enclosure dressed up on the outside like a bush hut, which opens into a red lit interior called ‘The Twilight’ (Te Ao Māhina). At first I thought I might not improve on my one kiwi sighting (the bottom of a wild kiwi at Trounson Kauri Park!) but after a few parties of screaming kids had passed through the enclosure quiet descended and a couple of kiwis could be seen stretching their legs. One came up to a feeding tube close to us and began dipping in with his/her beak for a lengthy snack. Absolutely marvellous.

Later, we joined a hushed audience watching ‘Vets in the Zoo’ as two vets set out about giving a beak wash to an injured kiwi suffering from a fractured beak. It’s in little aspects like this that Wellington Zoo really lives up to its self-proclaimed billing as the best little zoo in the world.

One of the funniest encounters came as we passed a keeper walking a one year old dingo pup on a lead around the zoo. The eager dingo was fascinated by his surroundings, happily ignoring the tourists on the path to take a better look at the enclosures. The pup pulled his keeper over to the sun bear enclosure and stood up, paws on the ledge, to watch the bears. It was a lovely moment and one that I really wished I had photographed!

The remainder of the day was a relaxed affair, including visits to Old St Pauls and Te Papa, before heading on to the bars/restaurants of Courtenay Place for the perfect ending.

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An island refuge

Posted in New Zealand, Wellington by folkestonejack on March 26, 2013

Standing around amidst the bustle of Wellington’s waterfront it is hard to imagine that you can be transported to a tranquil haven free of predators in just twenty minutes, but that is precisely what is on offer if you catch the East by West ferry to Matiu/Somes Island from Queens Wharf.

In the current schedule there are three weekday crossings from Queens Wharf to the island each day. We opted to take the 10am departure out to the island and return to Queens Wharf on the 12.50pm sailing. The fresh air of the morning crossing turned out to be a good way for us to wake up after a somewhat bleary-eyed start to the day (we flew down from Auckland last night on the Night Rider, arriving at our hotel in Wellington not long before midnight).

The ferry to Somes Island

The ferry to Somes Island

The history of Matiu/Somes Island has been incredibly varied for such a small stake of land. The island already had a long history of occupation by the Māori when the New Zealand Company took control in 1839. It was set aside as a quarantine point in 1860, although initially only in name.

A quarantine facility was hastily constructed on the island in 1872 after the arrival of the England, a ship in which 16 passengers had died from disease. The quarantined passengers had to spend six weeks in spartan accomodation on the island and those that didn’t make it were buried in a small cemetery on the island. In the next 47 years many more passengers found their arrival somewhat less friendly than they might have hoped.

A small monument on the island remembers those who lost their lives during their confinement, along with a few of the memorial stones erected over time.

Monument to those who lost their lives on Somes Island during their quarantine

Monument to those who lost their lives on Somes Island during their quarantine

One ship that found its way to Port Nicholson (Wellington) was the barque Oxford which set sail from London via Plymouth on 20th January 1883. The Oxford didn’t get very far, making it only to the Bay of Biscay before a storm broke the ship’s masts. The ship was left to drift helplessly in the atlantic ocean for many days before it was towed in to Cardiff. The emigrants travelled on to Plymouth by train, awaiting the refit of the Oxford, but in the intervening period an epidemic of typhoid fever swept through the passengers, resulting in nine deaths.

The Oxford eventually set sail from Plymouth on 26th April 1883. Once again an epidemic broke out and when the ship arrived in Wellington on 23rd July 1883 the passengers were quarantined on Somes Island. A later Royal Commission report was critical of many aspects of the arrangements made for the emigrants in Plymouth, including the ineffectual fumigation of the ship after the first epidemic – noting that rats in the hold survived the fumigation! One of the passengers from the Oxford, Catherina Crabb from Cornwall, who had travelled out to New Zealand with her parents and siblings, died in quarantine on 26th August 1883 at the age of twenty five. Catherina’s headstone is one of a few arranged around the monument.

Catherina Crabb's headstone on Somes Island

Catherina Crabb’s headstone on Somes Island

Inevitably, the strategic position of Somes island in Wellington Harbour made it the natural choice of location for defence and security in times of war. Although the onset of war in Europe must have seemed like a distant threat, the sinking of the Trans-Pacific liner Niagara in the Hauraki Gulf in 1940 brought home the reality that distance would be no protection.

In 1941 a German raiding ship made it to New Zealand and laid magnetic mines at the entrance to Wellington Harbour and Lyttelton Harbour. To counter this threat a degaussing station operated by the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service was established on Somes island in 1942 to help allied ships in the process of neutralising their magnetic signatures.

The island was also used for the internment of enemy aliens and an anti-aircraft artillery position was constructed here in 1942 to defend the capital. The HAA position on Somes Island (one of six constructed at high points around Wellington) consisted of a command post and four gun emplacements. Although the guns have long gone you can still wander around the remaining concrete buildings.

Command post for the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery position on Somes Island

Command post for the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery position on Somes Island

Gun emplacement on Somes Island

Gun emplacement on Somes Island

The last re-invention of the island was as a maximum security animal quarantine facility, a function it served for 23 years between 1972 and 1995. The buildings that were left behind from this era look incredibly forbidding with fences worthy of any prison camp, but a sign nearby points out that you are actually free to walk in and take a closer look!

The maximum security animal quarantine station on Somes Island

The maximum security animal quarantine station

Today, the island has a happier purpose as a sanctuary for plants, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. It is home to a number of species that have been successfully re-introduced, such as the red-crowned parakeet and tuatara. As one of the volunteers explained, the re-building of a delicate food chain has been tricky. The first attempts to re-introduce the North Island robin were not as successful as had been hoped, partly because the supply of invertebrates on the island was not plentiful enough to sustain them.

The wharf and visitor shelter on Somes Island

The wharf and visitor shelter

After arriving on the ferry we were directed down to an inspection facility which all visitors to the island must enter, with the vital purpose of ensuring that the island remains predator free. A rather alarming sign in the visitor shelter stated that ‘in the unlikely event that a pest animal is found amongst luggage, the doors must remain locked and everyone must stay in the building until the animal has been killed’ but thankfully there was no need for an animal bloodbath in the hut today!

We headed out of the hut armed with some useful tips about recent sightings of the island’s tuatara, but sadly they proved to be completely elusive. We were luckier with the red-crowned parakeets which seemed to be really active today wherever we wandered. In addition, on our loop around the island we managed to see one copper skink, two spotted skinks, a number of spotted shags and a weta (yuk!).

The lighthouse on Somes Island

The lighthouse on Somes Island

The walk around the island was a delight, helped by the fact that only one other visitor disembarked from our ferry so it felt like we had the island to ourselves for almost the entirety of our wanders. It only takes an hour or so to complete a loop of the island, so it is quite amazing to think how much has taken place in such a small plot of land. The rich history, wonderful views and incredible wildlife make this island a quite remarkable spot to visit – I would heartily recommend it to any travellers out this way.

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