It is my privilege to travel up and down the North Island each week, dividing my time, as I do, between the super city of Auckland and the creative capital of Wellington.
Earlier this year, or was it last (?), I made the trip from Wellington to Auckland by train, along the main trunk line. The original think-big project, this ‘engineering miracle’ took over 30 years to complete, opening in 1908 in time for Wellington’s politicians to get up to Auckland and meet the Great White Fleet. It’s an 11 hour journey, joining, for me, the dots between viaducts, tunnels, settlements and spirals familiar from road trips, and ordering them into a coherent infrastructure network: Palmerston North, Taihape, National Park, Taumarunui, Te Kuiti, Hamilton, Papa…..
Unfortunately our train only made it as far as Papakura before suffering from terminal mechanical failure, but that is another story. These days trains are strictly for tourists (and those with aviophobia). The real, everyday travelers are 32,000 feet above, following a more direct route unencumbered by terrain. Either festooned within a silver Jetstar. or, with marginally more legroom and better cabin service, inside an all-black, or all-white, aircraft of our national carrier. We are the travellers of the new main trunk line.
You’ll usually find me seated, there and back again, in a window seat not far from the pilot. Next to me might be the guy with the size 14 workboots who does something special on the transmission lines (that I don’t quite understand), a pinstriped lawyer reading crime novels on his kindle, a telecom middle manager with a half finished PowerPoint presentation, a fellow urban designer or architect. or occasionally, a well-heeled Auckland university student heading home after exams.
Although I have been doing this trip weekly for two and a half years I never take it for granted. Coming home – Auckland to Wellington is by far my favourite direction. I gaze out of the window and let my thoughts drift like the Tasman’s tides below.
After enduring the latest Hobbit or Bear Grylls themed safety video we taxi onto the runway, then fire up the jet engines and take off into the prevailing westerly breeze, rising sharply over the muddy waters and spreading mangroves of the Manukau harbour, speeding towards the heads and the sand bar that wrecked the Orpheus a century and a half ago, before suddenly banking ninety degrees to the south.
We pass through a low cloud layer, upwards and onwards over the green pastures of the Waikato, and out over the west cost waves that have travelled all the way across the Tasman ocean from New South Wales (or, like me, maybe they have come all the way from old South Wales across many oceans …….?)
See how thoughts drift when removed from the ground……
Now we are getting up high, towards our cruising altitude of 32,000 feet. The Captain usually comes on the intercom about now to tell us about the weather in Wellington. More often than not it is described as “brisk”, “interesting”, “rather fresh”, “strong, and cool” or some other euphemism for windy-as.
All going to plan we’re offered a drink, and some cheese or a “cookie time cookie”.
After that snacky distraction I look back out the window and find that, reassuringly, the land has reappeared, the north facing coastline of New Plymouth clearly visible. Then comes into view the great volcanic cone of Taranaki, its six-mile-radius bush cloak and snow clad peak announcing we’re half way home.
On past Wanganui, river and town, then over the Tasman again. Now the South Island comes into view and, as our Airbus 320 descends, we skirt the flooded valleys of the Marlborough Sounds. Endless layers of ridges fade gently into the distance while the sinuous Cook Straight currents rip at the headlands.
And onwards we glide, aiming directly now towards the eye of the fish of Maui.
The mood changes as we line up into the mouth of the harbour. Wellington seems to amplify the weather, the land picking an argument with the sea and sky just for the sake of it, like a Palmerston North local fighting students or soldiers on a Friday night.
The plane banks again and lines itself up to face squarely Into the wind tunnel, grits its teeth and braces itself, twitching and pitching its gravity assisted way towards the short strip of asphalt that was only recently reclaimed from the sea by man and earthquakes. Sometimes, when the wheels touch the ground, there is a short, spontaneous burst of applause. We’re home.
I like this trip up and down the main trunk line. But I am looking forward to exploring Aotearoa at ground level for a week or three this summer.
(written on my iPhone at altitude)