The Journey

The Northern Explorer rumbles through the heart of the North Island on an epic journey that covers 680km of New Zealand's finest scenery, as it travels between Auckland and Wellington.

Northern Explorer Scenic Highlights Video

Settle down for the journey of a lifetime

Setting off from Auckland, our cosmopolitan City of Sails, the first chapter of the Northern Explorer's epic journey is across the mighty Waikato Plains to Hamilton, famous for its gardens and the Hobbiton film set. The Northern Explorer then begins its journey into the rolling hills of King Country, stopping at Otorohanga late morning.


the Northern Explorer train journeys across the Hapuawhenua Viaduct

Ascending the Central Plateau

In the early afternoon, the Northern Explorer begins its ascent onto the southern tip of the Central Plateau, where the often snow-capped volcano Ruapehu dominates the skyline. To reach this elevation, the train squeals around the tight curves of the historic Raurimu Spiral, designed in 1898 to make the 139-metre ascent onto the plateau possible without a lengthy diversion.

As you travel through National Park, the eastern skyline will feature the distinctive volcanic cone of Ngauruhoe, which starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie. Further south, the massive peak of Ruapehu will loom on the horizon as the Northern Explorer skirts around the Tongariro National Park.


Northern Explorer traverses the mighty Hapuawhenua Viaduct in Ohankune

Viaducts of Tongariro National Park

At approximately 800m above sea level, travelling across the southern tip of the Central Plateau is surprisingly flat and straight. This smoothness is thanks to a series of steepling viaducts that bridge deep ravines carved by rivers forming on the slopes of Ruapehu. The greatest of these viaducts are the Makatote, Manganui-o-te-Ao and Hapuawhenua.

It was the middle of the three, the 34m tall Manganui-o-te-Ao Viaduct, that was completed last in 1908 and finally connected Auckland to Wellington by train. An obelisk on the western bank just north of the viaduct marks the spot where the opening ceremony took place.

The tallest of the of the three viaducts is the Makatote Viaduct, which is just a couple of minutes north of Manganui-o-te-Ao Viaduct. At 79m tall and with a span of 262m, it is also the second largest on the Northern Explorer's route.

The Hapuawhenua Viaduct, a little north of Ohakune, was replaced in 1987 with a new 51m high and 414m long concrete viaduct. This magnificent curved viaduct is a photo hotspot, both from on the train and the old viaduct which is now part of the Old Coach Road walking and cycling trail.


Northern Explorer travels through the Rangipo Desert south of Waiouru

Swamps, plains and the Rangipo Desert

Bleak expanses of tussock and snow-grasses dominate the south-eastern edge of the Central Plateau. This high plain is called the Rangipo Desert, and although it is not officially a desert, it is as inhospitable and barren as any place on earth. 

This treeless void is good for two things: firstly, training for Waiouru Military Camp; secondly, giving magnificent unobstructed views of the imposing Mount Ruapehu.


Northern Explorer crossing the South Rangitikei viaduct near Taihape

Rangitikei District

South of Taihape, the Northern Explorer journey follows the distinctive papa cliffs of the Rangitikei River. Here, the soft sandstone has been easily carved by the river, resulting in a narrow gorge with several sharp horseshoe bends. As the train passes through, it negotiates the river and its tributaries via five towering viaducts. The most northerly is the Toi Toi Viaduct, built in 1904 and standing 62 metres high. The most southerly is the Makohine Viaduct, built in 1902 and measuring 72m tall 229m long.

Between these two original iron truss viaducts is the Mangaweka Deviation, which was completed in 1981 with three new concrete viaducts. To the north is the North Rangatikei viaduct which, at 78m tall and 182m long, is the second tallest on the Northern Explorer railway. This is closely followed by the Kaiwhatau River viaduct, 74m tall and 182m long. A couple of minutes farther south is the South Rangitikei viaduct, which is 75m tall and 315m long, making it the third largest on the Northern Explorer journey. 


Northern Explorer running along the Kapiti Coastline

The final stretch of this marathon scenic journey sees you clinging to rugged cliffs of the Kapiti Coast before easing into our twinkling harbourside capital city, Wellington. Your arrival is perfectly timed with the descent of early evening when the city's boutique bars and worldly restaurants come to life.

Explore beyond the tracks

The most popular stops on the Northern Explorer are Otorohanga, for the magical Waitomo Caves, and National Park, for the Tongariro Crossing. Ohakune is renowned for its winter skiing, but it is rapidly becoming a popular stop for its off-road cycle trails and, in particular, the Old Coach Road.

For detailed information on what you can see beyond the tracks, see our Northern Explorer destinations section.

Connect with our scenic network

Wellington is the gateway to the South Island and no trip to New Zealand would be complete without taking the iconic three-and-a-half hour Interislander cruise through the Marlborough Sounds. The Interislander brings you to Picton, where the Coastal Pacific train will take you on to Christchurch.

For detailed tips on connecting with the North Island and South Island, see our Northern Explorer connections section.

Explore our trains

To find out more about the onboard experience, including the seating, panoramic windows, café and open-air carriage, please visit our On Board Our Trains page.