In the early morning light, with Auckland's Sky Tower on the horizon, there's a hint of adventure in the air as I wait to board the train waiting at the city's Strand Station. Via three such trains – each comprising a sleek set of modern carriages – and a ferry, I'm about to undertake a great rail journey across both the North and South islands of New Zealand.
Some distance behind the train I can make out the roof of the city's former main railway station, a glamorous 1930 Beaux-Arts building which now contains serviced apartments. But that's already in the past as the train edges forward. I'm looking forward to a trip involving beautiful hilly scenery, dramatic volcanoes, and a multitude of tunnels and viaducts built to carry the rails across New Zealand's challenging terrain. I can't wait to see what's out there.
NORTHERN EXPLORER: AUCKLAND TO WELLINGTON
All three long-distance trains use the same type of carriage, and they've been designed with tourists in mind. There are two seats on each side of the aisle, with some sets of four seats facing across a table. Leg room is good, and there's lots of natural light and views via large windows. Timber panelling adds an organic touch to the design, and drop-down screens show a map of our 10-hour journey down to Wellington.
Once beyond the Auckland suburbs we pass into rolling green farmland that reminds me of the old Footrot Flats comic strip, and its movie's theme song Slice of Heaven starts playing in my head.
The train's excellent recorded commentary, accessed by headphones, picks up the agricultural theme at Te Kuiti by telling us about a famous local rugby player who used to train with a sheep under each arm. It also talks about the construction of the line in the 19th century, and how a team of railway surveyors was once held captive by a Maori tribe who objected to their incursion.
In addition to a cafe car, the train has an open-sided observation car. I join a group of passengers here in anticipation of an upcoming waterfall, which flashes by on the right while I'm standing on the left. Still, it's nice to be able to take photos without window reflections.
We ascend to the North Island's Central Plateau via the Raurimu Spiral, a clever piece of Edwardian-era engineering which allows trains to climb 132 metres of altitude in a relatively short distance. It's different up here, seemingly drier with yellow grass by the tracks.
The cloud cover briefly shifts to allow a glimpse of one of the big volcanic peaks in the region, Mount Ruapehu. With ace timing, the commentary recalls the 1953 disaster in which the Wellington-Auckland train plummeted from a bridge which had been damaged by flooding after the mountain's crater wall collapsed.
After that sobering tale, I head for the cafe car and lunch. It's low on vegetarian options on this busy day (it's school holiday time in New Zealand, so the train is full), and the vegetable lasagne is sold out. Instead I choose the tomato and capsicum soup followed by potato au gratin. It's reheated food but tasty, matching well with a pilsner from Kiwi brewer Monteith's.
A reminder that this is a no-nonsense state-run railway is provided by the cafe manager, who chases people out of the adjacent seating when she thinks they're dawdling. Back in my seat, I enjoy more pastoral views and then the Tasman Sea as the train navigates between hills and surf, to arrive right on time at the refreshingly grand 1937 main station in Wellington.
COASTAL PACIFIC: PICTON TO CHRISTCHURCH
After a short stay in Wellington, enjoying a tour of movie props at Weta Workshop, and the new art gallery at the Te Papa national museum, it's time to move on – by ferry.
The Interislander service crosses the Cook Strait to link the North and South islands. The sun is out, the sea calm, and I enjoy wandering the decks of the MV Kaitaki between bouts of relaxing with snacks in its premium Plus Lounge. After two hours we pass into the Marlborough Sounds and are treated to splendid scenery: hilly green land with low rocky outcrops, the occasional house tucked in among the slopes.
After a coffee break in the port town of Picton, I head to the pleasant old timber train station to board the Coastal Pacific, which will take six hours to travel down the east coast to Christchurch. The line was out of commission for two years following the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake, so it's good to see it up and running again.
As the name suggests, the Pacific plays a big role in the scenery as we head south. Once we pass the vineyards of the Marlborough wine region, centred on Blenheim, we have an impressive view of the ocean to our left. Beyond a shore of black sand are its blue waters and rolling waves, punctuated by small rocky islands.
There's more dramatic scenery to come. A glimpse of Tapuae-o-Uenuku, a lofty peak 2885 metres above sea level, is a curtain-raiser to the appearance of the Seaward Kaikoura Range. At this point we have mountains on one side of the rails and ocean on the other, a welcome situation which continues for some time.
Finally, after following the Hurunui River through Ethelton Gorge, we arrive at Christchurch's shiny modern railway station, the successor to an earlier structure demolished after the quakes of 2010 and 2011. We arrive in the city as the sun sets on a highly scenic day.
TRANZALPINE: CHRISTCHURCH TO GREYMOUTH
My final railway journey is often said to be New Zealand's most spectacular, but I'm seeing it under less than perfect conditions. The weather is wet and overcast, which will impede views, and even worse – the second half of the five-hour journey west across the South Island's mountains will be by bus, thanks to a landslide near Greymouth.
The saddest three words a train lover can ever hear are "rail replacement bus", but at least I have the rail trip across the Canterbury Plains to Arthur's Pass to look forward to.
It's impossible to reserve a particular seat on any of these trains, so this time I'm stuck in an aisle seat at the rear, distant from the café and observation cars. After talking to the onboard staff, however, I'm able to move forward a few carriages to some empty seats.
After we leave Christchurch we enter sprawling agricultural land, but up ahead I can see lofty snow-capped peaks which seem an impassable barrier. It's as if the train is being targeted at the mountains – or more precisely a notch within them.
The engineers who built this railway dealt with the difficult terrain partly by following the Waimakariri River, a "braided" waterway of multiple channels. Even so, it was a difficult job, and many viaducts and tunnels lie ahead of us. The highest viaduct crosses Staircase Gully, and there's a stark view from here down to the river, with its curiously bright blue-green water. As has so often happened since leaving Auckland, I'm getting Middle Earth vibes from the passing landscape.
There are sheep stations up here, says the recorded commentary, which comes as a surprise – and then I see cattle grazing either side of the line as we pass the defunct railway station at Craigieburn.
The commentary also mentions reported sightings in this area of the moa, a giant flightless bird which has been extinct for centuries… though rumour says these might have been confected to boost the profits of a local pub.
Finally, passing beneath mighty summits, we arrive at Arthur's Pass Station and transfer in light drizzle to waiting buses, for the final leg down to coastal Greymouth. Though it ran over a truncated route today, the TranzAlpine train was impressive. I have a feeling I'll be back.
Air New Zealand flies to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, see airnewzealand.com.au
Hotel DeBrett is a beautifully renovated Art Deco hotel in Auckland's city centre, with rooms from $NZ230 ($A195) a night. See hoteldebrett.com
QT Wellington lies across the road from the Te Papa museum, with rooms from $NZ220 a night. See qthotels.com
Sudima Christchurch City offers stylish new accommodation north of the city's CBD, with rooms from $NZ203 a night. See sudimahotels.com
The Ashley supplies updated motel-style accommodation on the edge of Greymouth, with rooms from $NZ135 a night. See hotelashley.co.nz
RIDE + SAIL
Fares start at $NZ89 (Northern Explorer), $NZ79 (Coastal Pacific), and $NZ89 (TranzAlpine); and from $NZ65 for the Interislander ferry, with a $NZ55 surcharge for Plus Lounge access. See greatjourneysofnz.co.nz
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.