Riding an open empty flat car to Tauranga
Ridin' blind to Tauranga

Train Hopping Tauranga

I lay sprawled out in the grass.  The night dew slowly dampened my ass so I unraveled my bivy for a quick sleep under a patch of pine trees by the Hamilton freight yard.  Prickly thistle and scrub brush decorated the fencing by the mainline camouflaging the riders of the night from the eyes in the sky. No sooner I relaxed, shutting my eyes to the clearest of skies, wafting the smell of wet pine needles, and releasing myself to my dreams, did the buzzing sound of an engine clutter my thoughts.  But, it wasn’t a dream.

I opened my eyes and turned around, squinting.  Through the waving shadows of flora, the diamond eyes and barbed teeth of fence, a southbound train crept to a halt on the first track.  I freed myself of my bedroll, sloppily folding it into the biggest ball, as I punched the poofy down feathers from my sleeping bag into my pack, just enough to zip it tight.  With a thump against my back, my pack slung over my shoulders and I darted down the gully, stepping on loose plastic bottles and trash.  My fingers snagged branches and roots as I hoisted myself up the steep slant of the gully.  Thorns and prickers sliced into me with their twisting tendrils of nails, but as I broke free, I hugged the fencing.

I clasped it between moist fingers, scaling it while firmly gripping the metal post, bracing my foot onto the top of the tensile wiring running along the fence like a laundry line.  My pants snagged on one of the three tiers of barbed wire, and once I freed my leg from its teeth, I dropped my pack and leapt towards the ballast inside the yard. The block shadows of freight cars masked my dark silhouette as I tiptoed among the wobbly ballast, looking for the perfect ride out of Hamilton.

Just a few cars down from me I saw the tiniest of spaces between two containers on a flat car, not even wide enough for my shoulders.  I squished my pack in on the small ledge and hopped up, wiggling myself down to the floor as I sat crooked with my neck leaned up against my bag. My body lay out with the nubs of my shoulder blades smooshed between two cold steel container doors while I waited for her soothing sound of air. I peeped up seeing the shadows stretch towards the tops of each container on either side of me, with light penetrating only six inches down from either door.  I felt safe and hidden.

As I shut my eyes, I embraced the freedom of the unknown, hoping to end up in Palmerston North, but not really caring otherwise.  Then the hoses sounded off like a 21 gun salute. The sibilance pierced my ears. My eyes opened. A smile poked out from the corners of my lips as the cold air tickled my nose.  She rolled backwards slightly and her cars jerked forward in a domino effect, clanking together in a loud shunt. Her wheels crept slowly drifting by the line of pine trees beyond the fence, beyond the black open field, and she fiercely thrummed to a more rapid pace, until spitting out of the yard.  

She switched tracks and stopped briefly just past old lime green cabooses covered in panels of graffiti spray paint.  Then her wheels screeched in disharmony, striking my ears with the shattering sound of a steep curve. She screamed over a short river bridge and walloped past a parking garage as artificial lights struck my eyes for a second, booming past industry as she faded to ebony sky.

She cruised along and the dusk of night slid silently between the open spaces of trees as I looked blankly out at the dark landscape blurring by me in contorted shapes.  Her wheels purred along the steel and the quick droning and flashing of railroad crossing signals diminished with the onset of open countryside. I opened my eyes as wide as the stars sprinkled across the sky.  They blinked at me with a startling glimmer, feeling closer to the Earth than ever before.

The tranquility of nature eased my chills until she thrashed through the Kaimai tunnel, the longest railroad tunnel on the North Island, of amplified noise, clanking and clunking as a hair dryer of diesel exhaust rushed my sides in warm bouts of air.  My nose snorted into my baclava and the pungent aroma of diesel fumes danced with my nostrils in a nauseating torment of wonder. How long was this tunnel (8.8 km as I found out later)? I remembered riding through the 7.8 mile Cascade Tunnel in Washington State and hoped for a much shorter ride, feeling the lack of oxygen mar my thoughts through the purging diesel.

After several minutes, she broke free of the wormhole.  And now, the brisk vent of air, funneling in from each open side between the containers, pummeled me in chilling gusts, and my body instantly turned to ice. My toes felt numb, losing blood flow and I shivered as she stormed the tracks in clashing rage. I unzipped my pack and instantly my sleeping bag inflated outward like a balloon.  Shimmying in one leg at a time, I wiggled each foot until reaching the bottom of my sleeping bag. That warm sensation of feeling slowly drifted back to each toe as the puffy down feathers enveloped my feet.  I lay slanted against the containers with the wind plunking my face as she skittered onward to Tauranga.

As she neared the port, my nerves became tense.  I needed to pack up. At any moment she would stop and I needed to hop off immediately.  I crammed my sleeping bag into my pack, pushing, stuffing, smooshing and punching it in there until it finally zipped back up.  My body eased and I just waited looking off into the black abyss.

Then my eyes focused on her front engine, just ten cars up from me, and I watched her bright beam of light pillage the terrain of darkness as she meandered the coast. Her bellowing roars lulled to cruising purrs with each chug closer to Tauranga, with each gyration of wheel and city lights flickered in the distance.

Black glass of glinting light shooting across the ocean in riplets of lemon yellow cast out beyond the train bridge as I held my head out into the wind, smiling, breathing in priceless adventure.

Everything felt so small as she galloped through the early morning of the quiet city, riding large and in charge. She crept through the bright yard by the Port of Tauranga and came to a halt at the next signal.  

I hopped off, my feet crunching under the ballast as I dipped to a grassy embankment by the roadside.  The ocean slept calmly under ebony sky. I faded away, shutting my curtain of thought off like a switch, snoozing by an abandoned wharf.  I lay there dressed in my bivy by the coast of Tauranga with the subtle scent of diesel fumes permeating my clothes. What would the road take me tomorrow?

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Brian Cray is not a cyclist. He’s not a hitchhiker. He’s not a train hopper or an adrenaline junkie. He’s just an ordinary man with gypsy blood in his veins, who can’t seem to settle down. Nothing defines him. He goes wherever this world takes him on this journey we call life, roaming the world, at will, by any means. He aspires for a life of indefinite travel, a tiny home in the woods for him and his wife, and any work that keeps him wanderin’. Brian Cray is a travel writer at heart, sharing his stories with the world one keystroke at a time.

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