Train Hopping
Palmerston North Freight Hopping

Ridin’ Blind on Empty Lumber Outta Napier

The Big Island drifted away between blurs of deep blue ocean and wispy clouds as I set my roots in New Zealand. That night, my plane landed in Auckland, and I walked about 100 meters from the terminal up an embankment of mulch. Shards of bark scrunched beneath my footsteps while I followed the fence line. Empty silhouettes of prickly shrubbery patched the terrace and I unraveled my bedroll beneath a barren tree.  Its dead leaves cushioned the earth beneath me.  As I drifted to sleep, my naked face exposed to the chills of night, drowning in the melody of chirping birds.

Bus stop 2008 became my stoop for early to late morning, wandering across the street for brief smoke breaks, staring off at the mass of people in a rush, society.  I sat there on my pack, dirty, with greasy hair, watching backpackers travel onward to their hostels, and families bid farewell.  Indians stood nearby their taxis with turbans bandaging their heads, ready to drive the next tourist to their hotel.  A melting pot of culture wandered around, arriving, departing and waiting for the bus, just like myself.  I wondered again, “Why didn’t I just hitchhike?” But, I missed my wife and after three weeks of Hawaii, wwoofing, landscaping, traveling, and waiting for my connecting flight, I just wanted to hold her and lay next to her before the next adventure.

The Intercity bus took me directly to Napier with a short layover in Hamilton. I looked out at the verdant rolling countryside, void of people and sparse housing, with rugged terrain sifting into the horizon endlessly.  It felt mystical, unlike anything I pictured in my mind, the complete opposite of Hawaii, yet a paradise of its own.  The shades of green granted an alpine presence birthing mountains and abundant forests.  Sheep and cattle masticated on fresh clumps of grass, parading through prairies of open landscape across the farms of New Zealand.

When I finally arrived in Napier I squeezed my wife happily before following her to our temporary living accommodation. We walked along slowly, hand-in-hand, as the sun trickled behind the abyss of storm clouds sauntering around the bluff.  The sound of the ocean whispered with lulling ripples between quick bursts of wind.  I glared out to the ocean.  Its majestic beauty mesmerized me with the deepest turquoise hue, not murky in the slightest, but clear, penetrating to the bottom of the floor. The beach covered in gray pebbles as I reminisced our time on the south of Maui, skinny dipping on our own private beach.

We spent my first week living on-site.  Her work duties included walking the two most annoying, scrappy little mutts, along with occasional work in the office for tours.  Me, I sat around on my ass doing nothing like a bum.  I helped weed and tend to the garden on occasion, but really I had no actual plan as to what I was doing in New Zealand.  I just wanted some kind of job, any kind of job, and wanted to travel.  Then wanderlust bit me again like a blood thirsty mosquito.  I took a short escapade to nowhere, traveling for travel’s sake, train hopping New Zealand.

Bluff Overlook towered over the Port of Napier. Its precipice of rugged limestone plateaued above the city, overlooking containers, stacks of lumber, cranes, heavy equipment and empty freight cars.  Off in the distance around the bend of steel the tracks curved into Ahuriri Yard, barricaded by minimum security, chain link fences. With the straps of my pack clung tight over my shoulders I tramped down the adjacent winding road.  I kissed my wife, pushing her hair back behind her ear with the gentlest touch of my finger.  Her eyes twinkled a deep hazel brown, holding back a rain of tears as she wrapped her arms around me, pulling me close.  She knew I itched to wander and as the tips of our fingers broke free from embrace, I wandered alone, scouting the yard, hiding, walking and waiting to hop freight.

Train Hopping New ZealandKiwi Rail

The orange blaze that beamed across the naked sky dipped below the bluest of horizons behind the sounds of a thousand birds.  With little cover by the highway, barbed wired fencing, an adjacent neighborhood and no brush lining the perimeter of the yard, I waited for twilight to embrace the night sky.  Then I made my move.

I crouched in the bushy grass behind a dilapidated clothing barn.  A cage of fuel canisters, and a free clothing bin blocked me out of view from the yard. Dim lights unmasked my silhouette as I inched closer to the fence, watching the FRED blink red at the end of the train, my heart beating faster than normal, hoisting myself up and over into the yard.  My feet pounced onto the cobbles of ballast, skittering beneath my footing as I jogged to an empty lumber rack.  I threw my pack up on the empty flat car, laying flat with my feet pressed up against the enclosed square of metal, high enough to cover me from the eye of a worker, but completely exposed to the eye in the sky.

The thrumming of my chest faded to a casual pitter.  Within moments I heard the golden sound of air tick and hiss, filling the hoses between the empty freight cars.  Then she lunged forward with a slight jerk, creeping slowly into the night, my head pointed at the myriad stars above as flashes of light from masts pierced my eyes.  We set off rolling and just before reaching the mouth of the yard I noticed a worker with his light shone on each passing freight car.  He stood broad shouldered with a bright orange vest on oblivious to my presence.  I stayed still, blending with the shadows of the night. She rolled southbound humming through the sleeping city.  The vibrant red crossing lights blinked and dinged bringing back the freedom of the road as we soared into the night on empty lumber.

The stampede of steel shattered the silence of night. The sky lit up with white speckled sprinkles as the steel dragon screeched along the smooth steel tracks through the mirage of mountainous terrain.  Clouds settled, dwelling among the ground in a thick chilling fog while we roared onward through the night.  She rumbled, shaking my body violently like a piece of meat.  The thick air wet my face and the wind screamed thrashing against my stiff body.

When she reached Manawatu Gorge, twisting and turning around the steep curves, the water shimmered from the moonlight, a sparkling silver.  Brief tunnels drowned out the sound of rapids, the echoes amplifying each screech and squelch around every bend of track.

Shortly after, she halted at a signal before entering Palmerston North Yard. I hopped off, yawning and rustling about in the high weeds, finding a small patch of grass to spread my bedroll.  My eyes fluttered away with the night. The brisk breeze of damp air lulled me to sleep at 4 am and my dreams faded with the oncoming dawn.

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  1. People have been train hopping since the dawn of the freight train, Gill. I did not invent it, nor do I condone others to participate in something they know nothing about. I am well aware of any dangers associated with any of the activities I choose to do, but in the end, it’s my choice, and my life. Quite frankly, if you think I am going to base my life decisions on a comment from an anonymous person on the Internet, then you are incorrect. Good day.

  2. Hi Brian. My name is Gill Evans and I work for KiwiRail. What you are doing is dangerous not only for you but our staff and for the public. We have reported your behaviour to the correct authorities. We need to ensure that you remain safe and do not injure yourself or worse die from your behaviour. We ask respectfully that you consider all those involved should you hurt yourself or are fatally injured. Please stop.

  3. Are you talking about your mate Rob? If so, he definitely helped me out a bit with some timetables. I’m really enjoying the scenery in New Zealand. It is so beautiful here. I was grateful to get in a quick trip before work started, but would definitely like to get in a little more. It would be awesome to travel with some other people. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Amazing to here of your journey here in New Zealand. Can’t wait for the videos Heard that you have been talking to my mate, may have to do a travel together whilst your still in New Zealand!