Get on board in New Zealand and you'll be transported through stunning countryside. Hugh O'Shaughnessy takes the train past peaks, farms - and the odd whale

You don't need power boats or wet suits to watch whales or observe seals. At least not in New Zealand. Of course, all that useful paraphernalia is at hand if you hanker after it. From the little town of Kaikoura on the Pacific shore of the South Island, the Maoris' modern and well-equipped boats will bring you alongside whales as they surface to breathe and plunge again into the deep. And the Maoris will show you dolphins as you return to the quayside.

You don't need power boats or wet suits to watch whales or observe seals. At least not in New Zealand. Of course, all that useful paraphernalia is at hand if you hanker after it. From the little town of Kaikoura on the Pacific shore of the South Island, the Maoris' modern and well-equipped boats will bring you alongside whales as they surface to breathe and plunge again into the deep. And the Maoris will show you dolphins as you return to the quayside.

But if you want to experience your visual thrills in comfort and without the threat of sea-sickness, you can simply let the New Zealand's trains take the strain. You can see marine mammals either from your seat or from open-air platforms, where nothing stands between your camera lens and the ocean as it laps within a few yards of the tracks. If the seals are particularly active the train will slow down as it passes to give you a better view. And when nature is being especially kind (and you are not focusing a camera) you can take in the majestic wildlife over scones and a cup of hot tea from the buffet counter.

The trains in New Zealand are very special. In a sense they are as endangered as some species of whale, and the future of passenger services is uncertain. In line with its international network, Air New Zealand is expanding domestic services in a country that is 1,000 miles long yet has a mere four million inhabitants. So it is little surprise that the Northerner sleeping car service that ran between Auckland and Wellington, the capital, was axed last November.

Fortunately, it is still possible to follow the route - one of the best trips possible in New Zealand - by day. Having travelled through the North Island, you then catch the boat to the South Island across Cook Strait. You sail into Picton, then stroll a few yards across the quay to the station, from where your train threads its way south between mountain and sea through huge vineyards to Christchurch.

Stand in the rail terminus at Wellington at rush hour and you will see no lack of commuters using crowded suburban trains, but long-distance mainline services run no more than once a day. Realising that its future is tourism, the half-private, half-state system, which brands itself as Tranz Scenic, is making a strong pitch. "Take the train to see the rellies," say the posters urging locals to make more contact with their families across the country.

And these travellers are well looked after by a railway that keeps its promise to show off much of the best and most interesting parts of the country. On a day's journey from Auckland through the North Island, the gentle farming country around Hamilton and Otorohanga gives way to the tundra and ski slopes of the 2,800m Mount Ruapehu. At one point the train edges around two hairpin bends and enters a mountain, then corkscrews up the Raurimu Spiral in the darkness in a piece of engineering worthy of anything in Switzerland. By evening the Wellington Riviera along the Tasman Sea is in view and Wellington, tightly surrounded by hills, appears beside its magnificent harbour. Between Auckland and Wellington, you have scope to break your journey, stopping off at intermediate stations to visit the wineries of Martinborough, the kiwi birds at Otorohanga and the caverns full of glow-worms at Waitomo.

The crossing from Wellington to Picton was memorably described by Katherine Mansfield in her story The Voyage, which was published in 1921. Today's ferry is more comfortable than the one she wrote about, but the grandeur of the great fjord that is the Marlborough Sounds looks no less stupendous as you approach Picton. The journey on to Christchurch - another five hours if you don't alight - takes you past Kaikoura and the hundreds of thousands of new vines that will one day make New Zealand an even more important source of fine wine than it already is.

On a New Zealand train you travel in comfort. On the departure platform, a friendly conductor, who will later be commenting on the public address system on points of interest on the journey, gives you a boarding pass for your seat. In the carriages there are just two seats on either side of a central gangway, and one class. The carriages are old and not up to the standards of, say, a French TGV - but they are scrupulously clean and reflect New Zealanders' passionate hatred of litter. In the North Island, the trains have an observation carriage and a small open-air viewing platform; in the South Island, there is a big open-air viewing platform and no observation carriage. The gauge is a narrow 3ft 6in (compared to Britain's 4ft 8 1/2in), and the trains move at a fraction of the speed a TGV would reach. But the ride is very smooth.

Not having many businessmen to look after, the railway can afford to take its time. Leaving Auckland the other day on the 7.25am Overlander to Wellington, I dutifully listened to the conductor's instructions. Smoking was forbidden, I was told, but smokers would have enough time at Hamilton at 9.55am for a cigarette. They were warned to get back on board in good time. It so happened that three elderly ladies were indeed left behind. But we cheerfully waited 20 minutes at the next station for them to arrive by taxi.

In a country deeply stamped with the mark of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, behaviour that would not have been tolerated a century ago on the London Brighton and South Coast or the Inverness and Perth Junction lines does not go down any better today. As we travelled south en route for Christchurch, a passenger from the far side of the Atlantic committed the imprudence of taking out his banjo and plucking it. The carriage froze. Those who were trying to read quietly as the coastline rolled by glared at him so unmercifully that he soon put his wretched instrument back in its case.

Though connoisseurs of rail travel should lose no time in using the New Zealand service, one must not be excessively pessimistic about the country's railways. They are getting better known and there are even signs that a rail renaissance is on the way. At Otorohonga station in the middle of the North Island, I met a score of contented Yorkshire visitors brought to New Zealand Railways by a travel agent from Redhill, Surrey.

Meanwhile Paul Hashfield, a private entrepreneur, has well-advanced plans for his Great New Zealand Steam Journeys. From January next year passengers should be able to make stately progress for three or four hours a day, and sample excursions along the way including on lines where there are no passenger services at present. Carriages will be hauled by steam engines restored to the rails from which they were displaced by modern diesel and electric monsters. "We are going to deliver a very special experience," says Paul Hashfield.

SURVIVAL TIPS

GETTING THERE

The only airline with direct services is Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk), with a daily link from Heathrow to Auckland, and connections at LA for Christchurch. You can also travel via San Francisco, using United Airlines between the UK and California. Many other airlines offer connecting flights between various UK airports and New Zealand via Asia; they include Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Malaysia Airlines.

Titan Hi Tours (01293 455 345; www.titanhitours.net) offers 23-day Great New Zealand Rail Adventures, with departures in November 2005 and January and February 2006 for £3,295, including flights, rail trips and hotels.

GETTING AROUND

The only passenger train operator in New Zealand is TranzScenic (00 64 4 495 0775 or visit www.tranzscenic.co.nz). It offers a seven-day rail pass for NZ$299 (£114). Great New Zealand Steam Journeys will begin in January 2006 (00 64 21 38 38 60; www.greatnzsteamjourneys.co.nz).

MORE INFORMATION

Contact Tourism New Zealand at 80 Haymarket, London SW1 4TQ; call 0905 060 6060(60p per minute) or go to www.newzealand.com/travel

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