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The Kingston Flyer

Published
December 22, 2023
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AT the southern end of Lake Wakatipu, the settlement of Kingston sits below immense craggy hills.

Lake Wakatipu, with key towns and localities along it and roads leading away from its ends. From Kingston to Kinloch is 80 km (50 miles) over the water. The background is a NASA WorldWind false-colour Landsat-7 image via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain. North at top.

Thousands of years ago, the future site of Kingston was the outlet of Lake Wakatipu, via a dried-up river whose bed can still be seen as you drive south from Kingston. More recently, from 1878 until the line was closed, Kingston was also the terminus of the railway, at first from Athol and then from Dunedin, known from the 1880s as the Kingston Flyer, which now survives as a tourist train running between Kingston and Fairlight, a distance of some 35 minutes on the Flyer.

Before the railway line went in, the only semi-convenient way to get to Lake Wakatipu was by stagecoach. A photograph still survives from those Wild West-like days, one of many historical photos both at the Kingston and the Fairlight termini of today’s Flyer.

After arriving at Kingston via the Flyer, you got onto one of the several lake steamers that plied the lake, such as the still-surviving Earnslaw, for the journey to Queenstown, Glenorchy, and Kinloch.

The TSS Earnslaw meeting the Kingston Flyer at Kingston Wharf, on the 90th anniversary of the Earnslaw, on 18 November 2002. Public domain image by Moturau, via Wikimedia Commons.

These days, the Kingston Flyer is a short-distance tourist railway, which runs from Kingston to the nearby railway stop of Fairlight, a journey that takes about 35 minutes each way.

The crags over Kingston look very atmospheric on a cloudy day.


These days, the Kingston Flyer is hauled by an AB-class locomotive built in the 1920s. This sort of locomotive was the mainstay of the New Zealand Railways in its day. Here is a photograph of the then Prime Minister, Joseph Gordon Coates, chatting with the driver of his Prime Ministerial train, AB 825, in 1928.

Joseph Gordon Coates speaking with the driver of locomotive Ab825 at Auckland Railway Station. New Zealand Free Lance: Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-5469–054. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23175464

There are two of these locomotives that pull the Flyer, AB 795 and 778, only one of which (AB 795) is in use right now. AB 795 was used to pull the Royal Train during the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip in the summer of 1953 and 1954.

AB795 all set to go, at Kingston

Regular passenger services from Dunedin to Kingston ran from 1878 until 1937. Presumably, the passenger train was replaced by buses after the road along the lake to Queenstown was built, one of many such schemes that gave unemployed workers something to do in the Depression.

Here’s another group of historical photos, of the Flyer in the ‘great snow’ of the winter of 1939.

I fear that global warming may have put an end to such picturesque scenes these days. Though, of course, it was regarded as highly inconvenient at the time. If the train was taking winter holidaymakers, skiers perhaps, they were definitely overdue.

Holiday passenger services ended in 1957, but the train was revived for tourists in 1971.

In other words, the Kingston Flyer has been operating as a nostalgic tourist railway for so long that it has become quite historic even in that sense. Check out the dates on this poster!

Of about the same vintage is one of New Zealand’s best-loved TV advertisements, also filmed on the Kingston Flyer.

And so, we departed for Fairlight, where the train was turned around and raced by children running alongside on the grass, to haul the carriages back.

The inside of the cabin was fairly atmospheric, with signs requesting that passengers abstain from expectoration (those most likely to expectorate probably having no idea what that meant), and to refrain from throwing bottles as well.

I presume these initials were carved in 1965, and not 1865.

We travelled in the Second-Class carriages. First Class was a bit posher and more padded:

A glimpse of First-Class comfort

First-Class compartments, accessible by a gangway

It was, apparently, first come first served, so passengers are hereby respectfully advised to get there early.

There were signs saying not to stand on the platforms between the carriages, but you could stand on the one behind the engine.

One of the volunteers who keep the Kingston Flyer running

There were lots of strange, rocky landforms along the way, and it is definitely worth keeping an eye out for the scenery, especially on a somewhat clearer day than the one on which we travelled.

Here are some photos taken a year earlier, which show the Flyer heading into Fairlight.



Here are some more pictures taken on this trip, at Fairlight.

They have the chest that was in the Crunchie Bar ad!

I’ve got highlights of our trip in a video lasting several minutes, here.

After returning to Kingston, we popped into the railway station café. Like the Fairlight station, where tea and coffee were also served but which is otherwise little more than a shed, the proper station café at Kingston is full of historic photos and artifacts.

The author in the railway station café at Kingston, with umbrellas outside (the weather too inclement for the outside tables, even though it was summer)

We then went for a wander along the lakeshore.

The lakeshore at Kingston, with old railway wagons


Along a short lakeshore road, with crags in the background


A sign to discourage pilferers


This crag really sticks out


The Kingston Wharf, from where the Earnslaw used to depart


Looking across the harbour at Kingston: there is quite a nice beach


An information sign, at the Kingston Boat Ramp

There are also hiking trails where you can explore the lakeshore further.

For more information, see thekingstonflyer.nz.

There’s more about the lovely Lake Wakatipu area in some of my other posts and in The Sensational South Island, available on this website, a-maverick.com.


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