Cook Strait rail ferries

Page 3 – 'An array of awful pies'

According to a 1960s promotional booklet, the Cook Strait rail ferries meant ‘No windy wharfside meetings, no uncomfortable wait for transport—in bright, fully appointed shipside lounges the voyage begins and ends on a high note.’ A 1962 photo spread in the Weekly News showed happy passengers being served by a white-jacketed steward behind ‘one of three horseshoe counters from which snack meals are served’.

Reality usually fell far short of those cheesy publicity shots. David Johnson recalled that passengers took their chances with unappealing food items such as ‘savoury mince’, pies and sandwiches with bread curling on the edges that were ‘handed over rather than served’. A former crewman described a steward spreading butter with his fingers because he was too lazy to find a knife.

By 1973, the Railways Department advised that ‘each vessel has a bar lounge, a cafeteria, television, an observation lounge, an information bureau, a shop and a telephone kiosk. “Aranui” also has a coffee lounge.’ Unfortunately, as Johnson recalled, the shop ‘specialised in selling Truth, Best Bets, The New Zealand Women’s Weekly, chocolate bars and snacks’. It also closed ‘while the crew member on duty had their designated time off'.

The line’s revamp in the late 1980s improved the food, although as one newspaper reported, not all travellers’ experiences were happy:

The cafeteria stayed closed for the early part of the voyage and when the grubby doors finally opened, the party staggered to the counter to be greeted by an array of awful pies stolen from the tomb of long dead Pharoahs, yellow, curly bits of parchment spread with ptomaine paste and, a cardboard sausage roll surmounted by a fly which seemed the freshest thing on display.

Reluctantly by-passing these tasty treats, the group was seduced by the hand-scrawled sign declaring ‘Hot food’. The first bold traveller summoned up enough courage to disturb the slumber of the grime-encrusted, bad-tempered troll behind the counter and inquire what was in the steaming vats he presided over.

With a grunt the troll dumped a grubby ladle in one vat and brought forth a steaming pile of soggy baked beans. To the accompaniment of a prolonged snort, he shoved the same ladle in the next vat and revealed a grey, glutinous mess so lacking any obvious connection with known foodstuffs that the imagination ran riot as to what it might contain. A timid inquiry as to whether there was anything else produced such a savage snarl and dull yellow flow from the troll’s red deep-sunk eyes, that one and all chose baked beans. Better the risk of flatulence, it was thought, than a painful lingering death.

But changes were made. Railways management noticed how successfully European ferry operators extracted money from their captive clients.

By 1988 the menu had been enlarged from the traditional pies to sandwiches, toast, slices of pizza, cake (usually sultana cake), baked beans with bread and butter—and pies. Management talked of a restaurant menu to include “venison, lamb, beef and pork, a wide range of salads and New Zealand cheeses, wines and beers.” It was almost unbelievable.

The modern ships provide more sophisticated fare in upmarket bars with names such as the Karori Rip Bar or Caffe Oliveto. The ships have also just introduced airline-style lounges for the well-heeled. ‘Kaitaki Plus’ is limited to a maximum of 85 people and offers Internet access, comfortable seating, newspapers and magazines and complimentary beer, wine, tea, coffee and finger food, and a brat-free (no under-15s) zone.

Some things, though, don’t change. According to The Interislander website, every year ‘96,578 pies and 63,210 litres of beer are consumed on board’.