A day on the TranzAlpine

By Justine Tyerman

New Zealand is tall but slim-waisted so you can travel by train in style and comfort from the garden city of Christchurch and the golden sands of the Pacific Ocean on the East Coast, to the old gold mining town of Greymouth and the black sands of the Tasman Sea on the West Coast in just five hours.

While a veteran of many train trips overseas, this was my first such journey in New Zealand and as one of the few Kiwis on board, I felt inordinately proud and excited as we filed into the spacious carriages of the TranzAlpine and found our seats beside the huge panoramic windows.


On the dot of 8.15am on a bright, cloudless spring morning, the twin diesel locomotives and 10 carriages glided smoothly out of Christchurch.

Most passengers were content to sit in their comfortable seats watching the ever-changing landscape flicker by, but early on in the trip, I discovered the open-air viewing carriage at the rear of the train ... and that's where I stayed, immune to the blustery conditions, totally immersed in the beauty of my own country.

Speeding across the Canterbury Plains heading for the seemingly impenetrable mountain fortress of Main Divide, the grass seemed greener than ever, populated by frolicking lambs, foals, calves, alpacas and fawns.

As the TranzAlpine approached the foothills of the Southern Alps, the stunning aqua-turquoise Waimakariri River came into view. The train then climbed high above the Waimakariri, crossing the river on viaducts so high I felt dizzy looking down into the gorge.

The landscape changed again as the train wound its way along the broad upland plains of Craigieburn where the braids of the Waimakariri spread out across the broad shingle river bed. The alps, so distant at the start, were now almost close enough to touch. The train crossed the glacier-fed Waimakariri and stopped briefly at the village of Arthur's Pass, a popular hub for serious climbers, hikers, skiers and nature-lovers.

The appearance of a couple of kea, New Zealand's comical alpine parrot, created a frenzy of selfie sticks among the overseas passengers.

The next phase of the journey took us through the 8.5km Otira Tunnel under the Southern Alps. The open-air viewing carriage was closed while the train negotiated the tunnel which was one of the few times I actually sat in my seat! The tunnel, completed in 1923, was the final stage of the transalpine railway which began in the 1880s.

At the time, it was the longest tunnel in the southern hemisphere and the sixth-longest in the world.

Emerging from darkness into light, we found ourselves in a different world. The West Coast never fails to intrigue with its misty rainforests and snow-capped mountains.

The train travelled alongside the Otira, Taramakau, Arnold and Grey rivers as we made our way towards the Tasman Sea, trundling through towns with colourful pasts. Some sprang up in the 1860s gold rush, while others were associated with timber milling, coal mining, the Cobb and Co stagecoach and road, railway and tunnel construction.

We skirted tranquil Lake Brunner and Moana with its quaint baches and followed the Grey River into Greymouth. Far from grey, the West Coast's largest city was bathed in sunshine. After lunch, I strolled along the river bank walkway, stopping at a memorial to the coal miners who had lost their lives in the region.

I reboarded the TranzAlpine an hour later for what I expected to be a more relaxed return trip, seated in my comfy armchair. But the landscape, transformed by the long shadows of late afternoon and a dazzling sunset, demanded I return to the viewing carriage for another blustery episode. Mercifully, darkness finally fell, allowing me no option but to sit and enjoy tasty lamb shanks and pinot noir for dinner.

What you need to know

•The TranzAlpine scenic train trip is a daily return service in New Zealand's South
Island between Christchurch on the East Coast and Greymouth on the West Coast, or vice versa, covering a distance of 223 kilometres in just under five hours.

•Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Rail Europe international rail specialists, and Great Journeys of New Zealand.

•Visit Great Train Journeys by Rail Europe for more information on this and other epic train adventures around the world, or phone 09 377 5420.

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