South Island: Soul on alpine track

By Don Kavanagh

Don Kavanagh falls in love with cross-country travel the way people used to do it

The TranzAlpine amid the grandeur of the Southern Alps at Springfield Station. Photo / Tranz Scenic
The TranzAlpine amid the grandeur of the Southern Alps at Springfield Station. Photo / Tranz Scenic

If you want to travel in any kind of style, there is really only one way to do it - by train.

Air travel is faster and cars more versatile, but few things in life are as pleasurable as travelling by train and few train journeys more breathtaking than the TranzAlpine route between Christchurch and Greymouth.

I had been to Greymouth to visit Monteith's Brewery. We had arrived there by a combination of plane and car (including a frankly frightening stop at Arthur's Pass township where kea fell on our vehicle like pirates, stealing anything they could rip from the bodywork), and the brewery had arranged for us to travel back to Christchurch on the TranzAlpine.

The journey covers about 220km through some of the most stunning scenery in the country and the four-plus hours it takes to complete the journey is an ideal duration. Longer train trips can induce a sense of restlessness and shorter ones just miss the point of rail travel, which is not about simply getting from A to B but about immersing yourself in the journey in a way that can't be done in a car or a plane.

Greymouth is a cheerful place, despite taking economic and emotional body blows to its mining industry, and the famed West Coast rain never once made an appearance in the short time I was there. The train station is in the middle of town, which adds a nice sense of bustle and busyness to your journey.

Standing on the platform waiting for the train to arrive was like being carried back in time to a gentler, more peaceful age. Porters pushing carts full of luggage and mailbags along the platforms and cheerful announcements over the tannoy kept everyone apprised of proceedings.

Once on the train, I was surprised at how comfortably appointed it was. It wasn't exactly the Orient Express and there was a marked lack of polished walnut trim and hand-stitched leather, but the seats were roomy, comfortable and, perhaps most importantly, warm.

There were a few of us and conversation was rapid and bubbly for the early stages of the trip, but it petered out as we began the climb through the Southern Alps. This is something I love about train travel; no matter how much you like the person you are travelling with, there invariably comes a point when you simply lapse into a contemplative silence as the scenery unfolds like a movie before you.

Out past Lake Brunner's mirrored smoothness, we began our gradual ascent. Scarred hillsides, with tumbling gouts of scree surrounded me and when the train pulled in to Otira, we got the chance to stretch our legs and fill our lungs with ice-cold air.

Back on the train, coffee and muffins kept out the cold as we plunged through the darkness of the Otira tunnel on the way to Arthurs Pass. The tunnel has doors that close behind the train to prevent fumes escaping and fans extract the diesel at various stages along the way.

Into the mountains, the views keep coming; spectacular snowy peaks, lonely ridges, the occasional lone goat staring impassively as the train passes, and all the time the chugga-chugga of the wheels lulls you into a dreamlike state so you hardly notice your fellow passengers.

The changes in scenery are subtle due to gentle gradients the trains run on. It can be hard to believe you are suddenly in the high mountains, with only hawks for company as the sun gradually sets behind us, bleeding red on to the snowcaps.

High viaducts across braided rivers offer incredible views and I was still shaking my head and checking my camera when I realised we were going downhill, oh so gradually, cutting a twisty path through the lower peaks and foothills, and making for the flat gloom of Canterbury Plains at dusk.

Isolated farmhouses offer the promise of warmth and welcome as we galloped past, picking up speed on the flat and finally slowing down as we come into sight of Christchurch.

Even at journey's end, the magic remains. Getting off an evening train in the soft winter light on to a platform of people waiting to meet passengers makes you realise just how sterile airports are. Smiles, hugs and kisses welcomed other passengers as I picked up my bag and head for the more prosaic charms of a taxi to the airport, and the flight back to Auckland.

Planes may be an efficient way to travel, but compared to the gentle elegance of trains, they have no soul at all.

Find out more about the TranzAlpine and KiwiRail's other scenic journeys at kiwirailscenic.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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