All down the line: Christchurch to Oamaru

By Paul Harper

Herald Online reporter Paul Harper is making his way around the South Island by rail over the course of a fortnight. Here are some of the highlights of his trip.

One of Arthur's Pass' popular residents, a kea, pulls apart a sign. Photo / Paul Harper
One of Arthur's Pass' popular residents, a kea, pulls apart a sign. Photo / Paul Harper

Day Four

From Christchurch Railway Station our journey heads across the Southern Alps towards the West Coast of the South Island. The train races along the plains towards Springfield, the first stop of the day.

From the platform passengers get impressive views of the Southern Alps to the west. From Springfield the train winds its way up the foothills, passing over several viaducts and through a number of tunnels, with the Waimakiriri River to the north of the track, weaving its way towards the sea.

We are fortunate enough to stop on Cass Bank overlooking Lake Sarah, which provides a great opportunity for the budding photographers in the group to make the most of the stunning scenery and the perfect weather.

The next stop is Arthur's Pass, a small settlement on State Highway 73 high in the alps. Nestled among towering mountains with mist hanging loosely about the routes in and out of the town to the east and west, Arthur's Pass is a mountain refuge in the middle of nowhere.

The area's famous residents, the kea - an alpine parrot - are a particular treat. The little green winged-monkeys enjoy the attention of tourists and will happily strike a pose for the cameras, when they're not pulling apart anything not bolted down. If you like places which are awesome, you'll really like Arthur's Pass.

From Arthur's Pass the train passes through the Otira Tunnel. Unsurprisingly, the Otira Tunnel is much the same as every tunnel we've passed through so far on the trip - it's dark, a bit like night-time, if you can imagine that. However the Otira Tunnel is a lot longer than much shorter tunnels, taking trains roughly 15 minutes to pass through its 8.5km.

Once out of the deepest depths of the Southern Alps, the train passes through the Otira Gorge and down towards the coast. Before reaching Greymouth, the largest town on the West Coast, we stop at the site of the Brunner Mine on the Grey River. It was here that New Zealand's worst mining disaster occurred, with 65 men and boys losing their lives following a blast in 1896. A statue stands in memorial of those miners who have gone down into the depths to work but not come home, including the victims of the 2010 Pike River tragedy.

Day Five

From Greymouth we head south to Hokitika, stopping first at the Hokitika river where whitebaiters have come from as far as Christchurch to try their luck. With appetites whetted it is no surprise many on the tour order whitebait fritters from cafes as soon as we go into Hokitika. The town has no shortage of shops selling pounamu - otherwise known as greenstone - which is found on the West Coast.

On the way back to Greymouth we stop at Shanty Town for the afternoon. This place is brilliant not just for history buffs but also those who don't care for history.

A small train chugs its way up the Infants Creek Railway, ferrying passengers up the hill to relive the region's rich history of mining and logging. Visitors can pan for gold and dress up in the attire of yesteryear, getting a grasp of life in the early days of the wild West Coast for themselves.

While it's nice to visit 1800s' West Coast, given the ghastly injures suffered by those working down the mines and at sawmills and the lower proportion of women to men in the early days, I wouldn't want to live there, no thanks.

Day Six

The first half of day six is simply half of day four in reverse, as we pop back over the Southern Alps via Arthur's Pass. So if you must have a description of this leg of the trip, please read my diary entry for day four backwards. Oh, except we had to stop at Otira so three engines could be connected onto the train to help us through the Otira Tunnel, because it is steep and that.

At Rolleston we switch lines, and head south towards our next stop on the trip, Oamaru. This leg of the journey crosses a vast stretch of the Canterbury Plains, and includes the Rakaia Rail Bridge, the longest in the country at 1.7km.

Oamaru is a town well worth stopping in for a visit. The North Otago town is the home of the white Oamaru stone (as you can hopefully tell from the name), and many of its old buildings are constructed from the material.

It is a must on any visit to check out the penguin colony to the south of the town. Visitors at night are treated to the sight of as many as 500 penguins making their way from the sea up the rocky shoreline and into the safety of their shelters. On the night the tour visited 158 penguins made their way up to the refuge from the sea, however many more can be expected in the summer months.

Paul is on the South Island Springtime Tour, run by Pukekohe Travel.

- nzherald.co.nz

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