South Island: Taking a trip on the slow train

By Patrice Gaffaney

Patrice Gaffaney enjoys the pleasures of a day-long TranzAlpine rail trip through the scenic wonders of the Southern Alps.
The TranzAlpine cruises around a river bend on its Southern Alps traverse of the South Island.
The TranzAlpine cruises around a river bend on its Southern Alps traverse of the South Island.

It's not often we wish for snow, but as we depart Christchurch on the legendary TranzAlpine Express we are hoping for a smattering of the white stuff to set the scene as we approach the Southern Alps. We aren't to be disappointed but that is some way off.

The TranzAlpine is flagged as one of the world's great train journeys, traversing as it does the South Island, from Christchurch to Greymouth, speeding through forest and farmland and conquering a way through those snowy Southern Alps.

We had eagerly climbed aboard the train in the early hours of an unseasonably grim 8C Christchurch day to luxuriate in the cosy seats next to huge picture windows, coffee from the restaurant carriage warming the hands as we awaited departure.

Christchurch had basked in a balmy 23C the day before, so the weather was a damp squib. But all is not lost in the fog and rain enveloping the Canterbury Plains and them thar Alps.

We listen on headphones to the svelte tones of the guide. The audio also offers Mandarin and one of her earlier missives was on the now thriving post-quake town of Rolleston. The former dot on the map is now home to a few more thousand since the twin shattering earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

From the warmth and comfort of our carriage, we speed on through the Plains and the settlements of Darfield and Springfield. It's true, the Canterbury Plains are sort of plain in the rain, but it isn't that patchwork countryside we are on board for.

Suddenly, up ahead we see blue sky peeping over the Alps and yes, there is that smattering of snow that sets them apart.

We eye the soaring high country as we track the mighty Waimakariri River, knowing we are about to begin the highlight of the journey: traversing the 19 tunnels and four viaducts that make this such a spectacular train journey.

The rugged-up passengers take advantage of the two open-sided viewing carriages, which although frigid, offer plenty of room for taking photographs and as we hit the highest parts of the journey, they are chock-full of hardy souls.

Each time we exit a tunnel our senses are assailed by spectacular views, upwards to the craggy ranges and, for those brave enough to look down, to the deep, rocky gorges below.

The view from the highest crossing, the Staircase Viaduct, is simply awe inspiring. At 71m high and snaking around for 146m, it is the eighth-highest viaduct in the country.

From our vantage point we can see the track behind and ahead, the line seemingly clinging to the cliffs above the river.

The views beyond are like stepping into a Grahame Sydney painting - the ranges in the distance have taken on a purple hue and the hills closer a deep yellow.

Soon we are at the tiny settlement of Cass - population one, the owner of the backpacker accommodation - whose box-like railway station is immortalised by a 1936 Rita Angus painting and whose paintwork is kept true to Angus' colours.

At Arthurs Pass we alight for a five-minute break to take in the clean, crisp mountain air.

Many of the 10 carriages empty out at this point as trampers gather their backpacks from the luggage car and head off into the hills on one of the many mountain treks nearby.
For us, it is back on board for the final sector.

We descend the West Coast side of the Southern Alps' main divide through what must be one of the country's most amazing engineering feats, the 8.5km Otira tunnel. It's pitch black outside the windows so it's a long 15 minutes before we complete the tunnel and blink at the sudden brightness outside.

Crouching in the shadow of the mountains, Otira township is not for the fainthearted. It is bitingly cold and reportedly has an average of only nine hours' sun a day.

It once had a population of about 250. Now, 45 people live there. Its 12 houses and a pub were put on the market last year for $1 million. To the best of our knowledge there have been few takers.

We're over the divide and Lake Brunner awaits, a stunning sight, mirror-like in the sunlight. The stretch to Greymouth takes us through rejuvenating forests and mining remnants, a testament to what was the lifeblood of the area but is now in sad decline.

There's plenty of time for a bite to eat and a cup of tea before getting back on the train an hour later for the return journey. Many make a day of it on the TranzAlpine - there and back - others, of course, make Greymouth their destination.

Returning to Christchurch we get to see the same landmarks from a different perspective as we leave the sun-drenched West Coast and hit the now dry, but grey-skied Plains.

It's nearing dusk as we wend our way through the southern suburbs of Christchurch and arrive at the Addington railway station.

It's a long day, but one we'd repeat again in a heartbeat.

Patrice Gaffaney and family travelled on the TranzAlpine courtesy of KiwiRail.

- Herald on Sunday

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