New Zealand: Full steam ahead on tour of nation

By Stephen Parker

Travelling the length of the country by train is a unique way to enjoy a different side of New Zealand's impressive scenery, writes Stephen Parker.
Shantytown steam train driver Iona Littlejohn shows off the engine at the start of a day's travel in the South Island.  Photo / Stephen Parker
Shantytown steam train driver Iona Littlejohn shows off the engine at the start of a day's travel in the South Island. Photo / Stephen Parker

With the shrill screech of metal on metal our train eased to a halt.

We had stopped at a siding in rolling farmland between Blenheim and the Kaikoura coast, waiting for an oncoming freight train to pass.

Bordering the train tracks were barbed wire fences with posts fashioned from railway iron and beyond these were vibrant green fields of wheat cut in two by a small dry creek bed.

On the observation platform I was joined by Judy from Te Kauwhata. We heard a skylark sing as it hovered in the cool breeze above the train, and Judy explained their call reminded her of summers growing up in Southland.

The day was overcast, hiding the tops of the distant Inland Kaikoura Range, but the sun was finding patches in the cloud cover. As sunshine swept over the land it was fascinating to watch the wind and light play on the wheat like currents in an enormous river.

I don't know how long we watched for, but it didn't matter, we were in no hurry and there was the excitement of a journey beginning.

"It's never too late to have a happy childhood," said Judy.

Indeed it was not too late for the 80 members of this year's group of senior citizens touring the South Island by train. Among them were a range of ages and levels of fitness - some people carried a cane, while others were far fitter than myself though I am decades younger.

Mainly North Islanders, many seemed very well-travelled, but for some it had been years since they had travelled this way. Memories had faded, dams been built and towns had been transformed or disappeared.

Mary and Bob from Cambridge, a lively ex-pat Scottish couple, were planning to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary with a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway - until a friend recommended this South Island tour.

Mal, together with Cherylinne from Sydney were the Aussies among the mainly Kiwi contingent.

A keen photographer, Mal had been underwhelmed by the Adelaide to Darwin train journey but was finding plenty of subject matter while on this tour.

"Here there's something around every bend."

And he was having a difficult time finding space in his camera for all his pictures.

Before we left I had told people I was off on a New Zealand rail tour.

"Which line are you going on?"

"All of them."

I wasn't entirely correct. The 13-day tour organised by Pukekohe Travel "tailored to suit mature holidaymakers" is called the South Island Springtime Rail Tour. Most of us joined the tour in Auckland, but others came aboard along the way as we headed down the main trunk line to Wellington. After a ferry crossing we boarded our charter train in Picton to cover the South Island.

Hugging the East Coast, the train travelled to Christchurch, then through the Southern Alps via Arthur's Pass to Greymouth and back again, down to Oamaru, then Dunedin.

Here the group boarded the Taieri Gorge Train inland, and then via bus to Queenstown, Te Anau and Milford Sound.

From Milford the coach headed down to Invercargill to allow the tour to rejoin the train at Bluff. Finally back up to Dunedin and Christchurch. Along the way there were optional extras - ranging from penguin spotting in Oamaru, to a helicopter flight in Queenstown.

Each night we stayed in centrally located hotels and there was plenty of time to explore each new town for those inclined. Most meals were provided - smorgasbord breakfast and dinners where we were staying and packed lunches for the train.

Tour leader Dave Hunt was on his third South Island tour.

"A lot of people don't know about [the tour], but when they do come they love it."

Railway houses at Otira, en route from Christchurch to the West Coast. Photo / Stephen Parker

Leaving Auckland

I was expecting a little more ceremony as the Northern Explorer left Britomart. No whistle blew, nor were there calls of "all aboard". I blamed my young sons and too much Thomas The Tank Engine. I didn't realise we were moving until the walls of the station slipped away.

These new carriages would have put Thomas' Annie and Clarabel to shame. Newly commissioned, they were both quiet and comfortable with large windows. Commentary whispered into headphones throughout the carriages.

Skirting through the suburbs of Hamilton, I watched a woman hanging out her washing wearing a bright pink onesie. Vege gardens, backyard guitar sing-alongs and beekeepers surrounded by smoke, all became part of a continuously unfolding panorama.

People on board had time to look around, and they had time to talk, and time to get beyond talking about the weather.

I chatted with a builder off to a celebration in Wellington who had little luck convincing other family members to take the train. He compared this route to his travels around Bangkok where the inhabitants had to move their temporary homes from the tracks when trains approached.

I sat beside a policeman from Britain. He told me about drone planes being used to spot drug operations and using special cameras to find illegal immigrants.

Picton to Christchurch

Leaving Picton our train cut through bright yellow hills - a mixture of flowering broom and gorse - before manicured Blenheim.

Coming closer to Kaikoura the tracks plunged in and out of tunnels and almost ran along the beach - I felt as if I could stretch out and pick up driftwood and stones.

In Christchurch, our group fell silent as the bus wound its way around the earthquake-damaged central city streets to our hotel.

I wandered, disorientated, among the crumbling buildings and the cranes. The town clock had no face, the police headquarters sign had been taken down and the streets were deserted.

Christchurch to Greymouth

A staff member helping us on to the TranzAlpine explained to us: "There's something about a train - you can't help but wave at it."

I had to agree. Countless people offered a friendly wave as our train sped by. Many took photos of us and we got an impromptu haka from one child at Cass, near Arthur's Pass.

In the wake of the Pike River mining disaster nobody was taking any chances. There was concern the sparks from the train in the long tunnel at Arthur's Pass could cause an explosion. Until the trains could be modified no passengers were being taken through the tunnel.

When we boarded our train on the other side of the tunnel, flocks of wood pigeons raced us along the line to Greymouth.

The West Coast

Below a granite memorial to the 400 coal miners who had lost their lives on the West Coast, I found a hooded figure with head bowed. Waiting on the banks of the Grey River, this whitebaiter was was hoping "to catch a feed" but having little luck.

Down the coast at the mouth of the Hokitika the locals were having more joy as they emptied their nets of wriggling fingerlings into buckets. At a nearby cafe, I appreciated the hard work that had gone into catching my lunch.

A bucket of whitebait, caught at the mouth of the Hokitika River. Photo / Stephen Parker

Dunedin

I started up Baldwin St with a hiss and a roar, until my heavy legs slowed - I blamed my extremely heavy camera gear.

Reaching the top of the world's steepest street I found a bench seat and made good use of it.

Not long after reaching the summit I was joined by Mary Gillespie, 88, from Auckland. She started climbing, intending to stop at the house at No 33, then thought she'd go a bit further, to No 35, then found herself at the top.

"If I'd known I was going to the top I would have gone a bit quicker, rather than stopping and looking at all the numbers," she told me.

"Take lots of books," my wife had said when I first told her about the journey. But in the end I only finished one well-travelled novella in the two weeks.

Even when we stopped in the middle of nowhere I found there was always plenty to see - from a resourceful kea making off with a road worker's lunch, to watching a sunlit field of wheat sway in the wind.

CHECKLIST

Details: The next South Island Springtime Rail Tour runs from October 25-November 7 and costs $5215pp twin-share.

Further information: See pukekohe-travel.co.nz.

Stephen Parker travelled as a guest of Pukekohe Travel.

- NZ Herald

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