There was a train. There would be Alps. Snow. Tunnels. A dining car, and possibly dodgy travelling companions, when Ewan McDonald rode on the TranzAlpine

The short, tending to portly, and we shall agree on gentleman, fussed his way up the steps, through the hissing automatic doors and into the railway carriage. He had been requested to dress casually, and he had done so: had foregone the bow tie, waistcoat and dispensed with the gloves, overcoat and scarf.

That had not been entirely his decision. He was still upset that the railway staff — he would have called them "baggage handlers" but this term might upset their finer feelings and self-esteem, or their job description — had insisted he hand over his valise.

It was now stowed in the baggage car at the rear of the train: given the clouds and the early morning chill around the platform at Christchurch that morning, he suspected he might regret this tip of the hat to social niceties during the day.

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How was a gentleman expected to keep himself warm on a railway journey through the Alps without the necessary accoutrements of winter wear: the Harris Tweed scarf, Berliner overcoat and leather gloves?

He found his seat: mercifully it was at the back of the carriage, next to the buffet car, and faced forward, in the direction that the train would go, when it got around to going.

He opened his briefcase and took out the items he anticipated he'd need for the journey: two cameras (one never knew when the battery might give out); a spare camera battery (one never knew ... ); a notebook and pen; his long-distance reading and sunglasses; and carefully arranged them on the table in front of him.

Fidgety, perhaps even excited as he waited for the train to leave, though he wouldn't have admitted to such an emotion, he observed his fellow passengers.

Observation was an occupational hazard, perhaps resulting from an earlier luxury train trip across a frozen, snowbound Europe in midwinter. How long ago had that been? Too many years to remember. And that trip hadn't ended well, particularly for the corpse.

He huddled into his corner as the last of the coaches delivered their Asian tour parties, as the Australians wondered when the bar would open, as the Canadian film crew from the Discovery Channel's railway adventure programme unpacked its gear, and most of the passengers — the middle-aged New Zealanders on a day out — settled into their seats and chatted, excitedly. Did the Gold Card apply on this trip, he wondered? It was rather further than a day trip to Waiheke.

There are two great railway journeys in New Zealand, a terrain that wasn't built for trains (two long, narrow islands, subject to earthquakes; mountains; extreme weather; shifting riverbeds; and not a heck of a lot of people).

One is now known as the Northern Explorer, but when I was a kid, and a teenager, it was the Limited, leaving Wellington in the evening and stopping at Palmerston North, Taihape, Taumarunui, Frankton and pitching up at the once-glorious Auckland Railway Station the next day. If you were lucky.

The other is the TranzAlpine, the four-hour ride through the Southern Alps and the Otira Tunnel and the rainforests to Greymouth. I can't understand how the marketing department resisted the temptation to brand it the TraNZalpine but I am glad they did.

The TranzAlpine is one of two great railway journeys in New Zealand. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user jeaneeem
The TranzAlpine is one of two great railway journeys in New Zealand. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user jeaneeem

Hand up: I'd never been to the West Coast. Two hands up: this was the way to go.

It's going to be hard to describe this trip, because so much of it is about the gobsmacking scenery that has overseas visitors jumping and jiggling from side to side of the train with their smartphones and video cameras, afraid to miss the next jaw-dropping, pixel-smashing, Instagrammatical sight, and so much of it is internal: about the realisation that, for heaven's sake, we are privileged to live in one of the most amazing places on the planet, and we need to get out more, and respect it, and enjoy it.

You board at an unprepossessing station in Christchurch's suburbs, and trundle past the remains of the massive Addington railway works where many of New Zealand Railways' locomotives and rolling stock were made. If we had a glorious railway past, it was here, and it produced one of our most loved prime ministers.

Past the cement works and freight yards, then the train picks up speed, across the Canterbury Plains, click-clacking at 100km/h towards the snow-capped Alps. Hint: sit on the right side of the train going towards Greymouth.

Darfield. On the edge of nowhere. Pick up passengers. Then Rolleston, and Springfield: somewhere beyond nowhere, but people want to stop the train here, and we let them. Twenty minutes later the train begins to climb into the Alps, the twists and turns and stones and braids of the Waimakariri River gorge to the right.

Up, ever up, across steel girder bridges over deep gorges and through a series of short tunnels, their rock walls close enough to touch through the open sides of the viewing carriage at the front of the train.

The Alps are overcoated in snow. Mist comes in, like some cold river. The cold river is hundreds of feet below the track, the cliffs.

The train is running late today: the company has bowed to the pleas of the Canadian film crew and stopped, several times, for photo opportunities. The most poignant is at Cass. Rita Angus' little red wooden station has not changed since she, arriving on this line, painted it in 1936.

Cass, population 1: a railway worker. While the Discovery crew snaps its footage, I stand in the open carriage and chat to a trainspotter outside: he is a Nasa pilot on assignment to fly out of Christchurch tomorrow, into the stratosphere to photograph outer space from an airborne telescope. On his days off, he likes to chase trains into inner space.

Two locomotives are shackled on to the rear of the train at Arthur's Pass (the apostrophe is enshrined in legislation) to help shunt it up and through the long grind of the 8.6km Otira Tunnel.

Busting out of the darkness, I've arrived on the West Coast, and will be able to say I've seen every region of "mainland" Aotearoa. The landscape has changed; the feeling has changed.

Beside us, deep, dense, dark green rainforest. The grey mist is a blanket, enveloping us, not a raincoat to be shucked off. It is chill. Past the railway town of Otira, that kept the coal flowing from the Westland coalfields to the rest of New Zealand, we follow a deep valley and broad, shallow, grey-stony river.

The panorama opens out around Lake Brunner; we skirt the coast's largest body of water, past its curiously and evocatively old-world baches and yacht club and birds, pukeko and kotuku.

There is history here, indigenous and colonial. The indigenous is stuff of legend; the colonial may be more brutal. There, the Brunner Mine, site of New Zealand's worst mining disaster in 1896; not too far north, Pike River.

The TranzAlpine runs into Greymouth and heaves a diesel-laden sigh of relief. The station is neatly restored — more of a souvenir stall, tourist information centre and cafe than a railway hub — and the weather appropriately grey and ... bracing.

There's an option to join a bus tour south to Hokitika, Franz Josef Glacier and the like: that seemed to be most tourists' choice this day. Or to spend an hour exploring Greymouth, have lunch and head back to Christchurch on the return train.

The short, tending to portly, and we shall agree on gentleman, fussed his way down the steps and on to the platform at Greymouth. He had spent much of the journey in the open-air carriage, the rocky sides of the tunnels so close he could have reached out and touched them.

There, an Australian tourist had joked, "It's like Poirot and the Orient Express — if you wanted to murder someone, you could do it in one of these tunnels and no one would see you do it."

No, he thought, as the tourists leaned out of the carriage with their smartphones, trying to capture the breathtaking vistas of the valleys and the riverbeds and the Alps, you'd do it when everyone's attention was diverted by the scenery, and you'd dispose of the body ...

At that moment the train graunched to a stop. A red light. Trouble on the tracks somewhere, and the train manager announced that they'd have to wait for the all-clear from Traffic Control in Wellington. The train stood, becalmed, for 20 minutes.

There was no murder on the Greymouth express that day, but there was a hold-up.

CHECKLIST

For information on schedules and to make bookings on the TranzAlpine, go to greatjourneysofnz.co.nz.