Justine Tyerman has some uncharitable thoughts on the magnificent TranzAlpine train trip from Christchurch to Greymouth.

I had a fiendish desire to stick pins in a couple of middle-aged tourists on the TranzAlpine last week. I'm not normally a violent person but the sight of the pair sleeping soundly while fluffy white lambs frolicked on lush, green Canterbury pastures, the aqua-turquoise Waimakariri River sparkled in the spring sunshine and fresh snow blanketed the Southern Alps was almost too much for me to cope with.

The TranzAlpine crossing the Waimakariri Bridge. Photo / Supplied
The TranzAlpine crossing the Waimakariri Bridge. Photo / Supplied

I didn't have any pins so I accidentally nudged the lady sitting in the aisle seat on my way to the outside viewing car and then apologised loudly in her ear, hoping to alert her to the spectacular scenery she and her husband were missing.

The proud Kiwi in me wanted to shout: "Do you know how lucky you are to strike a perfect day like this?" and "How can you sleep while travelling on one of the most scenic train trips in the world?"

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I could barely bear to blink let alone sleep and didn't even go to the bathroom until we stopped at Arthur's Pass, for fear of missing a jaw-dropping sight like the 72-metre high Staircase Viaduct over the Waimakariri Gorge, the golden tussock lands of the Craigieburn Plain, lovely Lake Pearson tucked at the foothills of the alps, the black-green forested mountains with their snowy white peaks, and the famous, much-photographed long, low bridge over the Waimakariri where it spreads its braids across a broad shingle riverbed.

I spent most of the five-hour trip from Christchurch to Greymouth in the open-air car leaping from one side to the other to catch the best views, along with other puffer-jacketed, woolly-gloved and beanie-clad passengers.

The couple disembarked at Arthur's Pass and looked a bit dazed as they craned their necks to gaze at the towering mountains of the national park, a mecca for serious climbers, hikers, skiers, snow boarders and nature-lovers. I suppose it was quite a surprise to find themselves in a high alpine pass having slept for the best part of two and a half hours from the railway station in Christchurch.

The TranzAlpine at Arthurs Pass. Photo / Supplied
The TranzAlpine at Arthurs Pass. Photo / Supplied

The sleepy ones duly nodded off again once the train commenced its descent to the West Coast. They must have found the gentle rocking motion irresistible or maybe they had sleepy sickness.

For safety reasons, the viewing car was closed as we trundled down the 8.5km Otira Tunnel, the longest rail tunnel in the British Empire when it opened in 1923. I was confined to my comfy seat in the warm, cosy, luxurious carriage for 15-20 minutes during which time I listened to the excellent, informative commentary through the headphones.

I chuckled as I heard about the ingenious way the local policeman dealt with thefts of coal from the railyards at Otira in the good old days. He devised small explosives, painted them black, hid them among the coal bins at the station, and when a chimney blew up, he went to the house and arrested the culprits - no doubt caught black-handed.

That was the only disadvantage of the perfect weather. I missed 95 per cent of the commentary because I was outside most of the time.

Wearing many layers in the open-air viewing carriage. Photo / Supplied
Wearing many layers in the open-air viewing carriage. Photo / Supplied

Keen to breathe the fresh West Coast air, I made a beeline for the open-air car as soon as it reopened. I may have bumped the sleeping man's shoulder this time as he was seated on the aisle, but he did not stir from his slumbers.

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It's a different world on the other side of the tunnel - misty, cool, damp, moody, mysterious. The train travelled alongside the Otira, Taramakau, Arnold and Grey rivers as we made our way towards to Tasman Sea, passing through towns born of the 1860s' gold rush and thereafter sustained by timber milling, coal mining and rail, tunnel and road construction.

We skirted lovely Lake Brunner, tranquil and sombre under the slate sky, and the holiday village of Moana with its quaint Kiwi baches.

The terrain opens out from Lake Brunner and after a sharp left turn at Stillwater, the TranzAlpine glided along the mighty Grey River and grandly into Greymouth, the West Coast's largest city.

Before disembarking, I just couldn't resist asking the sleepers if they enjoyed the trip.

There was much bowing and smiling and nodding in reply so I assume they did. They boarded a coach at the station to see the sights of the West Coast. I do hope they saw more than the insides of their eyelids.

An hour later, after lunch in the sunshine and a walk along the Grey River bank past a poignant memorial to the many who had lost their lives in coal mining disasters on the West Coast, I boarded the train back to Christchurch. I was just as entranced on the homeward run as I had been earlier in the day. The landscape was even more breath-taking in the mellow light of late afternoon, and the blood red sunset over the Canterbury Plains was dazzling.

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The poignant memorial at Greymouth to the coal miners who lost their lives in mines in the West Coast. Photo / Supplied
The poignant memorial at Greymouth to the coal miners who lost their lives in mines in the West Coast. Photo / Supplied

When I finally closed my eyes late that night, glorious scenes from the TranzAlpine trip were on constant replay inside my head. I felt sad my sleepy friends had not witnessed such magic.

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The TranzAlpine scenic train trip is a daily return service in New Zealand's South Island between Christchurch on the East Coast and Greymouth on the West Coast, or vice versa, covering a distance of 223 kilometres in just under five hours.

Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Rail Plus and Great Journeys of New Zealand.