Travelling the old way: An adventure on the TranzAlpine train

by Fiona Ralph / 03 November, 2018
Photos: Getty, Kate Claridge, Great Journeys of New Zealand, Fiona Ralph, C.P. Moore.
NADIA features editor Fiona Ralph and husband C.P. Moore take a romantic trip on the TranzAlpine.

NADIA features editor Fiona Ralph and husband C.P. Moore take a romantic trip on the TranzAlpine.

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Climb aboard the TranzAlpine for an old-fashioned Kiwi rail adventure and a breathtaking coast-to-coast journey. 

Did you know you can travel half the length of Aotearoa via the four linked routes of the Great Journeys of New Zealand, KiwiRail’s train and ferry tourism network?

The Northern Explorer transports passengers down the Central Plateau from Auckland to Wellington, where you can catch the Interislander across the Cook Strait. From there, you can wind your way from Picton to Christchurch on the Coastal Pacific (reopening in December after damage to the lines during the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake), and then traverse the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine, which connects Christchurch to Greymouth.

My husband and I have been gifted a trip on the TranzAlpine as a wedding present, and we’re treating it as a second honeymoon. It’s only a five-hour journey each way, but we’re making a week of it, having booked a number of spots on Airbnb to stay in along the way.

We fly from Auckland to Christchurch to start our adventure and spend the night at the Historic Boutique Granary in Yaldhurst on the city fringe. The former racing stables and rhododendron nursery is handy to the airport and not much else, but that’s part of its charm. The lovely cottage, set on a large, park-like section, is surrounded by rural properties, which we wander past to reach the small museum cafe, which constitutes one of two food options in the area. The other is a pub with, you guessed it, pub food, of which I imagine we’ll have had our fill by the end of the week.

We’re at Christchurch Railway Station bright and early the next morning along with a multitude of tourist groups and retired couples. It feels a little like a cruise – most passengers are there for a leisurely sight-seeing opportunity or an easy cross-country route.

On board, the Canterbury Plains roll past our windows. Soon enough, we’re climbing towards the Southern Alps and the photo opportunities become ever more enticing, ultimately compelling us to brave the winter chill on the observatory deck. It’s worth bracing ourselves against the wind and wobble – and elbowing fellow passengers out of the way for a selfie – as we hurtle over the glorious Waimakariri River via several bridges.

Two and a half hours after departing Christchurch, we arrive in Arthur’s Pass, where we’re greeted by Helen Nugteren, a 65-year-old DOC ranger and our Airbnb host. Helen runs the Arthur’s Pass Eco Lodge, which is more cosy cabin than traditional lodge, and is actually in Bealey, just down the road from Arthur’s Pass. The two-and-a-half bedroom home is off-grid, with no cell-phone service or wifi, a unique Separett composting toilet (the separation of waste takes some getting used to) and panoramic views of the Alps. Helen suggests we call her Gran, makes me a hottie to take to bed (I’ve come down with a cold) and cooks us a hearty dinner, packing the leftovers up for our lunch the next day.

Helen is one of only 30 residents in Arthur’s Pass, eight of whom are in the town book club, and three of whom, including Helen, are Christians. I express my sorrow for her that it is such a small number, but she rightly points out that 10 percent is a pretty good statistic. She says a long grace before dinner and an intense conversation about religion follows between C.P. the fledgling Buddhist, the budding yogi (me) and the devout Christian, all of whom prove surprisingly open to each other’s arguments.

Breakfast is homemade – from the muesli to the bread, raspberry jam, and honey from Helen’s bees. During the day, we borrow Helen’s car and fill up on greasy food at nearby pubs, one disconcertingly populated by taxidermied possums acting out games of pool and reading tiny books on miniature rocking chairs.

We drive up to the local ski fields for a gander, eat leftovers at Cave Stream (deciding against venturing into the cave) and walk around Castle Hill, where giant limestone rocks provided the backdrop to a key battle scene in the film version of The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. At night we play a board game (the fittingly train-themed Ticket to Ride) and read alongside Helen in the lounge, a cosy and companionable trio.

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We leave Arthur’s Pass in the teeming rain, but Helen drives us as close to the platform as possible to save us getting drenched. We’re the only ones embarking – most people jump off for a quick photo op before continuing onwards.

We start our descent to the West Coast via the 8.5km Otira Tunnel, emerging after almost 20 minutes into a completely different world. The wild west is green, lush and magical. Trees scrape by the windows as if we’re on an abandoned, overgrown line and eerie yet beautiful swamps extend for miles. We pass tiny settlements with even tinier stations such as Otira and Moana, where one couple, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, hop off. Most people carry on to Greymouth to explore the coast, or head back to Christchurch, packing the sight-seeing into one day.

At Greymouth, tourists crowd into the 19th-century train station to pick up rental cars. We’re informed sternly of the rental rules, sign away our lives and then, after a few false starts (it’s surprisingly difficult to get out of Greymouth), head to Barrytown past towering cliffs streaked with waterfalls that cascade into the Tasman Sea.

The cosy Motukiekie Beach Apartment is 20 minutes north of Greymouth, right on the coast, in a small lane lined with baches and simple houses, some built into the rock. There’s a cupboard full of board games, a neighbourly Labrador named Honey, and thorough instructions about the almost-famous beach walk we must do at low tide. After a lazy 24 hours, we time it right and walk from Twelve Mile Creek to Ten Mile Creek past scampering seals, through caves and around impressive rock formations carved by the ocean.

The next day we can’t resist a trip north to Punakaiki, where the appropriately named Pancake Rocks call our names. Even though we’ve visited a number of times, watching the waves crash against the limestone stacks never gets old and the coastal drive is one of the best in the world, according to Lonely Planet – and me.

After another pub lunch (please, no more deep-fried food!), we take the five-hour train journey back to Christchurch and are blessed with a sunset over the plains. We’ve decided to make it a true coast-to-coast mission, so we’re heading to Akaroa, a first for me. Our friends from the deep south are joining us with their 18-month-old daughter and, after some confusion over whether to collect us from the airport or train station (they seem to have missed the TranzAlpine memo), we start down the winding road.

As well as their spacious seats and larger windows, trains win out over car travel in one major area: infant motion sickness. The Wiggles do their best to stop the poor child from vomiting, but alas, there are a fair few clean-up stops before we arrive at our final destination.

The Akaroa Waterfront Apartment is right in town and is doubly blessed with a view out over the water and a prime situation right above a delicious bakery – the smell of fresh pastries wafts into our room in the morning, enticing us down for croissants and coffee. For the rest of the weekend, we wander the waterfront and roam the village, delighting in food that’s far from pub grub – croque-monsieur, local fudge, blue cod, and blueberry danishes – before departing for a final drive (sans Wiggles this time) to the airport.

Accommodation can be booked on airbnb.co.nz. Head to greatjourneysofnz.co.nz to book the TranzAlpine.

This article was first published in the October-November issue of Nadia magazine.

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