A Rail Of A Good Time: This Inter Island Journey Might Be The Most Scenic Route To Travel

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3 October 2023

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The man on my port side is recalling the Waihine grounding and the boy off to starboard insists he sees sharks but am I bothered? Wellington harbour’s calm and emerald green, terns are escorting the ferry Awatere into Cook Strait and the first of the three Great Journeys of New Zealand I am making on your behalf is fully underway. 

The seasonal Coastal Pacific train between Picton and Christchurch will be my second journey; the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth the third. NZ Rail doesn’t know that for these trips I’d pay to travel in the luggage car and has got me in Scenic Plus, their new first class service and worth every cent although, full disclosure, I never paid a thing. 

The Picton ferries have their own version of Carriage A and if I wasn’t so busy striding Awatere’s decks whistling sea shanties, shouting “Ahoy there” at fellow passengers and generally entering into the salty spirit of things I could upgrade to the Interislander Plus lounge (meals and drinks included, comfy seats, no children). However, no need – I have partaken of one a “world famous oven-baked scone” (more jam next time please); the Awatere is only a third full – many Kiwis are back at work and Covid’s done for the internationals – and the juveniles on board are fully occupied with their BYO activities or the ferry’s. 

Awatere glides between the densely bushed slopes of Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound, then Shiver me timbers, there lies Picton!

A bus, a car, a plane will move you from Christchurch to Picton or Greymouth, but you book a seat in Carriage A for all that happens in between – sublime country, much of it invisible from the road; endless Aotearoan food and drink that is regionally relevant where possible Tiki and Tohu wines, Monteith beers, Marlborough salmon, Canterbury lamb, chocolates and cakes from Christchurch, plated on board and served with bona fide china, linen, cutlery and glasses; and the Scenic Plus crew, most of whom exercised their terrific customer service skills in the cabin of an aircraft until Covid grounded their industry. 

“Planes got like buses,” says one. “They got you from A to B, passengers were antisocial, nobody wanted to talk. People are here for an experience. They’re mingling and socialising and having a laugh with each other and with us.”

True that. As the Coastal Pacific begins its 349km journey Owen across the aisle says “If you’re going to do this trip, do it properly.” A South Islander to the marrow, he and wife Doreen are now living in Auckland but only because they have to – their children and grandchildren are there.  From Christchurch they’ll drive a camper van to Te Anau to meet some of them, presently walking the Milford Track. Owen is encyclopaedic on the Mainland. I tell him I’m writing a 1500-word travel story.  He says 1500 words will only get me as far as Blenheim. “This is such a wonderful country and so few people appreciate it.” 

Yes it is, Owen. And honestly, I’m appreciating it like mad – bush-clad hills and little valleys; row upon row of vines, an almost hectic green against the lion-coloured hills; the fabled bays I’ve read about on wine bottles (Cloudy, Pegasus); Lake Grassmere’s pink evaporation ponds, the effect of algae changing colour as salinity increases, and the glittering mounds of salt, an ingredient in Skellerup gumboots; the hulking Inland and Seaward Kaikouras, the clear and lovely Hurunui River; the Canterbury Plains, basically 3000 square miles of wheat, barley, oats and peas.  

I know about the algae, the gumboots, the crops and loads of other stuff partly from the recorded commentary available through headphones and partly from crew coached in local storytelling by broadcaster Jason Gunn (good job Jase.)

Ash presides over the drinks trolley. Asked as we approach Kaikoura, “Are we going to see a whale today?” he says he’ll go down the back and push the Whale Button. However, the button must have been defective because we don’t see a whale, just a few seals lounging on rocks whose white tops were shoved up out of the water by the Kaikoura earthquake. 

Nor do we see dolphins. Apparently dolphins are morning people – Ash says they saw hundreds of them on the way up – but by afternoon they are tired or elsewhere but at any rate not plunging about in any quantity off Kaikoura so if marine mammals are a must-see it’s probably wise to get off here or start this journey in Christchurch. 

You don’t do the 232km TranzAlpine for the fauna. The mammals are terrestrial and familiar, the sheep and cattle which inhabit the farms and high-country stations that pick up where the plains and their crops leave off. Authentic (visible) wildlife is avian – hawks everywhere, waterfowl on the lonely lakes, often keas at Arthur’s Pass (we don’t see them either).

Actually, for some time we don’t see anything at all on account of the fog that starts closing in at Rolleston and envelops us soon after. Gary, our Scenic Plus host, shows me photos on his phone of what we could be looking at if we weren’t enveloped in fog. Then he gestures into the murk. “There’s a castle over there,” he says. “And there’s a gorge down there, with a whale in it.” 

Well knock me down with a feather. Because sitting up the back with his partner, as far as possible from their four kidults up the front, is only Andrew Adamson, Kiwi director of the Narnia and Shrek movies.  So if, as Gary implies, the train has indeed passed into a misty world of castles and giants and frankly who would know, Fate has delivered unto the daughters of Eve and sons of Adam the only man to lead us through it. (OMG did Andrew get the Narnia gigs because he’s Adamson? I never asked!) 

He’s living in Auckland and as Covid’s stopped him making films and the family from holidaying overseas he has minutely planned a magical mystery tour for them down south. One of his secret destinations is what he calls “the Blue Pools of Haast”. I say that sounds like a Narnian place and he says it kind of is. “I used it as a location.”

The wet blanket outside doesn’t appear to be dampening anybody’s spirits but I wish it would go away because people are in Carriage A for important reasons and not one of them is fog. 

I’m about to ask Gary to go down the back and push the Anti Fog button when it starts to lift all by itself. By the time we get to Cass (population: 1) the sky’s as blue as can be and all the reasons for which National Geographic Magazine ranked this among the world’s most scenic rail journeys are right there, so blindingly obvious it brings tears to your eyes.  Braided rivers, represented in the pattern on Gary’s uniform tie, and unbraided ones; mountains, gorges, lakes, viaducts, tawny tussocked mountain slopes and densely forested ones.

TranzAlpine approaching Waimakiriri Bridge
TranzAlpine along side Waimakiriri River

The 8.5km tunnel between Arthur’s Pass and Otira is the wardrobe between worlds. On the Pacific side of the Main Divide the forest is New Zealand native mountain beech. On the warmer, wetter, Tasman one, it’s all primeval-looking podocarps, threaded through with scarlet rata flowers that occur this way perhaps every second summer. Lupins pink, blue and white, and purple buddleia’s in bloom. 

The coming autumn will be Gary’s first out here. So far he’s loved this journey most in spring – blue sky, still-snowy Alps, gorse and broom in yellow flower, wild peach and apple trees in pink. “So beautiful,” he says.

But then winter has its waterfalls and snow blankets everything and smothers every noise and all is white and otherworldly and I seem to know this place of which he speaks from a book, and a movie. “Actually,” he concludes, “like everything in this country, there’s no good or bad time to see it.

“I don’t care about opening New Zealand up to the rest of the world. It’s all ours.” He laughs. “Listen to me! I’m like Gollum…my precious.” 

Middle Earth now? Wherever we are, it’s out of this world. 

The Lowdown

The TranzAlpine is a daily return service departing Christchurch 8.15am and Greymouth 2.05pm. The one-way 223km trip should take just under 5 hours. Stops at Christchurch, Rolleston, Darfield, Springfield, Arthur’s Pass, Otira, Moana and Greymouth.

TranzApline approaching Springfield

The Coastal Pacific Christchurch – Picton – Christchurch service operates Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday until April 15 when the season ends. The service resumes in September. The one-way 349km trip should take 6 hours 15 minutes. Stops at Christchurch, Rangiora, Kaikoura, Blenheim and Picton.

Scenic Plus service is not yet available on NZ Rail’s fourth Great Journey of New Zealand, the Northern Explorer service between Auckland and Wellington. 

Go to www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz for more train and Interislander information and bookings.

Tranz Alpine Passing Lake Sarah

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