The Secret Diary of Adrian Petford Aged 39¾

From coast to coast – Christchurch to Greymouth on the TranzAlpine

Posted in Arthurs Pass,Christchurch,Greymouth,New Zealand 2009 by Adrian Petford on August 28th, 2009

On Tuesday I did the TranzAlpine train which runs from Christchurch on the west coast to Greymouth on the east, right through the spectacular Southern Alps. It’s billed as one of the world’s great train journeys and the idea of doing it was actually what caused all my other plans for this trip to fall into place around it, so my expectations were high for something truly amazing. The train goes there and back and takes a whole day, so I had a very early start for its depature at 8.10am. The motel’s hosts, Robert and Lynne had very kindly offered to give me a lift to the station and back which was brilliant and solved a lot of problems for me. Robert had said it was best to get there as early as possible as the TranzAlpine is a very busy and full train. I thought it would be quiet in winter, but I’m glad I took his advice as it was absolutely packed out. The train is very well set up for the scenic journey with large windows, a commentary throughout and an outdoor observation deck.

The day was overcast with a grey sky – one thing you can never guarantee is the weather, it’s just the luck of the draw on whatever day you pick to go – so I was concerned the journey wouldn’t be at its best. As we left Christchurch and journeyed over the plains, it seemed to get worse with fog getting thicker and thicker. You couldn’t see very far from the track on either side. Oh well, I thought, it looks like I’ll have to make the best of this and just go again in summer. The very informative commentary got started as we passed though the fog; shame we couldn’t see any of the things being mentioned, but much to my relief they said that we would be getting out of the fog and into the scenery once we were off the Canterbury plains. Phew!

View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009

Sure enough, once we started climbing the fog cleared, there were patches of blue sky and the sun even tried to come out! The scenery was stunning. It was freezing standing on the back of the observation deck of our carriage but I was glad I did. People were snapping frenziedly away with cameras as soon as the first snow-capped mountains came into view and I’m not surprised, they were breathtaking. There was a spectacular gorge, supposedly the most photographed half hour of the journey, lots of viaducts and tunnels including the Otira Tunnel which took ten years to build and takes about 15 minutes to go all the way through. Plus of course the mountains, which were awesome and showed themselves off particularly well at this time of year capped with winter snow. I got off at Arthurs Pass for the full Southern Alps experience. It is an unmanned station in glorious isolation.

View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
Southern Alps, seen from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
Southern Alps, seen from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
Southern Alps, seen from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
Southern Alps, seen from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
Arthurs Pass, on the TranzAlpine route – 18-Aug-2009
Arthurs Pass, on the TranzAlpine route – 18-Aug-2009
Arthurs Pass station, on the TranzAlpine route. The station is completely unmanned – 18-Aug-2009
Arthurs Pass station, on the TranzAlpine route. The station is completely unmanned – 18-Aug-2009

I was also interested by the township of Otira, formerly prosperous but now a ghost town. An Auckland couple who were travelling on the TranzAlpine saw it and made enquiries about buying the hotel. It turned out that their title also included the buildings of the entire town which they got lock, stock and barrel for about $70,000 and now rent out!

Once on the other side of the Southern Alps, we were on the west coast and heading towards Greymouth. It definitely seemed much more lush and green on this side and the famous west coast rain was very much in evidence.

View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009
View from the TranzAlpine train – 18-Aug-2009

The first thing you see after alighting in Greymouth, the home of Monteiths is the Speights Ale House! – 18-Aug-2009
The first thing you see after alighting in Greymouth, the home of Monteiths is the Speights Ale House! – 18-Aug-2009

As we approached Greymouth, I was very relieved I’d decided not to stay overnight as Greymouth was indeed grey. Stopping at the station we disembarked. I was surprised how many people were getting off here and unloading luggage to go on to other destinations. As I only had an hour and it was raining heavily I stayed close to the station. I was highly amused that the first thing you see when walking out of the station in the home of Monteiths beer is a Speights Ale House!

After my brief time on the west coast was up, it was onto the train again for the return journey. I was certainly glad I had got all of my photographs already as it rained all the way back and we hit fog again approaching Christchurch. The trip still had a massive impact even under these conditions though – very moody and atmospheric.

It was an awesome day, definitely one to remember despite the weather not being quite as good as it could’ve been and more than met my expectations. I would’ve liked to spend more time on the west coast but will probably do a proper tour next time I’m here. Monteiths is my favourite New Zealand beer so a return to Greymouth to do their brewery tour is a definite must!

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