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Southern Comfort

Angela Pearse marvels at the views on the TranzAlpine rail journey from Christchurch to Greymouth...

The open air viewing carriage is jam packed to capacity, elbows and Nikons jostle for pole position as the mighty Southern Alps come into view.  With snow-dusted ridges outlined against a pale blue sky and deep, tree congested ravines, it’s a scene worth capturing.  And by the amount of clicks and flashes going on, everyone is trying their hardest to do just that.  Comparisons to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are inevitable and I have to admit that I do almost expect to see a pile of orks thundering their way down into a stoney bottomed river bed or a hobbit peering out sleepily from behind an outcrop of boulders.
My journey began in fog covered Christchurch where, a little like that bleary-eyed hobbit, I boarded the TranzAlpine.  On a Saturday morning I’m usually dozing but with a distance of 223.8 km to travel before lunch the train can’t wait for those who prefer to hit the snooze button.
Rated as one of the six great train journeys in the world today, it has to be said that the TranzAlpine winds its way through some seriously stunning scenery.  And also some seriously terrifying terrain.  There are moments of pure fear as we cling to the side of unfeasibly steep passes and traverse viaducts of dizzying heights while crystal clear streams splash soundlessly far below.  I happen to be in the open air viewing carriage for this part so I shut my eyes at the scary bits.
The open air factor of the viewing carriage can make things a bit fresh, so nursing frostbitten fingers I head back to the blessed warmth of my seat.  Negotiating the way between carriages is relatively simple apart from the odd wobble and did I mention everything is centrally heated?  This gets a big tick in my book.  There’s something singularly comforting about knowing you can view frost through panoramic double-glazing without actually having to feel it.
All that frost can make a person slightly peckish though so piping hot food served in the buffet car earns another tick.  The menu, winsomely named ‘Snacks on Tracks’, is sustaining alpine fare.  Assorted pies, mini pizzas and sausage rolls, along with a fresh batch of warm blueberry muffins, all cause delicious odours to waft through the carriage that tempt even carb conscious me.  Luckily, just after morning tea there’s an opportunity to burn off the sausage rolls.
A 15 minute stop is made at Arthur’s Pass so I stride briskly around the terminal in the stinging mountain air and take some picture postcard mementos along the way.  Others prefer to wander swami-like away from the chatter and meditate on the profound silence.  Later on, after we’ve snaked across the Alps, a shorter stop is made at Otira.  We’re told it’s not a walk-about but my entire carriage (consisting of around 30 awe inspired Asian tourists) mysteriously disembarks leaving me ‘Lord of the Seats’.  As Otira is a ramshackle railway settlement, I’m worried as to exactly where the group plans to stay.  If B&Bs exist out here, I haven’t managed to spot one yet.
There’s quite a few one horse towns dotted enroute where houses hardly feature let alone B&Bs.  Tiny, run down places like Otira whose sad homes look as if they could do with a lick of paint and a population explosion.  At Cass, I’m on the look out for tumbleweeds which wouldn’t seem out of context as we creep, like a hesitant intruder, through its deserted station.  I’m struck by the raw emptiness that hangs over these leftover fragments of 19th century pioneering endeavour.  The rugged, windblown living conditions are perhaps only suitable for that typical breed of Southland male.  You know, the swandri-wearing, chopping wood with bare hands type of bloke.  I doubt metrosexuals would last long out here.
Eventually, after coasting down through Westland and skirting Lake Brunner we reach Greymouth for a compulsory lunch stop.  I while away a pleasant hour wandering round the local knick-knack shops and easing my muscles back into an upright position.  If you want there’s an option of staying longer on the West Coast by incorporating a two or three day accommodation package into the price of the train ticket.  There’s many attractions including nearby Pancake Rocks and Punakaiki Blowholes or further south, Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.  At four and half hours each way for the train trip, it makes sense to take a bit of extra time and explore the area.
However, for those of us who’ve opted for the same day excursion it’s ‘all aboard!’ and back to Christchurch we go.  By the time mid-afternoon rolls around the sun’s low in the sky and mountainous shadows march across the countryside.  I just happen to spot a lone campervan perched on an isolated stretch of tussock.  Someone who has veered off the beaten track and, like me, anticipates a spectacular sunset.  It’s just one highlight among many on this trip I definitely won’t be shutting my eyes for.
  • the TranzAlpine travels through 16 tunnels and over 5 viaducts, the longest is the Otira tunnel at 8.5km and the tallest viaduct is the Staircase at 73 metres.
  • the TranzAlpine leaves at 8.15 sharp on a daily basis, check-in is 20 minutes prior to departure.

Story by : Angela Pearse
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