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One of the greatest rail journeys in the world, the TranzAlpine transports passengers to the heart of the West Coast – home to some of the most unique scenery in the country.
Traversing the width of the South Island, the TranzAlpine weaves past ribbons of emerald rivers and the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps. Glacier-carved gorges, forests of emerald green and fields of golden tussock top off what is a truly inspiring experience. Beginning in Christchurch, the TranzAlpine whisks passengers through the heart of the central South Island and on to the West Coast. It’s an unforgettable way to begin your New Zealand holiday, and at the end of the journey you’re right on the doorstep of some of the country’s most beautiful wilderness areas.
Once you arrive, there are national parks, glow worm caves, ancient limestone formations and emerald rainforest to explore. But what’s the best way to experience them all? With so much to see and do in this region, it can be hard to know where to start. We’ve put together our suggestions for three magical days on the West Coast – disembark the TranzAlpine in Arthur’s Pass, and begin an unforgettable New Zealand adventure.
Day One - Discover Arthur's Pass on our journey across the Southern Alps
Departing Christchurch on the TranzAlpine first thing, set out across the Canterbury Plains bathed in the soft light of the early morning. The tracks then follow the icy blue Waimakariri River, travelling through glacier-carved valleys and past tussock-covered hills; the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps peaking through the clouds at every turn. Arriving in Arthur’s Pass, the gateway to the West Coast of the South Island, you’ll step off the train inspired and excited for what lies ahead.
Full of contrasts, Arthur’s Pass National Park sits squarely on the Southern Alps, creating two distinctly different landscapes. On the western side of the park, deeply gorged river valleys and lush rainforests punctuate the landscape, while its eastern flanks are characterised by dry beech forest and wide, shingle-filled river valleys. Explore these extreme landscapes with an easy afternoon walk through the park – discover glacial views, alpine wetlands and crystal-clear mountain streams with a hike on one of the park’s many well-formed tracks. Further south and on the coast, the charming town of Punakaiki is a great place to stay for the night.
Day Two - Pancake Rocks and Underworld Discovery
Today, the primeval and little-known landscapes of Paparoa National Park beckon – one of the most untouched places in New Zealand. Nikau palms and cabbage trees create the feel of a lush, tropical rainforest and limestone river canyons and subterranean caving systems add to the park’s mystery. The limestone that lies beneath the flora here is also responsible for the stunning Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Multiple layers of rock have accumulated over millions of years, creating huge formations resembling stacks of pancakes. When the tide is right, spraying water is forced up through tiny holes in the rocks, creating a symphony of blowholes and geyser-like plumes of water.
After witnessing Punakaiki’s impressive blow holes in action, explore this special place on foot by hiking through rainforest to the Nile River Caves, an underground wonderland of limestone formations and stalactite and stalacmites. Galaxies of twinkling glow worms here create a magical, otherworldly feel. Discovered in the 1970’s by locals, the caves have been left in their natural state and are able to be explored by foot or by water. This afternoon, enjoy a guided tour into the very heart of the caves or get suited up into a wetsuit and float on small, inflatable rafts through giant limestone caverns twinkling with thousands of glow worms. Tonight, it’s best to stay in Punakaiki again.
Day Three - Deserted Beaches and Tranquility at Okarito
Marvel at the sheer beauty of the surrounding landscapes as you drive south this morning. To the right, the Tasman Sea crashes on to the wild and rugged beaches of the West Coast, while on the left, emerald-green rainforest blankets the foothills of the glaciers and mountains of the Southern Alps.
This afternoon’s recommended destination is the Okarito Lagoon. Surrounded by virgin rainforest and with views out towards the towering Southern Alps, this is the country’s largest unmodified wetland. The lagoon and its surrounding ecosystem is a haven for rare native birdlife - more than 70 species of birds have been recorded here and the kotuku (white heron) and royal spoonbill breed nearby. Glide past these fascinating birds with a kayak tour of the lagoon, taking your time to soak up the surrounding landscapes of the West Coast. Spend the evening in the nearby village of Fox Glacier.
Where to from here?
We would recommend that you choose to explore the impressive Glacier Country before continuing on to the Southern Lakes. A small group tour is often the best way to make the most of the South Island’s stunning landscapes – everything is taken care of while you get to soak up spectacular New Zealand experiences.
The above itinerary suggestions make up days 1, 2 & 3 of the New Zealand Trails walking tour. We continue after Okarito to go hiking on Fox Glacier, day walk the Milford, Hollyford and Routeburn tracks and enjoy a wilderness jet boat ride and a scenic helicopter flight over an 13-day journey around South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. Inspired? Get in touch now, or find out more about the tour on our website.
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