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The final leg of this rail journey — to Greymouth and back. Famed motoring writer and NZ TODAY contributor, Eoin Young (ESY) was coming with me. Eoin’s been a writer since the late fifties and is probably the most widely read New Zealander no matter what the subject is.
His articles, columns and books have been read by millions. He’s good for a yarn along the way and over the years we’ve become mates. So I was going to have someone to talk to this time.
Initially we gave some thought to staying the night in Greymouth and coming back the next day. But I had already been away from home a week and a half and was on a bit of a mission and had to get back to Auckland, so we made a day trip of it.
It was another brilliant day as we checked in at the ticket counter inside the station for the departure at 8:15 and I was delighted to renew acquaintance with Dave McLeod of the day before.
ESY and I had a double seat with table to ourselves but we were surrounded by three French families who were going as far as Arthur’s Pass for a day walk and would catch the train back on its return journey later in the day.
I’ve done this trip before — four years ago in the middle of winter just after a heavy fall of snow — it was spectacular. This time there was only snow on the mountaintops.
The ride across the Canterbury Plains to the foothills of the Southern Alps is easy going. Like the previous day down from Picton, the ride is smoother than through the North Island and with no hills to go through there are no cuttings, so you have uninterrupted views.
But once you start into the mountains the spectacular level of the scenery rises very quickly. You are literally engulfed by the mountains and you head through the Waimakariri Gorge and it comes almost as a surprise when you look back and can see the river coursing its braided way across the plains to the Pacific in the distance.
But you are deep among the real sights. This is an area of mountains, viaducts and tunnels. I show ESY my knowledge of such things by pointing out that not only do the viaducts have sides to protect the trains from the high winds that can funnel through the mountains, but that the battens are Vee-shaped with the narrow edge outwards to act as “streamlining”.
There’s plenty to see, so I spend much of my time on the outdoor viewing area, wrapped up against the cool wind.
The line passes through the old coal mining town of Avoca where there are just a few cribs left standing and I make a mental note to try and find the road in here one day.
We cruise through Cass, made famous by the Rita Angus painting of the pink railway shed here. Cass has one permanent resident — Willie Grant. We stop in Arthur’s Pass to let the French travellers off and most passengers alight for a bit of a walk and the Asian passengers all stand around the station sign for photographs.
Almost immediately after leaving Arthur’s Pass we plunge into the Otira Tunnel, emerging on the other side to different flora. This is the longest rail tunnel in New Zealand and in the days of steam, locos trains were pulled through both ways by electric locos to stop the smoke and soot build-up in the tunnel.
Both Arthur’s Pass and Otira were very much railways towns, but in terms of survival, Arthur’s Pass has survived by far the better. It’s now a popular holiday destination and most of the cribs and cottages in Arthur’s Pass are well kept and pretty.
On the on hand, Otira is awful. It’s not been as popular as Arthur’s Pass because the weather on this side of the Alps is so wet and miserable. It’s spectacular though, although the scattered, decaying remains of the town and the railway operation are ugly.
This second half of the journey is pure West Coast with wetlands, rivers, beech forest and mountains. Plenty of camera fodder for everyone and the outdoor viewing areas are doing good business.
It’s 12:45 when we ease into Greymouth and although the food on the train is good, ESY and I have long decided that we want West Coast Whitebait. Train manager Dave McLeod suggests a pub not far from the railway station which we find without any trouble and we order whitebait sandwiches.
They are so delicious that bachelor boy ESY orders another couple of the patties to take home. These are deliberately undercooked just a smidgen so that they aren’t spoiled when he reheats them at home. A nice touch.
We enjoy ourselves out on the deck, playing tourists, watching the Greymouth world go by. We’re joined by some fellow passengers off the train. They’re from Auckland and he manages Ponsonby Pies, so we have a bit of a yarn about one of my favourite subjects.
Another passenger walks by trailing a large suitcase on wheels — he asks if we know where the buses leave from. He’s from Mexico and he’s heading for Franz Josef.
The hour passes quickly and we’re on the train again heading back to Christchurch. On this leg, I’m contented to be just a traveller; I relax, yarn with ESY, look out the window, enjoy a wine and just let the world drift by.
The TranzAlpine is breathtaking because of the variety of the scenery.
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One of the world’s great train journeys, travelling from coast to coast on New Zealand's South Island taking in the vast Canterbury Plains, spectacular Southern Alps and Wild West Coast.
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