Tranzalpine – One of the Great Journeys of New Zealand
When I toured South Australia a couple of years ago I took The Ghan train overnight from Adelaide to Alice Springs and had a fantastic experience so I was looking forward to another adventure on the rails during my trip to New Zealand.
I decided to join the Tranzalpine Kiwi Rail across the Southern Alps from Greymouth on the west coast to Christchurch on the East coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The TranzAlpine is recognised as one of the great passenger train journeys of the world because of the tremendous scenery through which it passes. My wife and I travelled the 223 kilometres (139 mi) to Christchurch in just under five hours passing through 16 tunnels and crossed over four viaducts, with the Staircase Viaduct being 75 metres (246 ft) high.
Thirteen years ago the train carried over 204,000 passengers but the Christchurch earthquake caused a decline in numbers and by 2016 passenger numbers were down to 130,000 a year but over the last four years numbers have begun to get back to pre-earthquake numbers.
My two suitcases went into a luggage carriage but we were allowed to carry a small overhead airplane size case onto the train. Collecting and dropping off my luggage was very easy and efficient. The reception staff at both Greymouth and Christchurch were all very friendly and helpful.
We left Greymouth during some early afternoon sunshine passing Moana on the banks of the spectacular Lake Brunner then crossing the Arnold and Taramakau Rivers before entering the 8.5km long Otira Tunnel. This was the second longest tunnel in the world when it was completed in 1923.
We soon crossed the Waimakariri River which provided some of the most stunning scenery with mountains and river valleys in one shot. We stopped briefly at Arthur’s Pass and stretched our legs whilst some passengers alighted and others joined the train. Onward through the Southern Alps to Rolleston and Springfield and across the fertile agricultural Canterbury Plains to Christchurch.
There was a restaurant carriage but I had packed my own sandwiches and no one appeared to object. The Café Carriage serves a wide range of food & drink from sweet or savoury snacks to more substantial hot or cold meals. Freshly brewed tea or coffee was also available or if you fancied something a little stronger you could also celebrate with a bubbly glass of champagne or a tasty local beer! I had neither but did settle on a very tasty ice cream bar!
The spacious seats, wide panoramic windows helped fill my carriage with light which enabled me to view the spectacular views with ease. The open-air carriage at the rear of the train also provided uninterrupted views but the carriage was not surprisingly very popular with what appeared to be all of the passengers on the train so it proved to be a little too crowded when my wife and I visited.
There were also a audio headphones commentary running throughout the journey keeping passengers informed about the places of interest of each area as we passed through it. It was a great way to learn something about the history, myths and legends of the South Island. It was an interesting and informative mixture of stories, narrative and facts about the places I was looking at outside my window. A free pair of headphones was also provided for the journey but I was told you could easily use your own.
A map on a screen above the aisle gave us our approximate location during the journey although it was not very clear to follow.
The contrasts between the dry bare mountainsides on the east of the dividing range and the forest covered slopes of the west were particularly noticeable during the course of the journey.
It really was a wonderful, interesting rail journey with plenty of stunning views. I must have taken a hundred photographs! I would fully recommend that if you are travelling between Greymouth and Christchurch, leave the car and let the train take the strain!
One of the Great Journeys of New Zealand