Ticket to ride

Rid­ing the Tran­zalpine rail­way across the South Is­land is a jour­ney into the heart of south­ern hos­pi­tal­ity

Nadia - - CONTENTS -

Did you know you can travel half the length of Aotearoa via the four linked routes of the Great Jour­neys of New Zealand, Ki­wirail’s train and ferry tourism net­work? The North­ern Ex­plorer trans­ports pas­sen­gers down the Cen­tral Plateau from Auck­land to Wellington, where you can catch the In­ter­is­lander across the Cook Strait. From there, you can wind your way from Pic­ton to Christchurch on the Coastal Pa­cific (re­open­ing in De­cem­ber af­ter dam­age to the lines dur­ing the 2016 Kaik­oura earth­quake), and then tra­verse the South­ern Alps on the Tran­zalpine, which con­nects Christchurch to Grey­mouth.

My hus­band and I have been gifted a trip on the Tran­zalpine as a wed­ding present, and we’re treat­ing it as a sec­ond hon­ey­moon. It’s only a five-hour jour­ney each way, but we’re mak­ing a week of it, hav­ing booked a num­ber of spots on Airbnb to stay in along the way.

We fly from Auck­land to Christchurch to start our ad­ven­ture and spend the night at the His­toric Bou­tique Gra­nary in Yald­hurst on the city fringe. The for­mer rac­ing sta­bles and rhodo­den­dron nurs­ery is handy to the air­port and not much else, but that’s part of its charm. The lovely cot­tage, set on a large, park-like sec­tion, is sur­rounded by ru­ral prop­er­ties, which we wan­der past to reach the small mu­seum cafe, which con­sti­tutes one of two food op­tions in the area. The other is a pub with, you guessed it, pub food, of which I imag­ine we’ll have had our fill by the end of the week.

We’re at Christchurch Rail­way Sta­tion bright and early the next morn­ing along with a mul­ti­tude of tourist groups and re­tired cou­ples. It feels a lit­tle like a cruise – most pas­sen­gers are there for a leisurely sight-see­ing op­por­tu­nity or an easy cross-coun­try route.

On board, the Can­ter­bury Plains roll past our win­dows. Soon enough, we’re climb­ing to­wards the South­ern Alps and the photo op­por­tu­ni­ties be­come ever more en­tic­ing, ul­ti­mately com­pelling us to brave the win­ter chill on the ob­ser­va­tory deck. It’s worth brac­ing our­selves against the wind and wob­ble – and el­bow­ing fel­low pas­sen­gers out of the way for a selfie – as we hur­tle over the glo­ri­ous Waimakariri River via sev­eral bridges.

Two and a half hours af­ter de­part­ing Christchurch, we ar­rive in Arthur’s Pass, where we’re greeted by He­len Nugteren, a 65-year-old DOC ranger and our Airbnb host. He­len runs the Arthur’s Pass Eco Lodge, which is more cosy cabin than tra­di­tional lodge, and is ac­tu­ally in Bealey, just down the road from Arthur’s Pass. The two-and-a-half bed­room home is off-grid, with no cell-phone ser­vice or wifi, a unique Se­parett com­post­ing toi­let (the sep­a­ra­tion of waste takes some get­ting used to) and panoramic views of the Alps. He­len sug­gests we call her Gran, makes me a hot­tie to take to bed (I’ve come down with a cold) and cooks us a hearty din­ner, pack­ing the left­overs up for our lunch the next day.

He­len is one of only 30 res­i­dents in Arthur’s Pass, eight of whom are in the town book club, and three of whom, in­clud­ing He­len, are Chris­tians. I ex­press my sor­row for her that it is such a small num­ber, but she rightly points out that 10 per­cent is a pretty good statis­tic. She says a long grace be­fore din­ner and an in­tense con­ver­sa­tion about re­li­gion fol­lows be­tween C.P. the fledg­ling Bud­dhist, the bud­ding yogi (me) and the de­vout Chris­tian, all of whom prove sur­pris­ingly open to each other’s ar­gu­ments.

Break­fast is home­made – from the muesli to the bread, rasp­berry jam, and honey from He­len’s bees. Dur­ing the day, we bor­row He­len’s car and fill up on greasy food at nearby pubs, one dis­con­cert­ingly pop­u­lated by taxi­der­mied pos­sums act­ing out games of pool and read­ing tiny books on minia­ture rock­ing chairs.

We drive up to the lo­cal ski fields for a gan­der, eat left­overs at Cave Stream (de­cid­ing against ven­tur­ing into the cave) and walk around Cas­tle Hill, where gi­ant lime­stone rocks pro­vided the back­drop to a key bat­tle scene in the film ver­sion of The Lion, the Witch & the

Wardrobe. At night we play a board game (the fit­tingly train-themed Ticket to Ride) and read along­side He­len in the lounge, a cosy and com­pan­ion­able trio.

We leave Arthur’s Pass in the teem­ing rain, but He­len drives us as close to the plat­form as pos­si­ble to save us get­ting drenched. We’re the only ones em­bark­ing – most peo­ple jump off for a quick photo op be­fore con­tin­u­ing on­wards.

We start our des­cent to the West Coast via the 8.5km Otira Tun­nel, emerg­ing af­ter al­most 20 min­utes into a com­pletely dif­fer­ent world. The wild west is green, lush and mag­i­cal. Trees scrape by the win­dows as if we’re on an aban­doned, over­grown line and eerie yet beau­ti­ful swamps ex­tend for miles. We pass tiny set­tle­ments with even tinier sta­tions such as Otira and Moana, where one cou­ple, cel­e­brat­ing their 50th wed­ding an­niver­sary, hop off. Most peo­ple carry on to Grey­mouth to ex­plore the coast, or head back to Christchurch, pack­ing the sight-see­ing into one day.

At Grey­mouth, tourists crowd into the 19th-cen­tury train sta­tion to pick up rental cars. We’re in­formed sternly of the rental rules, sign away our lives and then, af­ter a few false starts (it’s sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult to get out of Grey­mouth), head to Bar­ry­town past tow­er­ing cliffs streaked with wa­ter­falls that cas­cade into the Tas­man Sea.

Our cosy ac­com­mo­da­tion is 20 min­utes north of Grey­mouth, right on the coast, in a small lane lined with baches and sim­ple houses, some built into the rock. There’s a cup­board full of board games, a neigh­bourly Labrador named Honey, and thor­ough in­struc­tions about the al­most-fa­mous beach walk we must do at low tide. Af­ter a lazy 24 hours, we time it right and walk from Twelve Mile Creek to Ten Mile Creek past scam­per­ing seals, through caves and around im­pres­sive rock for­ma­tions carved by the ocean.

The next day we can’t re­sist a trip north to Pu­nakaiki, where the ap­pro­pri­ately named Pan­cake Rocks call our names. Even though we’ve vis­ited a num­ber of times, watch­ing the waves crash against the lime­stone stacks never gets old and the coastal drive is one of the best in the world, ac­cord­ing to Lonely Planet – and me.

Af­ter an­other pub lunch (please, no more deep-fried food!), we take the five-hour train jour­ney back to

Christchurch and are blessed with a sun­set over the plains. We’ve de­cided to make it a true coast-to-coast mis­sion, so we’re head­ing to Akaroa, a first for me. Our friends from the deep south are join­ing us with their 18-month-old daugh­ter and, af­ter some con­fu­sion over whether to col­lect us from the air­port or train sta­tion (they seem to have missed the Tran­zalpine memo), we start down the wind­ing road.

As well as their spa­cious seats and larger win­dows, trains win out over car travel in one ma­jor area: in­fant mo­tion sick­ness. The Wig­gles do their best to stop the poor child from vom­it­ing, but alas, there are a fair few clean-up stops be­fore we ar­rive at our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion.

The Akaroa Wa­ter­front Apart­ment is right in town and is dou­bly blessed with a view out over the wa­ter and a prime sit­u­a­tion right above a de­li­cious bak­ery – the smell of fresh pas­tries wafts into our room in the morn­ing, en­tic­ing us down for crois­sants and cof­fee. For the rest of the week­end, we wan­der the wa­ter­front and roam the vil­lage, de­light­ing in food that’s far from pub grub – croque-mon­sieur, lo­cal fudge, blue cod, and blue­berry dan­ishes – be­fore de­part­ing for a fi­nal drive (sans Wig­gles this time) to the air­port.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion can be booked on airbnb.co.nz. Head to greatjour­neysofnz.co.nz to book the Tran­zalpine.

Op­po­site Take the Tran­zalpine from Christchurch to Grey­mouth and you’ll be re­warded with stun­ning vis­tas as the train winds through val­leys and over the icy blue of the Waimakariri River. This page On ar­riv­ing in Grey­mouth, you can im­merse your­self in the rugged West Coast and ex­plore fur­ther by driv­ing along the Great Coast Road.

Moun­tain high NADIA fea­tures editor Fiona Ralph and hus­band C.P. Moore take a ro­man­tic trip on the Tran­zalpine. From Christchurch the train climbs steadily to­wards the South­ern Alps, of­fer­ing mag­nif­i­cent views of the Waimakariri River (op­po­site, cen­tre) and sur­round­ing moun­tains. A stopover at Arthur’s Pass is a chance to ad­mire the miles of mag­nif­i­cent scenery and the lo­cal wildlife. If you have ac­cess to a car, you can drive 40 min­utes south to Cas­tle Hill (op­po­site, bot­tom left) where scenes for the 2005 movie The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe were filmed.

West is best Quirky train sta­tions – in­clud­ing the 19th-cen­tury Grey­mouth sta­tion and 1966 Arthur’s Pass A-frame – line the route of the Tran­zalpine, adding to the his­tor­i­cal feel of the jour­ney. In Bar­ry­town, 20 min­utes north of Grey­mouth, the Mo­tukiekie Beach Apart­ment (op­po­site, top left) booked by Fiona and C.P. on Airbnb is sit­u­ated down a charm­ing beach­side lane and of­fers ac­cess to one of the best lit­tle-known coastal walks around.

Ocean views You’ll find dra­matic scenery on both coasts, from the Pan­cake Rocks at Pu­nakaiki (op­po­site, top and cen­tre) to the French set­tle­ment of Akaroa on the Banks Penin­sula (above and op­po­site be­low), where the cui­sine proves rather tempt­ing.

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