Rolling across New Zealand on the TranzAlpine Express

By Rich Grant

It’s not the fastest or most luxurious railroad in the world, but Kiwi Rail's TranzAlpine Express is certainly one of the most scenic. Slicing across the South Island of New Zealand, the 160-mile line travels from the wild, rocky and glacier-studded west coast of the island to the pastoral, rolling green hills of the east. In between are the Southern Alps – a mystical land of jagged snowcapped peaks and strange rock formations. It’s a stark landscape immortalized in locally filmed movies such as Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

To traverse this rugged, desolate mountain range, the train hugs riverbanks through narrow canyons and gorges, burrows through 19 tunnels and rattles across high bridges and trestles. Incredible scenic vistas fly by and are gone in a second. But don't worry, there’s another breath-taking panorama just around the next bend.

As gorgeous as the scenery is, the main reason to take the train is that it links the two very different coasts of New Zealand’s South Island and is a perfect gateway to the wonders of this magical land.

Christchurch reborn

New Zealand is roughly the same size as the state of Colorado, but it's stretched out into two long, thin islands. There are only 4 million humans living here, but they share the green land with 40 million sheep and 5 million cows. Most people arrive on the South Island (the wilder and more spectacular of the two) via Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city. And its most tragic. 

Recent earthquakes devastated parts of this lovely city. When the dust cleared, the suburbs were virtually untouched, but the downtown core suffered the destruction of 1,200 buildings. Today, the so-called “Red Zone” looks much like an abandoned urban area from a zombie film. 

But Christchurch is coming back. Around the edges of the downtown core, they have already built an amazing new “pop up” city – in truck containers. Dozens of 50-foot-long steel truck containers have been stacked on top of each other. They are painted a palette of bright colors with large picture windows and serve as banks and bookstores, coffee shops and grocery stores.  Mayor Bob Barker speaks for the city’s indomitable spirit, stating that Christchurch not only intends to rebuild (a 10-year, $30 billion project) but the city will become a model for the 21st Century as a green and sustainable, low-rise urban oasis – “a city in a garden” filled with bike paths and pedestrian areas. 

The TranzAlpine Express

The train leaves Christchurch daily at 8:15 a.m. for a 4.5-hour journey across the island to the west coast town of Greymouth. Because of the steep grades, this is a narrow gauge line; however, the windows are huge, offering magnificent views of the countryside. There is an open-air gondola car for photos and a bar car for drinks and snacks. 

At first, the 14-car, light blue train speeds along the Canterbury plains, flashing by green fields of sheep and cattle, until it reaches the foothills and begins the long, slow, twisting climb up river canyons into the jagged Southern Alps. The literal high point of the trip is Arthur’s Pass, where the train enters the 5.3-mile-long Otira Tunnel, the longest tunnel in both the British Empire and the Southern Hemisphere. 

From there it’s a long glide back down the mountains – the perfect place to grab a local Southern Island Speight’s ale while listening to the soothing clickety-clack of the rails as the unending scenery rolls by.

The wild and woolly west coast

Bordering the Tasman Sea, the west coast of the South Island is the wettest place in New Zealand, and one of the most dramatic. Some 140 glaciers slip down from the snow-covered Alps, creating long, icy tongues. Two of the glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox, 90 minutes south of Greymouth, cut huge valleys that descend right down to the edge of the rainforest, ending just 800 or so feet above sea level. These are two of the most accessible glaciers in the world; however, the only safe way to venture on to them is with the services of a professional guide. Franz Josef Glacier Guides offers half- and full-day glacier walks, supplying all the equipment you will need including socks, sturdy boots, crampons, waterproof jackets and rain pants.

Hikers climb up the glacier.

The adventure begins on a rainforest trail that soon opens into a rock-studded moraine, waterfalls cascading down beside you. After a long climb, you are up on the river of ice itself, an out-of-this-world experience. Your guide will cut stairs into the glacier with an ice axe, helping you scramble up and down crevasses, enter caves of blue ice, and ascend to viewpoints. People must be in moderately good shape to do the trek, but no special skills are required and the guides will soon have you proficient enough with crampons to walk along ledges and ice cliffs you would never have dreamed of doing an hour earlier. For even more thrills, Fox and Franz Josef Heliservices offers rides in four- and six-passenger helicopters that soar above the glaciers and land on snowfields, high up in the alps. The copters are a bit claustrophobic, but the views soon take your mind off the thousand-foot drops below you.

View of the glacier from a helicopter

To the north of Greymouth, literally hugging the west coast, is Hwy. 6, which Lonely Planet calls one of the “Top 10 drives of the world.” The snaking road parallels the coast of Punakaiki, cutting along a landscape of rainforest, jagged rock beaches, caverns with glowworms and strange geologic formations.  Papaora National Park has many great walking trails, including those to Pancake Rocks, limestone boulders formed 30 million years ago that have been sculpted by pounding seas and rain into fantastic formations.

The peaceful east coast

You can return to Christchurch by train, bus or rental car. For a completely different experience, venture 80 minutes east of Christchurch out to the green, rolling hills of Banks Peninsula. The peninsula was formed by the violent eruption of two volcanoes millions of years ago. The sea eventually worked its way into the volcano cones, forming protected, tranquil bays surrounded by high cliffs.  The first European to see this picturesque landscape was Captain Cook in 1770.

Akaroa.

The French recognized the beauty of the bay and in 1840 started the only French colony in New Zealand, the town of Akaroa. Today, Akaroa maintains many French traditions and has the look of a village on the French Riviera with palm trees, seaside outdoor cafes and flowers. The tricolor French flag flies on everything from B&Bs to bakeries and there is a great section of fine dining restaurants, including tapas at Vangionis Trattoria & Bar and European- influenced dishes at Ma Maison.

The road stops in Akaroa, giving the town a backwater, end-of-the-world quietness. But there’s plenty of adventure opportunities there, such as swimming with the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin – the Hector – and enjoying the antics of seals and penguins on harbor cruises. Also, there are many trails to walk around the rocky coastline (for a unique experience, you can accompany the local postman as he delivers mail to remote sheep farms).

It’s a peaceful opposite of the wild west coast. Riding the TranzAlpine, in a matter of hours you can experience landscapes resembling Ireland, Switzerland, Scotland, France and Hawaii. Which can mean only one thing: You’re in New Zealand.

More info: For the train, visit www.tranzscenic.co.nz. For west coast tours, visit  www.keatours.co.nz. For east coast tours, visit www.christchurchnz.com and www.akaroa.co.nz

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