Thursday, March 20, 2008

TranzAlpine Rail Journey

The Engineer Boarding the train

The Southern Alps

Headed to Arthur's Pass

I have to admit that I am a real railroad junkie. Riding the rails is a great way to travel. Obviously, I am waiting for my children to give me one of the great rail journeys of the world. Maybe Vovos Rail in South Africa, the Oriental Express, or its equivalent in Asia. As a frugal traveler I have never quite bit the bullet for the high end rail journey. Besides, I don’t own a tuxedo.

When you visit New Zealand, there isn’t the luxury rail trip alternative, but there are a couple of fantastic scenic options. Even Frommer has described the TranzAlpine trip from Christchurch to Greymouth as one of the top five scenic trips in the world. In the brochure the New Zealand passenger rail company describes the trip as “Meeting the challenge of the mountains.” The trip goes completely across the South Island from the Pacific to the Tasman Sea and crosses a high pass through the Southern Alps.

As usual with our wonderful luck it was a glorious sunny day. I can imagine that it could be a very dreary day if cloudy or raining. The train, which is very nice, but not a luxury offering, is about 10 cars with the front and back split by an open viewing car so you can take unobstructed photos. For those of you who need to take videos and photos, it does become very crowded and the height challenged Mary Ann had some trouble getting to the rail because of the tall blokes.

You are assigned seats, and it appeared we were going to have a nearly empty car, so we would be able to move around from front view to back view and side to side. Au contraire as just before the train was to leave a tour bus of people showed up and took every other seat in the car. The good news was that they left the train at Arthur’s Pass and rejoined their bus. If you are inclined to coach tours take a look at their website: So we did have delightful space for the rest of the 4 ½ hour trip to Greymouth.

The journey first crosses the Canterbury Plain with handsome farming and grazing lands, and then proceeds along the Waimakariri River and through the very deep Waimakariri Gorge. This provides for terrific bridges and tunnels with panoramic views of the mountains. We were somewhat surprised that the mountains were not quite alp like. It was more like going over the U.S. Rocky Mountains without any snow covered peaks. We must be too early in the fall. Along the route are sheep and cattle stations, former mining areas and no development. The ride down the Tasman Sea side goes through the Grey River valley and into Greymouth; hmmm the river must empty into the sea there. Greymouth is the largest town on the west coast with a population of about 12,000.

You spend an hour in Greymouth before the journey back. We had lunch and Mary Ann left her jacket (you remember the one she now loves and which we searched so diligently for in Auckland) in the café. She ran to the café (telling me to not let the train leave) and found that the café lady had taken it to the train. She thankfully retrieved it from the staff when we got back to Arthur’s Pass. We had a pleasant and full train on the way back. I had a great conversation with a young fellow from Toronto, but that will be another story. The whole excursion was about 10 hours and was certainly worth the investment. For this and other trips on the rail system go to

Quirky Living Note: The train has a café counter in one of the cars. It actually has quite modest prices and their menu at each seat touts the offering as Snacks on the Tracks

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