July 8, 2017
Looking ahead my longest (3 week) trip to Christchurch was now 2/3rd over and the next week was looking pretty intense with science adventures, from the MU69 occultation flight on July 10th to the commissioning of a new capability at long-wavelengths that week. I realized I would only get one day off, and I took the advice of a colleague and booked a day return aboard the TranzAlpine, a 4.5 hr train ride from Christchurch on the east coast of the south Island to Greymouth on the west coast, and then 4.5 hrs back again. I truly lucked out with wonderful weather revealing beautiful scenery. Oh I must return to really explore this amazing countryside.
8:15am we departed Christchurch. My word! It looked so much like Cambridgeshire, England, with the flat grass fields, filled with sheep or the occasional herd of cows. These were the Canterbury Plains. The only odd thing on the landscape were these huge hedgerows. The commentary aboard the train mentioned they helped with wind-control. I just looked at these marvels and realized they had been growing (and also untouched) for a long time.
Giant Hedgerows along the Canterbury Plains.
Within an hour, we would be starting to see foothills as we approached the Southern Alps (Kā Tiritiri o te Moana).
Views after leaving Darfield
The Waimakariri River gorge
We continue climbing. At this point in the ride I have secured a spot in the open carriage to get unobstructed views (no glares). I was better equipped with my hat, scarf, fleeces and gloves than my fellow passengers who just sneaked out for a quick photo and then dashed back into the warm. I was just awestruck by the scenery as it evolved, and I knew a nice hot cup of tea awaited my return.
On this amazing train ride, we would nip in and out of narrow tunnels over lovely bridges.
‘Staircase’, 73 metres above the river
Grassy plateau with hills, as we neared the summit
By 10:40am we reached Arthur’s Pass (elevation 739 m) and drop off some passengers for a day’s walking in the National Park nearby.
Train station at Arthur’s Pass
The train resumes its journey and they would close off the viewing gallery when it entered the Otira Tunnel, 8.6 kilometers in length, otherwise one would suffer from the diesel fumes. Apparently when they close off the train this week, the motion of the train acts like piston to push out any fumes.
View from the viewing cab of the TranzAlpine rail
We slowed down but did not stop in the town of Otira, which described by the onboard commentary as getting over several meters of rain a year. Historically it was a key stagecoach town when crossing the Alps took many days. It also became a key railway town keeping the coal flowing from west to east.
TransAlpine route west of Otira
We pull up to Moana (not the 2016 Disney film 🙂 ), a small town on the west coast region of the south island. A few passengers got off. The striking view of Lake Brunner with the hills in the background was very fine indeed.
Lake Brunner near the town of Moana
Glimpses of New Zealand’s coal culture, outside Greymouth
Coal trucks are a common sight along this route
Views of the Grey River (Māwheranui), as we near Greymouth
The train reaches Greymouth, a town at the mouth of the Grey River, where we will stop for about 30 minutes to change engines and directions to head back over the mountains. Usually the schedule allows for an hour stop, but we had delays after crossing Arthur’s Pass that cost us minutes. Thus, I only got a tiny glimpse of this interesting coastal town.
Train arriving into Greymouth to take us back to Christchurch
Reaching mountains again in afternoon sun, about 20 minutes to sunset
A touch of frost
The sun has set by 5pm and I spent the rest of the journey listening to the commentary about the geology of the area, especially referencing the confluence of three major plates on the Earth which made these amazing mountains through uplift, but also source of earthquakes. It was an amazing day out. I got only a brief taste of “To There and Back Again.” And “To There” I need to return properly someday.
Spotted “West Coast Time” at the Greymouth train station