It’s not the fastest or most luxurious railroad in the world, but the TranzAlpine Express is certainly one of the most scenic. Slicing across the South Island of New Zealand, the 260-km rail line travels from the wild, rocky, glacier-studded West Coast of the island to the pastoral, rolling green hills of the east. In between are the Southern Alps – Lord of the Ring Country — a stark landscape of jagged snowcapped peaks and strange rock formations that’s been a backdrop for the Lord of the Rings and Nardia films.
To traverse these rugged mountains, 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 no worries, there’s another 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 magic place.
New Zealand is roughly the same size as the state of Colorado, but 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.
A series of earthquakes in 2011 and 2012 devastated the downtown core of this lovely city with a force that was equal to 60 atomic bombs. Some 1,200 buildings were either destroyed or so damaged they will ultimately have to be torn down and 182 people were killed. The whole central city, called “the Red Zone” is fenced off and has or will be demolished. It includes the town hall, the convention center, sports arena and some 20 hotels. Today, it looks much like an abandoned urban area from a zombie film.
Despite the quakes, 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 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. Most major attractions survived and are open, including their gorgeous Botanic Gardens, punting on the River Avon, and the famous Canterbury Museum (with its town crier ringing a bell out front). Combined with the new “pop up” city, Christchurch is definitely worth a visit.
All Aboard the TranzAlpine
The train leaves Christchurch daily at 8:15 a.m., making 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 that is windy and rattles quite a bit, but is great for photos and the thrill of being outside, barreling through this wild country. Of course, there’s also a bar car for drinks and snacks.
From Christchurch, 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 8,554-meter long Otira Tunnel, the longest tunnel in both the British Empire and the Southern Hemisphere.
From here it’s a long glide back down the mountains – the perfect place to grab a local Southern Island Speight’s ale, and listen to the soothing clickty-clack of the rails as the unending scenery rolls by.
The Wild & Wooly West Coast
Bordering the Tasman Sean, 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 that cut huge valleys right down to the edge of the rainforest, in some places ending just 250 meters above sea level. Just 90 minutes south of Greymounth, two of the glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox, are among the most accessible glaciers in the world. While easy to get to, the only safe way to venture on to them is with the services of a professional guide. Franz Josef Glacier Guides offers half day and full day glacier walks, supplying all the equipment you will need including socks, sturdy boots, crampons, waterproof jackets and rain pants. They’re not kidding when they say “don’t wear jeans,” they won’t let you on the hike with them. You don’t want to think too long about where your “shared” wool socks have been before, and they load you down with more clothing than you need, but weather can conditions, apparently, can change rapidly.
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, (asked which was less claustrophobic, the four-passenger or six-passenger, the guide said, “Oh, they’re equally claustrophobic). But no worries — the views soon take your mind off the thousand foot drops below.
Franz Josef is a great little town with a couple of neat pubs and glacier hot pools to soak in after the hike. Te Waonui Forest Retreat is surrounded by native rainforest. In the small one-street town, Speights Landing Bar has a fireplace, deck and local crowd. The Monsoon Bar is another cozy place, in the rainforest with a fireplace and young crowd.
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. There’s not much here in the way of towns (only 20,000 people live on the entire West Coast) but you could spend a lot of time walking the beach and exploring trails and rocks. Punakaiki Resort is a great place to stay, literally on the beach within walking distance of Pancake Rocks.
The Peaceful East Coast
You can return to Christchurch by train, bus or rental car. If by car, the town of Arthur’s Pass would be worth planning a stop for a hike to the gigantic waterfalls you can see from the road. Also Castle Hill, another Lord of the Rings filming site, looked fantastic from the road.
Back in Christchurch, for a completely different experience, venture 80 minutes east 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 bay was Captain Cook in 1770.
The French recognized its beauty 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.
The road stops in Akaroa, giving the town a backwater, end of the world quietness, but there’s plenty of adventure. You can swim with the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin – the Hector – and see seals and penguins on harbor cruises. There are many trails around the rocky coastline, or for a unique experience, accompany the local postman as he delivers mail to remote sheep farms.
It’s a peaceful opposite to wild West Coast. Riding the TranzAlpine, in a matter of hours you experience landscapes resembling Ireland, Switzerland, Scotland, France and Hawaii. Which can mean only one thing – you’re in New Zealand.
IF YOU GO: for the train: ; for East Coast: www.christchurchnz.com and www.akaroa.co.nz