By Simon Woodhouse
For those of you who might not know, New Zealand is a country spread across two islands. The more northerly land mass is known as the North Island, and the one below it is (you guessed it) the South Island. Both have spectacular scenery, but the South Island also has the Southern Alps, a mountain range that runs roughly north to south for a distance of 340 miles. Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, sits right in the middle of the range and towers above everything else at a height of 12300 feet. It was here that Sir Edmund Hillary trained before becoming the first man to conquer Everest.
Though spectacular, the Southern Alps cut the South Island in half, and for along time left communities on the West Coast virtually isolated from the rest of New Zealand. Building railway lines was always tricky in the South Island, mostly because it has so many rivers, a large number of which are fed by glaciers high up in the Alps. As the railways grew in the South Island, they kept primarily to the lowlands on the East Coast. But over time more and more branch lines ventured inland. One of these headed up the valley of the Waimakariki River from Rolleston junction, to eventually reach the little town of Arthur’s Pass, and so penetrate into the heart of the Southern Alps. But this still didn’t quite link the East Coast with the West. For that to happen engineers had to bore through five and a quarter miles of solid rock, which was no mean feat in the early part of the twentieth century. The Otira Tunnel finally opened in August 1923 at a cost of over one million pounds, a huge sum of money back then. But it was worth it, because now there was a railway link from one side of the South Island to the other.
Using the line completed in 1923, the TranzAlpine Railway runs from Christchurch on the East Coast, to Greymouth on the West. The journey begins on the Pacific Ocean, and ends up overlooking the Tasman Sea. What comes in between is a trip of 140 miles, and a journey ranked amongst the most scenic railways in the world.
Christchurch makes a good starting point for the outing. The largest city on the South Island with a population of over 350,000, it is also called the most English city of all those in New Zealand. There are punts on the River Avon, a grand Anglican cathedral in the main city square and electric trams trundling around the streets. The TranzAlpine train leaves at 9am, and for the first part of the journey travels over the Canterbury Plains. This is farming country, with a flat patchwork of fields stretching out in all directions.
In the foothills of the Southern Alps, the train starts what will be a very long ascent. The hills and gorges here are known as the Staircase, and though progress feels slow, the scenery is more than enough to take your mind off the journey time. Tunnels and viaducts criss-cross the Staircase, and eventually lead into the Waimakariri Valley. This is a broad, wide-open expanse of land. And though the valley floor seems a little desolate, it is also undeniably beautiful. Snow-capped mountains provide a backdrop to the beech forests that line the valley.
The Waimakariri Valley in turn becomes the Bealey Valley, from where the train eventually enters the Arthur’s Pass National Park. The park and the town it’s named after, take their moniker from Arthur Dudley Dobson who surveyed the area in 1864. To start with no one took much notice of Arthur’s work, until gold was found on the West Coast and the miners needed a way to get it to Christchurch. Though a difficult route, Arthur’s Pass proved to be the easiest way across the Southern Alps.
Not long after leaving Arthur’s Pass (the town), the TranzAlpine train enters the Otira Tunnel. Just over five miles later it re-emerges into the daylight, and heads along the Otira Valley. Gradually the mountains give way to lush rainforest, and the train passes by Lake Brunner.
The Grey River appears sometime afterward, and it’s no surprise this waterway leads into the town of Greymouth. This is the heart of the West Coast, and was once the centre of a busy gold-mining industry. Though connected to the rest of the South Island by road and rail, the West Coast still has an almost frontiers type of feel to it.
Greymouth marks the end of the line for the TranzAlpine. After a wait of about an hour, the train departs for the return journey back to Christchurch. Four hours later it arrives on the east coast and the whole experience is over. Easily do-able in a day, the TranzAlpine excursion is a must for anyone visiting New Zealand. Not only does the train offer a chance to view some spectacular scenery, but it also gives the traveller an insight into life on both sides of the South Island.