All Aboard The TranzAlpine Express
New Zealand’s TranzAlpine Express is reputed to be one of the world’s greatest train rides, crossing beech forests, alpine tussock, glacial rivers, peaceful lakes, and the snow-capped Southern Alps on its 223.8 kilometer (134 mile) journey between Greymouth on the west coast and Christchurch on the east coast. Although I made few advance reservations for my six month sojourn, the TranzAlpine Express was an exception – I have had my ticket for nearly three months because everything I read warned that the seats sell out quickly, thus the schedule for my travel around New Zealand has revolved around making this train on May 30th.
The bus from Franz Josef deposited me at the steps of the Greymouth rail station 30 minutes before the 1:45 PM boarding time. I had just enough time to check in, get my seat assignment, hand over my luggage, and buy some snacks before our departure. Right on time, the big yellow diesel locomotive rolled into the station and stopped with a screech. I was in the ‘L’ car, far behind the locomotive, sandwiched between the observation deck and the dining car. My friend, Leah, recently told me she would like to see more of ‘me’ in my photos, so I asked a fellow passenger to take a photo of me as I boarded the train. I settled into my “airline style reclining seat,” prepared to see stunning scenery from my panoramic window, and snapped this photo of myself – well, at least part of me.
We pulled away from the station right on time and began the gradual climb into the mountains. Along the route we passed through 16 tunnels and six viaducts, including the the 8.5 kilometer long Otira Tunnel, which is the seventh longest railroad tunnel in the world. Following the old Cobb & Co. Stage Coach route, which continued in service until 1923, we reached our highest altitude at Arthur’s Pass. In those days, it was a two day journey with the passengers having to walk up the steepest sections to spare the horses. The subsequent descent took us through the Waimakariri River Gorge, its snaking river an exquisite shade of turquoise from the glacial rock powder it carries, and into the patchwork quilt of the Canterbury Plains, where sheep and cattle dotted the hillsides and a near full moon rose over the plains in the encroaching twilight.
Less than thirty minutes into the trip it became clear that I would not be happy taking photos from my seat so I moved forward to the observation car. I expected to find a modern coach, replete with glass roof and wide windows. Instead I found an open deck surrounded by metal railings. This was great for photos – no glass between the vista and the lens – but it was frightfully cold, especially as we entered the Alps. Although the ride was enjoyable, I must admit that overall I was disappointed.
I have seen such stunning scenery over the past two weeks that the views from the train were somewhat anticlimactic. Plus, paved roads seemed to follow our path the entire time, leaving me feeling that the train did not afford anything that could not be seen from a car window. Additionally, because New Zealand is having one of the warmest months of May on record there was very little snow on the Alps, thus one of the factors that makes this ride so spectacular was missing from the get-go. Regardless, I spent the majority of the four and a half hour ride on the open-air deck taking photos, the best of which I have include here.
Toward the end of the ride, as the sun was setting, I made my way back to my seat. In the illuminated coach I looked down at my hands – my gloves were black. I peeled off my gloves and found that my hands were also black. So was my coat. And my pants. All a result of the diesel soot spewing from the engine. Although I had been aware of the noxious fumes I was breathing, I was totally unaware that these same fumes were depositing a dense, tarry coating on everything in sight and transferring to my hands from every surface I touched in the outdoor car. I pulled a handi-wipe out of my backpack and tried to wipe it off but it didn’t make a dent in the grunge. I arrived at the hotel in Christchurch looking like an urchin who’d been living in a coal bin, the greasy black stuff smeared across my forehead and down my cheeks. I looked in the mirror and was shocked at my reflection – even my hair was coated in black. It took a very long hot shower to get rid of it all – including three shampoos and five ear washings. I’m not sorry I did the trip, but I would not do it again unless it was in the dead of winter with the peaks covered in snow.