South Island, Pt. 7: TranzAlpine

Well, seven posts in and it’s finally time to leave Nelson! I packed my bags, checked out of my hostel, and bade farewell to that lovely little town. Next on my itinerary was the drive to Greymouth, where I would also say farewell to the Sunny and hop on the TranzAlpine Express to Christchurch!

The TranzAlpine express crosses (as the name suggests) the Southern Alps. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see some cool scenery (and take some photos) while letting someone else do the driving. The total trip time is a bit over 5 hours.

I have talked here before on the dilemma between obsessive planning and going with the flow. I like to think that the parts I do plan I at least plan well. The counter-example, though, is the fact that I apparently managed to buy a train ticket for the wrong day! When I arrived at the station, I walked up to the counter, showed the agent my phone, and she said “uh, you’re not in the system because your reservation is for tomorrow”.

This was, of course, sub-optimal, as I was on the part of my trip that had the tightest scheduling. I communicated this to the ticketing agent, and after a phone call she looked at me apologetically and said “it will be a $20 rebooking fee, is that OK?”. At that point, I was ready to do anything, up to and including buying a completely new ticket, so a $20 rebooking fee was perfectly fine with me. I thanked her profusely and then went into town to go get some lunch.

The Greymouth station is not super exciting; it backs up to a grocery store. As it became more crowded a busker with a violin started playing, which was kind of cool and gave something to listen to as I waited for the train.

The ticketing agent had worked hard to get me a seat by myself, which was probably wasted effort since I spent about 90% of the trip in the viewing car. As you can see, though, the windows in the car are not quite designed for someone tall. But hey, I didn’t buy a ticket (for the wrong day) to sit and read, and the windows in the passenger cars tended to create reflections in the photos (I have since bought a polarizing filter which claims to help with this; I’ll have to try it out at some point).

Greymouth here is living up to its name. The weather on the West coast is often quite grey and rainy (the West coast towns often have kind of depressing names as well; somewhat North of Greymouth is Cape Foulwind. I’m not even making that up.).

As we moved East, the weather cleared up pretty quickly though! Man, what a view!

As we approached the Otira Tunnel, they kicked us all out of the viewing car and closed the shutters. The Otira Tunnel is 8.5 km and took something like eleven years to dig. This photo was taken from inside the passenger car, as you can tell from the annoying reflections marring the scenic beauty.

They did leave the shutters open for other tunnels, though, so I stuck my phone out the window in direct violation of all safety instructions and got a shot (including a fellow passenger judging me).

There’s quite a lot of train here. Two viewing cars, two food cars, 8 passenger cars, and a few others whose purpose I have forgotten.

Once through the tunnel, I could resume my location in the viewing car and enjoy the beautiful scenery. And enjoy it I did.

So pretty.

One of the stops along the way had set up a random tableau including this weird monk and an old-timey Fiat soft-top pulling a tiny gorilla in a clearly-insufficient cage. Well alrighty then, thanks for the amusement, random rural train stop.

As we approached Christchurch, we saw more and more houses. You’d think that if you built a house kilometers from anywhere you’d also build it further from the rail tracks, but what do I know?

On the East coast, the air is drier and the sky is bluer. Just a quick train ride, and I feel like I’m in a different climate!

Still plenty of pretty views though.

So that’s my TranzAlpine experience. Hope you enjoyed the views as much as I did. Is it worth it? I think so. If (when) I come back to the South Island, I think the next time I’d like to do the drive myself. But I’m glad that for my first trip I had a chance to sit back and take in the sights!

Come join me next time as I take a look around Christchurch!

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