Outdoor World

Passing panorama: New Zealands glory from a train window

Thirty times after the TranzAlpine was launched, Susan Grossman boards one of the worlds most scenic trains at Christchurch, before completing her trip on North Islands Northern Explorer

It’s 8.15 am on the dot and with one mellowed toot the TranzAlpine passenger qualify is off on its excursion from Christchuch to Greymouth. As we rattle through the flat and fertile Canterbury plains we are soon clambering up steep gorges in the foothills of the Southern Alps, the backbone of South Island. Below, I can see the startling blue water of the Waimakariri river valley. Pink and blue lupins line the trails along with rows of pines.

The railway cover-ups 223 km, tracking its way over four viaducts and through 16 passageways, taking four and a half hours to Greymouth on the west coast- a tad faster than the stage coach-and-fours that took two days to get meat across to gold prospectors in 1866. The stage coach-and-four was once known as” The Perishable” because of the fruit and vegetables it used to transport along the way.

It’s a most varied tale now the develop has reached its 30 th anniversary year. The cabs are modern, with wide-ranging , non-reflective windows, wifi and a running commentary in Mandarin and English. The seats are spacious and windows panoramic, perfect for enjoying the wide-screen backdrop- from the pastoral Canterbury plains, through woodland and lowland rivers, up to tussock sheep stations. The scenery we pass through from the consolation of our cab tells the story of New Zealand’s prosperity. There are defunct coal mines, stubbly hillsides and saw mills, while the temperate rainforest is dense with native pines, beech and conifers- the same ones used by the Maori to make their traditional canoes.

Nothing to rail against … New Zealand’s qualifies provide great viewing areas to enjoy the backdrop. Photograph: Alamy

Two hours into the train expedition we arrive at Arthur’s Pass, where, through rolling white mist, we can just about place snow-capped mountain crests. This pass, the highest over the Southern Alps, was used by Maori hunting parties long before the railway was constructed. We approach the 8.5 km Otira passageway, completed in 1923; up to 18 develops a day still climb up and down its 1:33 gradient, transporting coal from west to east. Even now it’s a hazardous process avoiding locomotives from overheating and shutting down. The develop stops while our obligation administrator uncouples the carriages to get us through safely.

Soon after, we are in Greymouth, a town known for its hunting and jade-mining past, and also the end of our excursion. You can while away an hour or two on a tasting tour at the local brewery or a visit to Shantytown to learn about gold mining. But for most visitors it’s a setting-off point to see the spectacular Fox Glacier, a 13 km-long maritime glacier on the west coast that is perfect for ice-climbing and strolling. Instead, I stop for a pie and a cup of tea in a local coffeehouse and an hour subsequently start the return expedition back to Christchurch.

Ice and easy … the Fox Glacier on South Island. Photograph: Alamy

There, in New Zealand’s third-largest metropoli, severely damaged by the earthquake of 2011, I am surprised to recognize hoardings and bulldozers, and the cathedral still propped up on splints. When British settlers arrived in 1880, Christchurch was destined to become a model of class-structured England, with faiths rather than saloons, and land owned by gentry with English-style gardens.

The earthquake fortunately had little impact on the botanical gardens. Here, the smell of eucalyptus and mock orange wafts through avenues of trees while visitors take a leisurely punt along the Avon river. Creative Christchurch lives in the” receptacle city”, where pop-up shops and banks do business. Cycleways have helped the revival, but those who live there are frustrated with the slow progress of its regeneration.

I head to the Heritage Hotel, a historic local government landmark which are currently being offers 32 stately suites,” Italian renaissance palazzo style”, each with state-of-the-art kitchens. A sweeping central staircase and long hallways remind me of the grand hotels in London’s Park Lane. From Christchurch, I fly back up to Wellington and then I am off again, this time on the Northern Explorer train that runs from Wellington to Auckland and takes 10 hours.

Completed in 1908, after 23 years of building, it is New Zealand’s longest-running passenger service. My journey starts at 8.55 am, rumbling through the core of the North Island and an ever-changing scenery of baize-green hills with folds like origami and ravines plunging into turquoise reservoirs. As we cross the Wellington fault line, Kapiti Island, a predator-free fowl sanctuary, sits slumped in the Tasman Sea like a giant jelly baby. Photographers pile into the open-sided observation cab, greedy to capture every vista.

Green and pleasant land … hiking at the Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing on North Island. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

By lunchtime we reach a stop named National Park, where some passengers get off to trek the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s oldest national park and a World Heritage area. The remainder of us stay put and enjoy lamb shanks and mashed potato with a glass of Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc.

We reach Hamilton at 4.30 pm, a small land-locked town on New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato. I disembark to catch a bus to Rotorua, well known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. The bad-egg smell of sulphur that greets me is no deterrent. My final destination, the Polynesian Spa, offers mud wraps and a Priori Coffeeberry Yoga Facial for $179 NZ( PS95 ), but I decline. Instead, I steam in mineral pools overlooking the pond, and admire the sundown. What better route to unwind after New Zealand’s two most scenic railway trips?

Way to go

Susan Grossman travelled with KiwiRail( kiwirailscenic.co.nz) from Christchurch to Greymouth. Flexi fares start from NZ $199 single( PS105) on the TranzAlpine and NZ $179 single( PS96) on the Northern Explorer( from Wellington to Hamilton or Auckland ). The Heritage Hotel Christchurch( heritagehotels.co.nz) has double chambers from PS160. Prices at Polynesia Spa( polynesianspa.co.nz) commencing from PS15 .

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ traveling/ 2018/ jan/ 14/ new-zealand-tranzalpine-scenic-train-christchurch-northern-explorer

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