I am so lucky to live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but sometimes us locals can start to take our stunning surroundings for granted.
One example of this is the Tranzalpine Express, one of the most scenic train journeys in the world right on my doorstep. Every morning on my commute to work, I sit in my car at the level crossing watching carriage loads of smiling people trundle off in to the mountains, and yet I had never been on it!
With Wildwood all tucked up in the marina for the winter, and inspired by #ChristchurchNZ who have been encouraging locals to get out and explore our city and region, I asked the team at Canterbury Trails to book me on their Arthurs Pass & Tranzalpine Tour and I was all set to become a tourist in my own town.
My guide for the day – Tia collected me from home, and we picked up a couple of American visitors from a central Christchurch hotel before making our way to the central Train Station at Tower Junction. Canterbury Trails specialise in small group tours and our group was definitely small. Tia made sure we were all settled in to our reserved seats before she jumped back in the van to drive up and meet us at the other end.
Canterbury Trails make a point of reserving forward facing seats on the train, near the viewing platform and cafe carriage to ensure their guests have the best views and are close to all the action on board the train.
I grabbed a coffee from the well stocked on-board cafe and slipped on my headphones to tune in to the interesting commentary about the history and geography of the Christchurch and the Canterbury plains as we clickity- clacked out of the city and across the patchwork quilt-like Canterbury Plains.
The huge picture windows offer unobstructed views of the passing scenery as the city and Port Hills disappeared behind us and the spectacular Southern Alps loomed ahead. We passed through Springfield and gradually started our climb through the Canterbury foothills.
I’d mistakenly imagined that the train journey would be pretty similar to the drive, however the train takes a completely different route from the road. I grabbed my coat and braved the open air observation coach. I deeply inhaled the fresh wintery air as the train trundled across viaducts, through dark tunnels and sidled along high above the turquoise blue water glittering in the Waimakariri Gorge below. Glass-like lakes mirrored the reflections of the snow capped mountains above.
It was quite simply spectacular.
After around two hours the train pulled up in to Arthurs Pass station. We disembarked, leaving the rest of the train to continue on to Greymouth. Tia was there waiting for us, and we crossed the road to the Department of Conservation Information Centre. If you are visiting New Zealand it is always worth checking out the local DOC centre. They have a wealth of information relating to the region including local walks, wildlife, and the local history.
We made a quick stop to check out the Otira Viaduct. An engineering marvel which was completed in 1999. I remember the old road which was extremely dangerous, narrow and steep and susceptible to rockfalls. The panoramic view over the valley that the viaduct passes through is well worth the stop.
Then we found the local wildlife we’d been looking for. The cheeky Kea is an endangered species that lives in the mountains of the South Island. They are well known for destroying rental cars, with their appetite for rubber trim. The Kea sadly were not popular with the early settler farmers – who put a bounty on their head and hunted them nearly to extinction when they started attacking their flocks of sheep. They are incredibly curious and clever and are now protected, tagged and monitored by conservation volunteers.
The Arthurs Pass National Park has got lots of wonderful walks for visitors to explore. From short flat tracks to interesting viewpoints, to more strenuous adventures up in the mountains. There is a track to suit any level of fitness. Tia pointed out lots of interesting flora and fauna along the way and found the best spots to stop and take the perfect photo.
With all this exploring we were all getting a bit hungry so we headed to the Bealey Hotel for a very hearty lunch in front of the roaring fire. A former stop for the stage coaches on their three day journey from Christchurch to the West Coast, this pub has a long history, including a potential (extinct) Moa sighting – if you believe the former owner’s story…
The drive back to Christchurch covers different territory to the train ride up. We called in for a look at beautiful Lake Pearson – Moana Rua and then on to Castle Hill – Kura Tawhiti to check out the interesting Limestone formations.
On the way back in to town we stopped off for a cup of tea and some home baked brownie and we also got to meet some more of Tia’s friends. Baaaabara and her partner Baaaarry had some new babies to introduce to us! Spring has definitely sprung!
So whether you are visiting Christchurch or if you are a local who still hasn’t gotten round to going for a ride on the Tranzalpine train – just do it! The scenery is stunning, there is lots of exploring to be done in Arthurs Pass and along the way home.