If I were to be honest, the train is the worst choice of transportation when it comes to New Zealand. Not only are there limited routes (there are only 3 different services: 2 in the South Island, and 1 in the North), making it essentially impossible to travel the whole of New Zealand using them, they are also expensive (up to NZD199 for a one-way ticket as compared to NZD49 for a bus ticket), and slow. Case in point, I saw more than 5 trucks overtake us while I was on the train. That says a lot about the speed the train was traveling at.
Yet, there is something inherently captivating about train rides. Something about the bidding of goodbyes on the platform, the rumbling engines coming to life, the fluttering snowflakes with passing mountain scapes, the anticipation of meeting a fellow traveler with stories to share. As if providing a temporary shelter from the bustle of moving from one place to another, the train ride is more than just a mere mode of transportation. It makes travel a simple affair between the traveller and the sights of the country.
I was bought over by the seemingly paradise-like photos on KiwiRail, and the strong recommendations from Claire, my host at Waipu, and purchased a one-way ticket from Christchurch to Greymouth. The Tranz Alpine has been widely touted as the most scenic train ride in New Zealand, and the thought of being able to see the mightly Southern Alps right before me was an additional bonus, save for the expensive ticket.
It was raining lightly when I bade goodbye to Andrew, my couchsurfing host at Christchurch Railway Station. I am thankful he drove me to the station, because it moved out from the city centre due to the damage of the 2010 earthquake and with the train scheduled to depart at 8.15am, I would have had difficulties reaching there in time. I checked in my backpack, got my boarding pass, and noticed for the first time, that I was the only one on the platform as the train attendant waved at me to board the train. Guess I won’t be seeing a movie scene of someone chasing the train down to the end of the platform as he/she desperately tries to say one last goodbye to their loved ones.
I settled into the comfy seats, and plugged in the headphones that were provided. Throughout the journey, there is an audio guide, which explains the history of the Tranz Alpine train, and the stories behind each station and landmark the Tranz Alpine passes. The panoramic windows also makes it easy to snap a few photos as the train passes through fields and valleys.
For the first 30-50mins of the train ride, I was dismayed because after we pulled into Springfield, the light rain begun developing into a full-blown one. As we begun to climb up, the overcast clouds masked the beauty of the mountains that was starting to show. This was to be the start of the climb towards the Southern Alps, and yet, the weather made it an arduous task to even snap a decent photo.
I shared a glance with an elderly lady seated behind me, who like me, was traveling alone, and was looking forward to the train ride. The Australian lady was on a visit to New Zealand with her children, but decided to do a solo train ride as it was something she had been wanting to do. I smiled at her, secretly hoping that the weather will turn for the better.
I could make out a stunning river gorge as the train continued its climb. The audio announced that this is the “Staircase”, and we were approximately 73m above the river, making our way deeper into the hills, away from satellite communication and what not.The mountains were almost in abundance now, one following another, and despite being shrouded in mist, the sight was spectacular. Certainly nothing I have seen before, given that I have grown up in the comforts of grey, cold cities.
The rain was still splattering on the windows, albeit much gently, and curiously, seems to be softer? I stared at the drops for a moment, and realized that they were white in colour. That was no raindrops, but snowflakes, white fairytale-like snowflakes!
I bounded out of my seat, and rushed to the open cabin at the end of the train. It was a viewing cabin with no glass in between, and the snowflakes seem to magically drop onto my hands. The train crew came over and ushered me back to my seat. The viewing platform is closed as the train is climbing to its highest point. I apologized, while smiling meekly at the crew. She probably wouldn’t understand the excitement of someone who has never seen snow in my entire life. “Is snowing!” I exclaimed excitedly to the lady behind me, and she laughed at my excitement, so different from 20mins ago. I was making a slight fool out of myself, but it didn’t matter. I was enjoying myself, and from the looks of the elderly lady, she didn’t mind my excitement at all.
At 10.15, the train pulled into Arthur’s Pass Train Station, the highest point of the train ride at 740m above sea level. We had a 10mins stop here, and by this time, it was without a doubt, snowing. The railway tracks were covered in a thin layer of snow, and so were the platform at the station.
In other seasons (summer especially), this is a gateway to Arthur’s Pass National Park, a popular tramping location. But in winter, there were few people in sight, making the place eerily magnificent with the snowfall (actually the whole of New Zealand is deserted in winter, something that I love, not having to run into people at every destination). The stop was too short, and I soon heard the signal for us to re-board on the train. I had the urge to alight here and just forgo my trip to Greymouth, but my logical brain got the better of me. Damn logic sometimes.
We started descending, and soon entered Otira Tunnel, a 8.6km tunnel, one of the longest in New Zealand. I ran into a friendly Kiwi couple, who were both teachers, and taking a short break. They told me that they took the same train two weeks ago, and there was no sight of snow. Seeing the snowflakes fall onto the window panes, and feeling it for myself, is a special moment that I will take away from the train ride.
I was contented with the train journey thus far, having experienced the beauty of the Alps, though not at perfectly visible range, right before my eyes. But as we emerged out of the tunnel, strong rays of sunlight pierced through, shimmering gloriously on a shallow river, flanked by mountains on its side. The skies was without a piece of cloud, almost a fake blue, and it was as though the rain and snow a moment ago, was from a dream.
I walked over to the viewing platform once more, and this time, had many other train passengers for companion. They were snapping frantically at the pristine views, muttering excitedly about the drastic change in weather. I took a moment to appreciate the beauty in front of me, before joining the snapping frenzy. I have heard that it is possible to experience four seasons in a day in New Zealand, but I didn’t believe it to be true, until today.
There was a couple of stops before the train journey comes to an end, and weirdly, I wanted the train to travel slower. I wanted more time to absorb and appreciate the sights that were rapidly passing by me. I looked over to the elderly lady, and she had her eyes focused on the window. I guess she, like me, didn’t want it to end that soon. Though, she will be catching another train back to Christchurch the next day, and had the opportunity to savour another moment of train travel.
The train came to a halt at Greymouth. Reluctantly, I disembarked and picked up my orange backpack. I had a connecting bus to catch, and didn’t have the luxury of lingering around the train platform. I caught the elderly lady before I left, and said goodbye to her. We will probably never meet again, and despite being temporary visitors to each other’s life, she graciously shared snippets of her life with me. I would like to think that I made an enjoyable companion to her, as much as she did to me. She wished me luck for the rest of my travels, and gave me a friendly hug before moving out of the platform herself.
Like the train ride, she will soon become a distant memory, but like all travels, they leave a mark. A mark that is irreplaceable, unforgettable, and deeply etched no matter how much time has passed. The Tranz Alpine ride is significant not just because of the stunning views, but the kind of people you might possibly meet on the train. Sure, it will be much faster to drive or to fly, but the feeling of a train journey stays with you, even long after the ride itself. And is worth it to slow down just this one time.
You can book a ticket for the Tranz Alpine ride on the official website. Because I travelled in winter, there was a special Super Saver price of NZD89 (approx. SGD93 going by my exchange rate) . I would recommend booking any activities when you reach New Zealand, because they tend to run cheaper or there might be deals that are only available there. Once again, everything went smoothly for me, probably because it was winter and there were less crowd. I cannot vouch for it if it was summer season. This is something you might want to consider if you are thinking of which seasons to travel to New Zealand.
I am not sure how accurate this is, but apparently, there are free shuttle buses that brings you to Christchurch Railway Station from various backpackers. It will be helpful to verify this with i-Site at Christchurch or the backpackers before booking with it.
Alternatively, Jailhouse Accommodation seems to be the closest backpackers to the railway station. While this makes it easier to reach the station, it also means that it is more troublesome to get to the city centre, something to consider once again, before booking your backpackers.
Also, if you are thinking of traveling in winter like I did, you might want to note that the sun sets at approximately 4.30pm in winte. It will be almost pitch dark at 5pm. The return train will only pull into Arthur’s Pass at around 4pm, meaning that you will probably be missing the sights of half your journey. You would be better off with choosing the Christchurch-Greymouth route if you only can afford to do a one-way journey like me.
Lastly, Seat61 provides tons of information about train travel in New Zealand. You might want to pop by and take a look should you be still deciding whether to buy a train ticket.