Thursday 29th October 2015
05.11.2015 15 °C
We had a fairly early start this morning as the Transalpine Train that would take us across the South Island to Greymouth was scheduled to leave Christchurch at 8:15am. We decided to have breakfast on the train and so all we had to do was pack up our things and check out in time for the taxi that we had arranged to pick us up at 7:15am. He was the friendliest taxi driver we have had so far on our trip and he soon got talking to us about his experience of the earthquake. He said that his wife had been particularly affected and that until recently she would cry every time she felt a tremor. He also told us that approximately 10,000 people had left the city since the quake struck. The population is now slowly on the increase and more and more people connected with the rebuild have come to live here. He seemed hopeful that many of these people would settle and stay permanently perhaps giving new life and young people to the city. He dropped us off in plenty of time and again we said a heartfelt goodbye to him and wished him well. The train was in the station and we checked in and as soon as the baggage handlers were ready we stored our large bags in the baggage car. Our seats were in a great position, on the right hand side of the train we had requested (for the best views) and near to the open observation car.
This meant we were quite a way from the buffet car but you can't have everything! We settled in our seats and Nigel went and got us some breakfast as soon as they started serving. For the first half an hour or so after we left the station we were travelling across the flat landscape of the Canterbury Plain, passing agricultural land and the odd milk processing plant. The railway line then starts to climb as it makes its way through the northern foothills of the Southern Alps. At first it was hilly with lots of gorse, and then the hills became higher and we were travelling along gorges and crossing over spectacular bridges with milky blue meltwater streams below.
Once the scenery became more interesting I went up into the open air observation car along with many other passengers and it became a bit of free for all with people jockeying for the best position on the ever changing most scenic side of the train. The hills gradually got higher and we could see snow capped mountains in the distance. As we approached Arthur's Pass the train line ran alongside the Bealey River.
We stopped for a while in the station and at that point nearly 100 people left the train, presumably with the intention of exploring the area. The township of Arthur's Pass is 740 metres above sea level and has some good views of the surrounding mountains.
One of the reasons that the train has to stop for a while is that almost immediately after leaving the station the train enters the Otira Tunnel. This is 8.5 kilometres long and inside the track descends at a gradient of 1 in 33 meaning that the town of Otira is 250 metres lower than Arthur's Pass. In order to control the descent two more locomotives join the one that hauled the train from Christchurch. There is also a fan and door system in order to take away any fumes. For this reason the observation car is closed for the whole time that the train is in the tunnel. Otira station was interesting and slightly weird not only was there an old Fiat parked there but also a figure of a monk with one arm laying beside it!
Some of the buildings in the very small town were also extremely colourful. The mountains slowly gave way to hills, and the gorse that was a feature of the eastern side of the range returned. The valleys became wider and we went past a lake and then the line ran alongside the Grey River until we got into the town of Greymouth.
Once we had collected our bags from the luggage car we went to the Avis desk to get our hire car. This took much longer than we expected and we had been upgraded in that they had given us a a four wheel drive vehicle, not something we would normally want to drive but something of a bonus on some of the roads in New Zealand. Given that we had been advised that there weren't any shops near where we were staying we needed to go to the supermarket and get enough food to last us for the three days that we would be there.
The drive up to Punakaiki took us about 35 minutes and we were pretty pleased when we arrived. We had a lovely little cottage which had partial view of the sea, and as if to remind us of its presence it could be heard as a permanent background roar. Once we had settled in we drove the short distance to see the Pancakes Rocks and blowholes. The view was stunning and we had great fun watching the blowholes spouting.
We both felt that it was the most dramatic coastline we had seen since we had been travelling, probably trumping even the great ocean road in Australia. It had been a great day and we relaxed in the evening and had a home cooked risotto for dinner washed down with a glass of wine.