New Zealand’s TransAlpine Train
New Zealand has only 3 long distance rail routes. Nonetheless, they are known for their scenic beauty. Arguably the most impressive is the TransAlpine line running between Christchurch on the east coast across the “Southern Alps” to Greymouth on the west coast. We decided to do this trip as a “day return”, traveling to Greymouth in the morning and back to Christchurch in the afternoon. About a 4 1/2 hour ride each way.
The train leaves Christchurch and travels first over the flat Canterbury plain with its agricultural fields and pastures neatly divided by 20 foot tall hedges. The hedges block the erosive effect of the strong Canterbury winds and provide winter shelter to the sheep and cattle raised in this fertile area. We were struck by the near complete absence of barns in rural New Zealand compared to the US. There were however many rolls of hay protected with plastic wraps being stored until the ranchers need to break them open for their animals’ winter feeding.
As the train climbs into the mountains, it passes more barren landscape. On this, the “dry” side of the range, the plants are short and sparse. The train ran beside a wide river valley fed by glacial melt and carrying silt and rock off the mountains.
As the valley narrowed and the mountains built in height, we went through a series of tunnels and over several high trestle bridges. At one point we went through a tunnel where we were in the dark for 15 minutes. We were told that it was once the longest tunnel in the world and its construction took 15 years to complete.
The cuts and slides in the hillsides revealed shiny silver rock faces.
As we went over Arthur’s Pass, the mountain-sides became densely forested and at times shrouded in clouds. We could see distant peaks with their glaciers still intact.
The train descended into the small, pleasant town of Greymouth. The covered old walkways beside the shops spoke of frequent rain in this seaside location. Though we had a sunny day we had little time to wander before reboarding the train for our scenic encore trip back to Christchurch. On reflection, this was one of our most expensive days in NZ. Going in spring, when snow would be in the mountains, would make it more worth the cost.