Day 10: TranzAlpine

Words by Andy | Photos by Chris

Day 10: TranzAlpine

Another early start this morning with a 7:30 cab from our hotel to meet the TranzAlpine scenic train for an 8:15 departure. We’re continuing our journey south on the south island and by some miracle, everyone turned up early, so the train left ahead of schedule.

The train is very comfortable, with reclined seats next to large windows, specially equipped for taking in the views. Admittedly, the first 15 minutes of views included railway yards, warehouses and a slew of light industrial complexes as we exited Christchurch, but the Canterbury Plains soon stretched out around us revealing mile upon mile of farmland hosting sheep, dairy cows and deer, which would explain why venison is so common on menus here.

The colours of the mountains are muted as they first appear, like a watercolour painting you’d expect on a Swiss postcard or those tinned biscuits that seem to appear every Christmas. I couldn’t quite work out whether the marble look on their faces were shadows at play, or striations. On closer inspection, much further down the track, the patterns became more apparent as colours embedded in the rock face: nature’s organic art at work.

The Canterbury Plain feels long and flat, but is actually a big wedge that slowly rises to meet the foothills. Fields of green, striped with hedges and rows of trees acting as wind breaks streak past, and in one patch I noticed a narrow channel of water running parallel to the line that disappeared underground as quickly as it had materialised.


Ascending the alps jaw-dropping views flickered into view between the trees, of rugged mountain ranges, the valleys in between sliced by the rushing blue water of the braided rivers. Braided rivers are a particular type whose islands of gravel continually shift as floods pass through and currents change. This mountain range is actively forming as the Pacific plate moves under the Australian plate, causing the earth to quake (thankfully not while we were moving along the fault line!) and sending more rocks and gravel into the river and eventually out to sea.

The train continues its journey over viaducts, fenced to protect the train and line workers from strong nor-westerly gusts. An eagle flies overhead. We moved through to the observation car at one stage, gawking at the scenery from inside the caged car like monkeys at the zoo, just to add to our experience (and get some photos without the sun’s reflection on the windows).


Anthracite coal was once mined here, and sheep are kept all the way at the top of the ranges. It’s lucky they’re wearing fleeces, is all I’ll add. At the higher altitude the country is quite dry and lined with tussock. The vertical mountain sides are lined with screes, which are riverbed-like formations of small stones that result from the rock contracting and expanding as it freezes. I’m thinking geology is kind if fascinating now- why didn’t they teach this in high school?

New Zealand native mountain beech starts to thicken back up as we reach Arthur’s Pass where the viewing car, toilets and cafe car all close in preparation for the start of our descent through the 8.5 km long Otira tunnel. It’s narrow, and with a 1 in 33 gradient gets a bit rocky in the dark, which warrants its own special safety briefing.

On the Western side of the tunnel different trees emerge, supported by a different microclimate on the other side of the range. Podocarp – a native conifer, and rātā (New Zealand Christmas Tree) fill our downward sloped landscape.

The mountains on this side of the range offer more in the way of greenery, and the train line eventually meets up with the Grey River, following it to our final destination in Greymouth. With just under ten thousand people, scattered around the locality, Greymouth has a friendly country-town feel. We grabbed a bite from a local café and hopped into our new hire car – a Mitzubishi Eclipse which, although another compact SUV, handles really well and is a pretty comfy ride, making the almost three-hour drive to Fox Glacier a bit nicer.


More gorgeous scenery abounded as we drove along Highway 6, the Glacier Highway, playing “spot the snow cap” as one or two peaks appeared to have an early cover of snow, popping in and out of view we rounded tight hairpin curves, moving up and down the mountain side like a seismograph, heading for tonight’s accommodation. Franz Joseph Glacier appeared in the distance, which is a stunning site on approach. It looks almost like a white void, surrounded by clouds. The town itself, although small, appeared to have more going on than where we’re staying in the next town along: Fox Glacier. At last count, Fox Glacier has a total of one eatery, but the food was good. We ate on our way back from the viewing area for Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe and were treated with the changing colours of the glacier, cradled within the Southern Alps, as the sun set. It’s surreal to see a blanket of white between the brown folds of the mountain range next to nearby tall peaks which are covered in snow and blending with adjacent clouds.

Exiting the viewing area we noticed a flock of kea, which is a large native parrot found on the South Island, flying about. We’d seen one on a car as we drove in, but didn’t pay much attention, but now learned they love to peck and tear at the rubber linings of parked cars. Luckily ours wasn’t one of them. I’m not sure how the insurance company would respond to “the birds ate it” on an insurance claim.



On a day of mostly passive activity, we joined a night walk conducted by the manager of the Fox Glacier Lodge. In the nearby bush track the night time attraction is glow worms. As you tread carefully through the darkened forest by the glow of your phone screen to light the way, glow worms sparkle amongst the trees, if you’re clever enough to be far enough away from fellow trampers who don’t quite get the notion that glow worms don’t actually like the light from your phone screen or torch. Glimpses of the night sky were pretty spectacular, too.

Tomorrow we drive to Wanaka

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