Thursday, April 12, 2018

South Island: East Coast to West Coast

After two nights in Christchurch, we caught the NZ Rail to head to the other side of the island. The train route is called the "TranzAlpine," aptly named because it crosses the mountain range called the Southern Alps. It was a gray and chilly morning when we left...not the best for a sightseeing train ride.

The train is very comfortable with large viewing windows, a cafe car and a viewing car (an outside venue for picture taking. It was very full for the trip which first takes you over lots and lots and lots of the Canterbury Plains – the largest area of food and dairy production in New Zealand. Lots of cows, some sheep, deer (for venison) and even alpacas were seen on the trip across the plains. Slowly the train started its ascent through the mountains. Though cold and drizzly, the many gorges from mountain rivers were deep and awe inspiring...especially from the train going over narrow cuts and bridges. Looking straight down just a few feet away was kind of "exciting."

We stopped at "Arthur's Pass," one of the cuts through the mountain range. The stories of how these passes were surveyed and then made are the tales of explorers. The train provides a great audio commentary throughout the trip giving a good history lesson.

Once over the pass, the sky started to clear after going through an eight kilometer tunnel. Which, when opened, was the 8th longest in the world. Now it is 45th. They added three engines to the train as a safety measure when going through the tunnel. Because of the narrow tunnel and rock dust that kicks up even at a very slow pace, they close the viewing car and cafe car for this portion of the trip.

Once through it was nice to see the sun, as we passed Lake Brunner, several rivers, mining sites and made our way by a changing scenery on this side of the range. We made it to Greymouth, our destination and final stop for this train.

Greymouth is a small mining and lumbering town. Though both industries have declined, with mining being pretty much over. That also means that the port here, used for delivering those two products is not active. It is right on the Tasman Sea, at 42 degrees south. Even on calm days, the seas seemed rough.

Greymouth is now more of a tourist town with lots of hotels and motels and little shops. We stayed at Sceniclands Motel and it was very nice – just a few blocks away to the water. Bronwyn, the hotel manager was exceedingly helpful and suggested a place to get a less expensive rental car along with a few things to see and do. We did end up renting a car for the few days we were there and made our way up to "Pancake Rocks." These are named for the rock formations that look like stacks of pancakes. It was a beautiful walk and the views were great. If tide was higher or the seas rougher, we would have been treated to a magnificent show of water through the many blowholes in the rocks. Our day was sunny and the seas calm and tide was at its lowest. Oh was pretty impressive nonetheless.

The highlight of our visit to Greymouth, was a trek at the DOC "Wood Creek" reserve. This was a slow drive over some gravelly and hilly roads to get back into the area that few locals seemed to even know about. Bronwyn at the hotel suggested it. The trek itself wasn't very long but it was very interesting. This was a gold mining area so the park had many man-made sluices, tunnels and gorges. Caves and tunnels could be seen everywhere in the bush and there were deep and very narrow, straight gorges built by hand piling stone upon stone. Now these stones are covered in moss and greenery. The whole area just drips in dampness. As with all DOC areas we've been to, this one is very well maintained. Lots of bridges and steps help in getting around the trail. We went into a very long tunnel where you could still see the pick marks that helped carve the tunnel out of the rock. Plus it was great to see some fantail birds and ground birds – wetas.

A brewery tour was also in order as one of the small craft style breweries is in Greymouth – Monteiths. The deal was great – you pay for the tour but get to drink as much beer as the tour costs!

We left Greymouth on a very dismal day – gale force winds, cold temps and rain – all coming from the southwest (aka Antarctica). Unfortunately the train station has a very tiny inside waiting room so we found a coffee shop and then the library as a waiting area!

The trip back over the mountains was very different from the one heading west. Same route but a dramatically changed landscape. Snow had hit the mountains. It was still snowing in areas as we made our way through the Southern Alps. It was beautiful to see and the train was empty enough – we could each have window seats! Even the Canterbury Plains were getting snow – something that is not seen often and had never happened in April (or so we were told).

Upon arrival back in Christchurch, it was still very very cold and wet. Throughout the night and into the next morning there were consistent hail storms and lots of wind. Auckland on the North Island had serious damage – in fact closing the airport for several hours with 150 km winds.

Next leg – the drive begins heading further south.

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