Home > New Zealand > TranzAlpine Express, from Christchurch to Greymouth by train with Charlie and Rambo

TranzAlpine

Foiled in our efforts to reach Arthurs Pass by road, an alternative presented itself - the TranzAlpine. I had been promised by fellow travellers, Kiwis and train buffs alike that it was one of the finest rail journeys in the world, crossing through the peaks and valleys of the Southern Alps and spanning the entire width of the South Island, from Christchurch to Greymouth. Yawning and rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we boarded the train at Christchurch for a sprightly 9am departure, grabbed a four-seater table and spreading out the newspapers, snacks and cups of tea around the place, we made ourselves comfortable for the day as we began our journey through the Canterbury Plains. Narrating our journey was Charlie, who having grown up in the area, took great pleasure regaling his passengers with snippets of intriguing tales and personal anecdotes of the places along our journey. Smoothly chugging through the flat plains of farmsteads, sipping my tea carefully to avoid third degree burns, a station platform bearing the name of Rolleston swept by.

“Myself and my good wife used to live here, some years ago, and now every year on our anniversary we come back. You see, we had been out gardening one afternoon and somehow my wife’s wedding ring slipped off. We looked all over, hunted everywhere, but couldn’t find that five diamond studded ring anywhere. So every year we come back to Rolleston, and search for my wife’s wedding ring.” Charlie told the tale with a light comedic touch, and there seemed to be something romantic, albeit tragic about the pair of them spending their wedding anniversaries searching in vain for a small fortune.

The scenery was for the most, undistinguished all the way to Springfield, the town lost in a low lying mist at over a thousand feet altitude. Despite the Canterbury Plains seeming to be flat, a gradual gradient rises all the way from Christchurch to the Southern Alps, created by the shingle deposited from the mountains by the Waimakariri River. Crossing the first of many bridges and viaducts, the original tattered swingbridge remained, its ropes and wooden pathway in tatters, having been blown apart by the ferocious winds that whistle through these mountain ranges. Charlie reminded us of the journeys made by the stagecoaches through these treacherous alpine passes, crossing hundred metre ravines along shaky bridges and hair-pin mountain passes. In search of rich gold seams,  miners would often make this journey on horse drawn stagecoaches, a form of transport that was still, remarkably, being used until well into the twentieth century.

Crossing the deepest gorges of the Staicase Viaduct, the bridge spanned 149 metres, and when it was built in 1906 had been an engineering marvel if its day. It was no less impressive as we crossed the white water rapids of the ravine. Despite the beech forests, the landscape from our panoramic windows was often barren caused, it was explained by natural deforestation and the Maori land clearances as they hunted amongst the last refuge of the great Moa birds.

Surrounded by remote mountain valleys amidst the white clouds stood the tiny lost town of Cass. A series of ridges in the landscape identified the the geological progress of the ice ages. Charlie, deftly hopped from geography to the social history of this once thriving railway town. It seems impossible to imagine now, with only a few buildings in ruins, and the rest destroyed, but Cass once had a population of around eight hundred. Today all that’s left is a ‘ghost town’, its inhabitants having long since moved on to somewhere a little less remote and barren. All, that is, except for one man. A serious game hunter, Barry is the only remaining inhabitant of Cass. More commonly known as ‘Rambo’, Barry spends his days isolated from the world, tracking and hunting, content it seems, to leave the twenty-first century behind and live in isolation. “That is, except for one day a year when the blokes from the railway who work on the TranzAlpine come to Cass for the annual cricket tournament, enjoy a few beers and then leave Barry alone again for another year.”

A lonely letterbox next to a gate revealed the entrance to an enormous sheep and cattle station in Waito. Such was the vast scale of its land, the gate stood an entire seventy kilometres from the house. It was a long way to collect the bills and newspaper and Charlie answered my question without having need to be asked, “no, they don’t collect the post each morning.”

Scribbling frantically in my journal to keep up with Charlie’s entertaining commentary, the train approached Bealey Bridge. Opposite the wide expanse of river stood a solitary, but rather grand old building. “Out the window, you’ll see Bealey Hotel, one of many stage coaching inns that serviced travellers crossing between the east and west coasts. There didn’t used to be a bridge here, and the canny hotel owner used to charge coaches and cars a dollar to pull them across the river. If they refused to pay, and got themselves stuck crossing the waters, he’d charge them five dollars to rescue them!” The manager of Bealey Hotel wasn’t the only canny entrepeneur to milk an opportunity. During the 1920’s, at nearby Paddy’s Hotel, the hotel manager claimed to have sighted a Moa bird whilst out walking one afternoon. No mean feat since the bird had been extinct since the late seventeenth century. Fortunantly for his business, this small fact didn’t deter the crowds that came travelling to catch a glimpse of this long-lost creature and it was many years before visitors realized that their leg had been well and truly pulled. In which time, the owner of Paddy’s Hotel had lined his pockets and in honour of his financial golden egg, had installed a lifesize statue of a Moa bird in front of his hotel.

The name ‘Arthurs Pass’ derives from the man who discovered this very route that the TranzAlpine continues to follow today. The surveyor of the surrounding area set his two sons the challenge of finding the most navigatable route between Christchurch and Greymouth, which contained a rich seam of gold, and more recently high quality bitmus coal. Arthurs route was judged to be most successful, despite travelling through Deception Valley, seemingly easy to cross yet problematic because of the unlikely named Goats Pass, a sheer bluff and natural barrier blocking the way.

Approaching the settlement of Arthurs Pass, beech forest and towering mountains made for a stunning vista. Below, orange moss grew voraciously over the surrounding rail track. We stopped for a few minutes and I left the train to stretch my legs, and take an obligatory photo. We didn’t pause long however, and within a few minutes we were on our way again, continuing to Greymouth on the west coast.

For the first time in our journey the TranzAlpine began to descend as we passed through a tunnel measuring eight and a half kilometres long. It had taken fifteen long years to bore through the face of the moutain, finally opening in 1923. The tunnel was so cold and inhospitable that passing stagecoaches used to time their journey until after the steam train had travelled through, thawing the stalactites from the roof. Clattering through the darkness, the light was almost blinding as we re-emerged from the heart of the mountain, stopping briefly at the town of Otira. Another ghost-town, Otira had been virtually destroyed by the electrification of the track, leaving its population of rail workers redundant. Standing virtually empty for many years, the pub and with it the entire town had been purchased recently by an enterprising soul for the modest sum of $70,000. Since then, its buildings have been renovated amidst a national campaign to repopulate the town. One of the houses has been bought by a New Zealand painter, who has converted the former social house into an art gallery. Though how many intrepid art aficionados make the long trip to view his paintings remains unknown. As we passed through the old town, many of its buildings were still derelict, sheep roaming around the ruins of the burnt out husks that were once peoples homes. A few years back, Charlie explained that he had almost applied for the position of Otira’s Station Master, only to be informed by his wife in no uncertain terms that “if you’re going to be Station Master at Otira, you’re going to be a single man!”

Needless to say, Charlie never applied for the job.

Intersecting the road, we passed Jackson’s Inn, famed for its menu, and in particular its ‘possum pie‘. If only we’d had the car we could have stopped for a piping hot deep-cut pastry pie, served up Desperate Dan style and topped  with a furry tail. New Zealand’s possums were originally imported for their fur and meat, but this was one of the few places in New Zealand that actually serves possum meat. Its not like they’re endangered, there’s almost a hundred million of the buggers. I can only imagine that the bush-tailed possum does not make a tasty meal, but then a healthy dollop of tomato sauce can perform wonders…

Straddling the great tectonic plates, mountains gave way to flat pastures of dairy farms flanked by forested hills. Approaching Lake Moana, it’s waters were surrounded by boggy swampland fringed by mountain cabbage trees and spider nurseries wrapped around tall plants. Poor Charlie recalled how, as a boy, he had tripped and fell head-first into a spiders’ web, received a face full of spiders. Deftly moving on from his personal traumu, our narrator pointed out a dam across the river that still generates 35,000 kilowatts towards the country’s electricity grid. “Used to be enough power for the whole of Greymouth when it was built in the 1930’s, now it would be lucky to provide enough electricity for a teenage girls bedroom!“ Was there no genre this man couldn’t tackle, geography, social history, family anecdotes, comedy and tragedy…

Derelict buildings scattered amongst the hills provided a glimpse of the great industrial heartland that once stood on the outskirts of Greymouth, providing labour for the 130 coal mines, whose chimneys had long since puffed their last column of smoke. Until very recently, one local mine had been powered by a pair of World War One U-boat engines, the spoils of war turned to a practical use in a typical act of pioneering ingenuity. Much to Charlie’s dismay the local council had, in an act of unforgivable vandalism, decommissioned and melted them down. In replacing the U-boat engines with modern generators, I had to agree with Charlie that their only success had been in making the world a slightly less colourful and interesting place.

12/03/2008

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