The TranzAlpine and a day at Arthur's Pass

Posted by Patrick Lam on Saturday, August 22, 2020

Table Of Contents

Here’s the third part of this South Island trip. Part 1: Heaphy Track. Part 2: penguins, Mount Sunday, and Christchurch. Part 3b: BreakFree on Cashel.

On my list of “things to check for re-opening” was New Zealand railway trips. So when I saw that the TranzAlpine was re-opening for $75 winter fares, I talked MP into a trip from Christchurch. Like the Heaphy, this trip leaves you far away from where you started, and on the wrong side of the Southern Alps. The train is logistically easier because at least you’re in a town, Greymouth. But that town is still remote enough that one can buy a starter home for $95k. The solution here is easier than for the Heaphy though: you just take the train back.

The upside of taking the train in winter: snow-capped Southern Alps. The downside of the $75 fare and the fact that it was winter vacation was that the demographic was very different from when we took VIA Rail’s Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver in November 2011. One would not say that it was a peaceful train ride, although the Cafe car was a respite. The open-air viewing car is also quiet, but chilly. Early sunset is not an issue on this train trip; it gets in a few hours after dark, but it’s dark while crossing the plains.

The plan: take the train to Arthur’s Pass, get off, explore the area and look for keas, stay in the NZAC lodge overnight, and then back on the train, through the 8km tunnel to Greymouth, and back again to Christchurch.

July 12: Not missing the train

Day 0 Gallery

We pre-positioned ourselves at the Tower Junction Motor Lodge the night before, which is 800m away from the train station. As I mentioned last month, I also thought it would be wise to get some food rather than relying on provisions in Arthur’s Pass. I stopped by an Asian grocery store which seemed to be in the middle of a small Chinatown in Riccarton, and then got more food at Pak’N’Save nearby. Also in Christchurch: car and dog wash, self-service. We did have time to stop by the bakery on the way to the train station, and then there was free coffee and tea in the train station.

July 13: Arthur’s Pass

Day 1 Gallery

I found the first part of the mountains past the Canterbury plains to be the most scenic part of the TranzAlpine, i.e. before getting off at Arthur’s Pass, even though we had some better light on the return part. Different perspectives from the observation car can yield quite different pictures.

I thought Arthur’s Pass was small but when we got there we found it was really small. More a hamlet than a village. Wikipedia reports a (year-round, I presume) population of 29. We dragged our stuff up to the lodge the long way around on School Terrace before finding the shortcut the next day. Then I eventually got out for a walk on the Avalanche Peak trail up to treeline. I think the summit would have been doable without ice axe and crampons but it was getting a bit late and I was solo, so maybe next time. It would probably have been about a 6 hour round trip—I would have gotten back a bit after dark. There was also some legit 3rd class terrain at the start of the trail. Definitely a good day for a walk though.

My friend Aaron had mentioned keas in Arthur’s Pass, as does the train commentary. So far, no keas. Maybe there would have been some higher on the mountain. In any case, I got back to the lodge and then we took the Arthur’s Pass track to its end. No Misery for us today. Also no keas.

Back in town we finally saw a kea perching on a building.

July 14: Back to Christchurch via Greymouth

Day 2 Gallery

Back on the train. After the superlatively-long tunnel, the scenery was nice (but the first part was nicer). The train was again crowded. Stopped in Greymouth, had a whitefish sandwich at Sevenpenny. Missed the daily printing press run. Did not go in the Engineers' bar. Pho in Christchurch was very average.

Bonus: Review of the BreakFree on Cashel.

July 15: Wellington via Kaikoura

Day 3 Gallery

I’m not sure why I didn’t book plane tickets from Christchurch back to Wellington, but there were a lot of changes, and the bus is more flexible than the plane. At some point I was planning to drive to Picton, I think. In any case, we had an early bus back to Picton and then changed to an earlier ferry than originally booked (for free!) getting us back to Wellington. There were more snow-capped mountains in Kaikoura, an area that we need to get to sometime.