I have wanted to try out New Zealand’s TranzAlpine railway between Christchurch and Greymouth for years. Everyone who has taken the journey through the Canterbury Plains and the stunning Southern Alps has raved about it, so it had cemented its place on my ‘must-do’ list a while ago. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to tour New Zealand with Kirra Tours and cross this epic experience off my ever-growing list. Naturally I jumped at the chance, and it didn’t disappoint!
Departing Christchurch station, I peeled off my layers in the toasty carriage and nestled into my window seat. The windows are huge and the glass so clean I felt like I could reach through and touch the countryside whizzing past. There was no need to debate who got the window seat, as the whole carriage offers great views through the panoramic windows.
There are different seat configurations on the train to suit different traveller groups. There are lots of two-seaters facing forward either side of the aisle, and some four-seater spaces where you can face each other with a table in between which is great if you are travelling as a family or in a group. Each seat is equipped with headphones and there are screens throughout the cabin that show the route as it unfolds. The screen will zoom in on different regions as you travel through them and will light up telling you there is audio available, so you know when to don your headphones and tune into the commentary should you choose.
The landscape is quite varied as you travel across the country. Heading out of Christchurch the railway is flanked by rich agricultural land neatly intersected by wooden and wire fences. The Canterbury Plains in early springtime is full of rich green foliage starting to overshadow the winter tones, and I loved watching it unravel before me with a hot coffee in hand from the onboard café. Travelling in spring means we got to see tiny newborn lambs awkwardly jumping through the fields like little cotton balls sprinkled over the vibrant green grass.
About an hour into the journey we reached Springfield where the Southern Alps tower up on the horizon like a wall of jagged rock and snow. This is the time to take up your favourite vantage point, as the next hour and a half between Springfield and Arthurs Pass has some of the most stunning scenery of the trip. For me, my place of choice was the outside viewing carriage where you can hear the roar of the whipping wind and feel the crisp air on your face.
Between Springfield and Arthurs Pass we crossed Waimakariri River gorge, with icy turquoise and aqua blue water churning below the immense viaduct that held us overhead. This is one of four viaducts along this section of rail that showcase stunning views of the streams and valleys below. There are also a series of short tunnels that offer a reprieve from the cold if you are braving the outdoor cabin in the cooler months. Everything abruptly turns pitch black and then just as suddenly the tunnel walls fall away exposing views of the Waimakariri River, dramatic gorges, and deep ravines.
The foliage changes as you climb, from leafy greens to more arid terrain with gnarly trees shrouded by mist and cloud. The scenery will differ depending on the season you travel, each offering its own palette of colours just as impressive as the last. For me, the contrast of turquoise rivers set against grey pebble banks, dark escarpments adorned with deep green foliage, and the orange-brown remnants of a stark winter were just breathtaking.
After a brief stop at Arthur’s Pass we descended through the 8.5km long Otira Tunnel during which time the carriage is lit by interior lights and the observation carriage is closed for safety, as is the onboard café. It is a good idea to grab some snacks beforehand, so you can enjoy them without the risk of missing any scenery outside. As you come out the other side of the tunnel the landscape becomes a bit lusher again as you descend toward Greymouth on the notoriously wet west coast. We wound between mountain passes and riverbeds and snapped the last shots before rolling into Greymouth just in time for lunch.
The TranzAlpine arrives into Greymouth at 1_05pm after a 5-hour journey from Christchurch. The train then spends an hour at the station before turning around and doing the trip in reverse. No matter which direction you take, the TranzAlpine is sure to be a highlight of your New Zealand holiday. It definitely was for me!