Justine Tyerman

International Travel

A day on the TranzAlpine

A day on the TranzAlpine

Justine Tyerman survives a tornado on the TranzAlpine ...  

The excitement was at fever pitch as the passengers filed into the spacious carriages of the TranzAlpine train and found their seats beside the huge panoramic windows. On the dot of 8.15am on a bright, cloudless, spring morning, the train glided smoothly out of the station.

The twin diesel locomotives pulling the 10 or so carriages quickly gathered speed as we whizzed through suburban and industrial Christchurch at the start of our five-hour journey from the Pacific Ocean on the east coast of the South Island to the West Coast town of Greymouth on the Tasman Sea. 

The diesel locomotive, one of two, that pull the TranzAlpine.

Most of the passengers were contented to sit in their comfortable seats watching the ever-changing landscape flicker by but I joined a handful of hardy, puffer-jacket-clad photographers who braved the blustery, dusty and decidedly chilly conditions in the open-air observation car at the rear of the train.

Justine wearing many layers in the open-air viewing carriage.

The lack of windows certainly enabled photos to be taken without the impediment of reflective glass but the constant rocking and rolling motion resulted in more than a few blurry shots and random views of my boots and the ceiling. Navigating my way around a forest of selfie sticks without being clonked on the head was another challenge. 

A veteran of many train trips overseas, this was my first such journey in New Zealand and as one of the few Kiwis onboard, I felt inordinately proud of my own land. 

The grass on the Canterbury Plains seemed greener than ever and the lambs even more frolicksome. There were squeals of delight as foals, calves, alpacas and fawns came briefly into view looking impossibly cute in paddocks alongside the train. Were they placed there deliberately to enchant the passengers? If so, it worked.

Giant irrigation lines, some up to a kilometre long, stood ready to pour water onto the pastures as soon as the summer heat set in.

The Main Divide was visible in the distance, a seemingly impenetrable fortress of mountains. We’ve travelled to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass by road a number of times, but after the rural town of Springfield, the TranzAlpine took a completely different route, leaving me feeling quite disorientated.

As the train approached the foothills of the Southern Alps, the stunning aqua-turquoise Waimakariri River came into view to a chorus of ‘wows’ and a frantic scramble for cameras by the overseas passengers.

The train climbed high above the Waimakariri, crossing the river on steel girder viaducts so high I felt dizzy looking down into the gorge. There are 15 short tunnels and four viaducts, including the 72-metre-high Staircase Viaduct, as the TranzAlpine ascends the Torlesse Range

The Waimakariri River far below as the train crosses a viaduct.

The landscape changed again as the train wound its way along the broad upland plains of Craigieburn where the braids of the Waimakariri spread across a wide silver shingle river bed. The alps, so distant at the start, were now almost close enough to touch.

The black-green forested lower reaches of the mountains were a startling contrast to the snowy white peaks and pinnacles above. Lake Pearson sparkled in the spring sunshine and the golden tussocks, tossed by the breeze as the train sped by, were vibrant and glossy. The summit of Mt Bisner looked as though it had been freshly iced, the snow cover was so deep and smooth.

I’d like to have leapt off the train to watch as it crossed the iconic, often-photographed long, low bridge over the glacier-fed Waimakariri, heading towards Arthur’s Pass. It’s such a dramatic sight as it spans the river against the spectacular backdrop of the alps.

Stunning mountain scenery as the train approaches Arthur's Pass.

The TranzAlpine stops briefly at the village of Arthur’s Pass (740m above sea level), a popular hub for serious climbers, hikers, snow sports enthusiasts and nature-lovers. Last time I visited, it was snowing heavily, and the mountain tops were shrouded in mist but on this occasion, the little settlement was basking in the warm sunshine under a cloudless, blue sky.

A handful of fit-looking trampers disembarked at the pass, laden with heavy packs and climbing boots, no doubt heading into the mountainous national park to engage in rugged outdoor activities. I was sorely tempted to join them.

The hiking and climbing trails there are epic. There’s also a backcountry ski field nearby, Temple Basin, where I skied in my younger days. The field is largely unchanged today with ungroomed slopes, three rope tows and a cosy lodge.

The timely appearance of a couple of kea, New Zealand’s comical alpine parrot, created a frenzy of selfie sticks among the overseas passengers. Little did they know how mischievous these entertaining birds can be. Many a sandwich has been tweaked out of my hand by a sly kea. They’re also particularly partial to the rubber on windscreen wipers and ski racks.

The next phase of the trip took us through the 8.5km Otira Tunnel under the Southern Alps, the backbone of the South Island. The tunnel, completed in 1923, was the final stage of the TranzAlpine railway which began in the 1880s. When it opened, it was the longest rail tunnel in the British Empire and one of the longest in the world.

The outdoor viewing carriage and café car were closed as a safety precaution as the train slowly descended from the pass at a steep gradient of 1:33. I wish I’d made it to the café beforehand because the tunnel was the only time during the five-hour trip that I could prise my eyes away from the stunning scenery.

Emerging from darkness into light, we found ourselves in a different world. The West Coast never fails to intrigue with its misty rainforests and snow-capped mountains. The train travelled alongside the Otira, Taramakau, Arnold and Grey Rivers as we made our way towards the Tasman Sea, trundling through towns with colourful pasts that sprang up overnight in the gold rush of the 1860s, and other settlements associated with timber milling, coal mining, the Cobb and Co stagecoach and the construction of the road, railway and tunnel.

As we passed through Otira, population 45, I happened to be taking a rare break from the viewing car, sitting in my luxurious seat listening to the excellent commentary. Former railway-workers’ houses were lined up neatly along the roadside. They were a hardy lot to live and work in a region with five metres of rain a year and only a few hours of sunshine in the winter.

I chuckled as I heard about the ingenious way the local policeman dealt with thefts of coal from the railyards at Otira. He devised small explosives, painted them black, hid them among the coal bins at the station, and when a chimney blew up, he went to the house and arrested the culprits, no doubt caught black-handed.

That was the only disadvantage of the perfect weather. I missed 95 percent of the commentary because I was outside in the viewing car most of the time.

We skirted lovely Lake Brunner, tranquil and sombre under the slate sky, and the village of Moana with its quaint Kiwi baches. The previous summer we had camped there and spotted the rare whio or blue duck in a tributary. The fishing and walking trails are outstanding, well worth a stopover. You can catch the TranzAlpine on to Greymouth or back to Christchurch the next day … or whenever you are ready.

The terrain opens out from Lake Brunner and after a sharp left turn at Stillwater, the train travels along the Grey River into Greymouth … just in time for the lunch I missed while ogling the scenery.

The TranzAlpine at Greymouth Railway Station.

Far from grey, the West Coast’s largest city was bathed in sunshine so after a quick snack and a cool beer at the historic Speight’s Ale House, I strolled along the river bank walkway making mental notes of future hikes and bike trips. I stopped at a beautiful riverside memorial to pay tribute to the coal miners who have lost their lives in a series of disasters in the region: 1896, Brunner mine, 65 dead; 1926, Dobson mine, nine dead; 1967, Strongman mine, 19 dead; 2010, Pike River mine, 29 dead. I vividly remember the Pike River tragedy which is still fresh in the minds of all West Coasters.

The memorial at Greymouth to the coal miners who lost their lives in mines on the West Coast.

A plaque near the train station tells the story of the 1864 goldrush which attracted 29,000 miners to the region and saw three million ounces of gold extracted.

The text also reminds New Zealanders:

“Our gold financed this country’s growth. Westland’s coal fired the furnaces that industrialised New Zealand and our timber helped build the nation.”

Greymouth is an ideal place to purchase pounamu, also known as New Zealand jade or greenstone. Found in many places on the West Coast, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site known in Maori as Te Wahipounamu, the Place of Greenstone, it is treasured for its spiritual significance, strength, durability and beauty.

Most of my fellow passengers headed off to explore the magnificent West Coast glaciers and beaches while I reboarded the TranzAlpine an hour later for what I expected to be a slightly more relaxed return trip seated in my comfy armchair.

But the landscape, transformed by the long shadows of late afternoon and a dazzling sunset in the evening, demanded that I return to the viewing car for another blustery episode, dashing from one side to the other to get the best views. But this time I was almost alone, thanks to the near-zero wind chill.

And I did find time for a pinot noir with tasty lamb shanks for dinner.

My husband, who met me at the station, expressed surprise at my red cheeks, dishevelled appearance, double puffer jackets, gloves and woolly hat, assuming I’d spent the day in the lap of luxury sipping bubbly and dining on fine food while languidly gazing at the scenery through the panoramic windows.

“You look like you’ve been in a tornado,” he said.

“Yes, nine or 10 hours standing in an outside carriage of a train travelling at around 100km per hour can have that effect,” I replied.

“No seats left inside then?” he asked.

“Plenty … comfy, warm, luxurious, big panoramic windows, great commentary.”

He just shook his head …

Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Rail Plus international rail specialists, and Great Journeys of New Zealand. 


    • The TranzAlpine scenic train trip is a daily return service in New Zealand’s South Island between Christchurch on the East Coast and Greymouth on the West Coast, or vice versa, covering a distance of 223 kilometres in just under five hours.
    • Visit www.railplus.co.nz/new-zealand-by-rail/tranzalpine/prices-book.htm
    • for more information on this and other epic train adventures around the world, or phone 09 377 5420
    • A veteran of many rail journeys organised through Rail Plus, I’ve also travelled on the Indian Pacific; the Bernina Express, the Golden Pass and Jungfraujoch.
    • Rail Plus has a dedicated team of experts to advise you on Great Train Journeys all around the world including the famous Orient Express.
    • The magnificent Snow Train to the Rockies is next on my list.