It’s not the fastest or most luxurious railroad in the world, but the TranzAlpine Express is certainly one of the most scenic. Slicing across the South Island of New Zealand, the 260-km rail line travels from the wild, rocky, glacier-studded West Coast of the island to the pastoral, rolling green hills of the east. In between are the Southern Alps – Lord of the Ring Country -- a stark landscape of jagged snowcapped peaks and strange rock formations that’s been a backdrop for the Lord of the Rings and Nardia films.
To traverse these rugged mountains, the train hugs riverbanks through narrow canyons and gorges, burrows through 19 tunnels, and rattles across high bridges and trestles. Incredible scenic vistas fly by and are gone in a second. But no worries, there’s another panorama just around the next bend.
As gorgeous as the scenery is, the main reason to take the train is that it links the two very different coasts of New Zealand’s South Island and is a perfect gateway to the wonders of this magic place.
New Zealand is roughly the same size as the state of Colorado, but stretched out into two long, thin islands. There are only 4 million humans living here, but they share the green land with 40 million sheep and 5 million cows. Most people arrive on the South Island (the wilder and more spectacular of the two) via Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city. And its most tragic.
Two earthquakes last year devastated this lovely city and a third good-sized quake hit as recently as December 22, 2011. The city experiences small quakes on an almost daily basis, and 10,000 people have found the strain too much and left town.
Strangely, only the downtown core of the city was damaged in the major quakes – the airport and suburbs show almost no signs of destruction.
But the downtown core was hit hard. The force was equal to 60 atomic bombs. Some 1,200 buildings were either destroyed or so damaged they will have to be torn down and 182 people were killed. The whole central city, called “the Red Zone” is fenced off and will have to be demolished. It includes the town hall, the convention center, sports arena and some 20 hotels. Today, it looks much like an abandoned urban area from a zombie film.
Despite the quakes, Christchurch is coming back. Around the edges of the downtown core, they have already built an amazing new “pop up” city – in truck containers. Dozens of 50-foot long steel truck containers have been stacked on top of each other. They are painted a palette of bright colors with large picture windows and serve as banks and bookstores, coffee shops and grocery stores. Mayor Bob Barker speaks for the city’s spirit, stating that Christchurch not only intends to rebuild (a 10-year, $30 billion project) but the city will become a model for the 21st Century as a green and sustainable, low-rise urban oasis – “a city in a garden” filled with bike paths and pedestrian areas. Maybe. But first those quakes are going to have to quiet down. In the meantime, Christchurch is still a fascinating tourist stop. Many major attractions survived and are open, including their gorgeous Botanic Gardens, punting on the River Avon, and the famous Canterbury Museum (with its town crier ringing a bell out front). Combined with the new “pop up” city, Christchurch is worth a visit, but accommodations are tight so you need a reservation in advance.
From Christchurch, the 14-car, light blue train speeds along the Canterbury plains, flashing by green fields of sheep and cattle, until it reaches the foothills and begins the long, slow, twisting climb up river canyons into the jagged Southern Alps. The literal high point of the trip is Arthur’s Pass, where the train enters the 8,554-meter long Otira Tunnel, the longest tunnel in both the British Empire and the Southern Hemisphere.
From here it’s a long glide back down the mountains – the perfect place to grab a local Southern Island Speight’s ale, and listen to the soothing clickty-clack of the rails as the unending scenery rolls by.
Speight’s is typical of New Zealand’s “major” brewery products. NZ is big beer country, but 90% of it is pretty standard lagers and ales. On the South Island, Monteith’s and Speight’s are the big locals. Tui (named after a local bird) is a 120-year old brewery that has taken on a hip, new, sexy image with ads like this www.youtube.com/watch?v=dn7u5XvupSU. They do a fine East India Pale Ale, and if you can get a Tui, take it. There are a number of microbreweries producing IPAs and stouts, such as Epic Brewing, but they’re even harder to find.
The Wild and Wooly West Coast
The adventure begins on a rainforest trail that soon opens into a rock-studded moraine, waterfalls cascading down beside you. After a long climb, you are up on the river of ice itself, an out-of-this-world experience. Your guide will cut stairs into the glacier with an ice axe, helping you scramble up and down crevasses, enter caves of blue ice, and ascend to viewpoints. People must be in moderately good shape to do the trek, but no special skills are required and the guides will soon have you proficient enough with crampons to walk along ledges and ice cliffs you would never have dreamed of doing an hour earlier. For even more thrills, Fox and Franz Josef Heliservices offers rides in four and six-passenger helicopters that soar above the glaciers and land on snowfields, high up in the alps. The copters are a bit claustrophobic, (asked which was less claustrophobic, the four-passenger or six-passenger, the guide said, “Oh, they’re equally claustrophobic). But no worries -- the views soon take your mind off the thousand foot drops below.
Franz Josef is a great little town with a couple of neat pubs and glacier hot pools to soak in after the hike. Te Waonui Forest Retreat is surrounded by native rainforest. In the small one-street town, Speights Landing Bar has a fireplace, deck and local crowd. The Monsoon Bar is another cozy place, in the rainforest with a fireplace and young crowd.
To the north of Greymouth, literally hugging the West Coast, is Hwy. 6, which Lonely Planet calls one of the “Top 10 drives of the world.” The snaking road parallels the coast of Punakaiki, cutting along a landscape of rainforest, jagged rock beaches, caverns with glowworms and strange geologic formations. Papaora National Park has many great walking trails, including those to Pancake Rocks, limestone boulders formed 30 million years ago that have been sculpted by pounding seas and rain into fantastic formations. There’s not much here in the way of towns (only 20,000 people live on the entire West Coast) but you could spend a lot of time walking the beach and exploring trails and rocks. Punakaiki Resort is a great place to stay, literally on the beach within walking distance of Pancake Rocks.
The Peaceful East Coast
You can return to Christchurch by train, bus or rental car. If by car, the town of Arthur’s Pass would be worth planning a stop for a hike to the gigantic waterfalls you can see from the road. Also Castle Hill, another Lord of the Rings filming site, looked fantastic from the road.
Back in Christchurch, for a completely different experience, venture 80 minutes east out to the green, rolling hills of Banks Peninsula. The peninsula was formed by the violent eruption of two volcanoes millions of years ago. The sea eventually worked its way into the volcano cones, forming protected, tranquil bays surrounded by high cliffs. The first European to see this picturesque bay was Captain Cook in 1770.
The French recognized its beauty and in 1840 started the only French colony in New Zealand, the town of Akaroa. Today, Akaroa maintains many French traditions and has the look of a village on the French Riviera with palm trees, seaside outdoor cafes, and flowers. The tricolor French flag flies on everything from B&Bs to bakeries and there is a great section of fine dining restaurants, including tapas at Vangionis Trattoria & Bar and European influenced dishes at Ma Maison.
The road stops in Akaroa, giving the town a backwater, end of the world quietness, but there’s plenty of adventure. You can swim with the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin – the Hector – and see seals and penguins on harbor cruises. There are many trails around the rocky coastline, or for a unique experience, accompany the local postman as he delivers mail to remote sheep farms.
It’s a peaceful opposite to wild West Coast. Riding the TranzAlpine, in a matter of hours you experience landscapes resembling Ireland, Switzerland, Scotland, France and Hawaii. Which can mean only one thing – you’re in New Zealand.
IF YOU GO: For West Coast tours: http://www.keatours.co.nz/ or http://www.westcoastnz.com/ ; for the train: http://www.tranzscenic.co.nz/; for East Coast: http://www.christchurchnz.com/ and http://www.akaroa.co.nz/
Tramping Around WellingtonLonely Planet called Wellington the “coolest capital city in the world,” an accolade the town loved so much, they made it their official slogan. And why not? New Zealand’s capital city is a pretty cool place, and the 300,000 people who live here know it. More than a quarter of them walk or bike to work, many along a spectacular 2-mile long waterfront walkway that is lined with pubs offering views of boats, mountains and the skyline. Come 5 p.m., it’s almost dangerous strolling here as the wide walkway is packed with hundreds of bikers, joggers, roller skaters, and commuters heading home, while the harbor is filled with sailboats and rowing crews. It’s standing room only at the outdoor pubs on a sunny day.