The Transalpine Express

Early one Sunday morning we arrived at the deserted station at Darfield, a little town that straddles the railway track on the western side of The Canterbury Plains. We had to hunt for it.  Eventually we found a long concrete platform which was endowed with a sign and a small “bus stop” with graffiti on the dusty window.  We were the only people.  We waited by the side of the long empty track.

At last (bang on time) we spotted the blazing lights of the Transalpine Express crawling slowly towards us from Christchurch.

The engine slid past us until the final carriages were aligned with the platform and stopped. There was a long pause. Then a handsome young man leaned out of a window and waved. “Simon and Ann?” He yelled. We climbed aboard. He radioed the driver. We shunted slowly on our way. The handsome young man with flashing dark Hispanic eyes was called Bruno. As we were the only ones to get on at this stop we had a personal welcome and we were told that the onboard commentary in our carriage was not working. Oh. We could ask to swap seats if we wished. As the carriage was wonderfully peaceful and we were booked to return in the afternoon, we did not worry, but settled down to watch the glories of the Southern Alps pass us by. The rain clouds gathered ahead of us as we rumbled through the tunnels and over the viaducts.

The Transalpine Express is generally regarded as one of the great train journeys of the world. It has been on my bucket list for years. I do love a good train ride, although I am not referring to Greater Anglia or Cross-country – who have a habit of abandoning their passengers at Leicester or not showing up at all due to strike action.

The Transalpine Express leaves Christchurch on the East coast of South Island and travels through 223 Kilometres (139 miles) of plains and mountains to the port of Greymouth on the West Coast, facing the Tasman Sea. It takes four and a half hours to do the journey, then it turns around and comes back again. It crosses some of the most challenging terrain that any train has had to cope with, running easily across the Canterbury Plains, then rising steeply through the ‘Great Divide’ – the indomitable spine of mountains that divides the East from the West. The train passes through 14 short tunnels, over four viaducts including the 82m Staircase Viaduct, through Arthur’s Pass and then through the 8.5km long Otira Tunnel. Up until 1923 (when the Otira tunnel was completed), the journey would take two days in a Cobb & Co horse drawn coach and all the passengers would have to get out at Arthur’s Pass to help push it up the hill.

Cobb & Co carriage

The Otira tunnel was an amazing achievement of its day and consisted of tunnelling to join the rail head at Otira with the one at Arthur’s Pass. The engineers achieved this with only a couple of centimetres difference in the width and height of the tunnels as they joined. This is even more astonishing considering that the Otira end of the tunnel is over 250m (820 ft) lower than the Arthur’s Pass end. The train has to stop to attach an additional engine at both the front and the back before it can enter the tunnel. The girl on the PA system told us that this is just a precaution, but it was necessary to close the café. It was hard not to shudder as we burrowed slowly through the darkness under the mountain.

Timing a trip on the Transalpine is tricky. Weather conditions can never be relied upon. We left the plains in morning sunlight, but by the time we reached Arthur’s pass the rain was pouring down.

The rain came down at Arthur’s Pass

A large number of passengers alighted here with their rucksacks and walking poles. They got very wet just walking off the platform. We stayed in our snug carriage as the wind and rain lashed the windows. The climate on the West Coast of South Island is very wet. It is a rainforest environment. As we slid down towards Lake Bruner we began to see beautiful banks of ferns and waving orange Crocosmia interspersed with Rhododendrons, Agapanthus, Hebe and Hydrangea. Willow often takes over the water margins. Most of these species are not native to New Zealand, but thrive at the expense of the indigenous flora and are classified as weeds.

Wild Crocosmia

At last we pulled into the little station at Greymouth and were obliged to disembark and brave the elements. Most people ride the train one way only, so the tiny hire car office was full to bursting with eager people. The tinier gift shop was also heaving and many nationalities squirmed alongside each other to admire kiwi t-towels, greenstone pendants and lanolin face cream. Even the ladies toilet had a stand of necklaces by the hand dryer with a big sign informing us that cameras were operational (in case we are tempted to pop one in the handbag). Not really sure how a lady was supposed to actually purchase one. Many more frazzled passengers were gathering suitcases and struggling through the rain to find coaches and minibuses for the next leg of their journey.

We ventured out to look at the River Grey, which is very accurately named. We stopped to admire the monument on the riverside which is dedicated to the many miners who have lost their lives in this area. The sculpture was of three miners who looked uncannily like dwarves. I hope it was meant as a compliment.

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