By Doreen Kerby

The “Trans” as it is affectionately known in New Zealand attracts thousands of passengers from around the world. It makes its way across New Zealand’s South Island, from coast to coast. That may sound like a long journey but the distance from Christchurch on the west coast to Greymoutb on the east coast is only 235 kilometres and takes less than five hours to complete. Undoubtedly, this is one of the most scenic train rides in New Zealand, perhaps anywhere in the world.

The “Tranz” has comfortable seats and wide panoramic windows. For those who want to capture the scenery on their cameras, an open viewing platform is provided so nothing obstructs the view. It is noisy and windy but that is a small price to pay to be so close to nature.
The train sets out from Christchurch, also know as the “Garden City”. Travelling west across the patchwork farmland of the Canterbury Plains, small farming towns with names like Kirwee, Darfield and Sheffield flash past and some of New Zealand’s six million sheep graze peacefully in well-kept pastures.
Springfield is the last station before the Southern Alps so from here the train slowly ascends, twisting and turning precariously above the Waimakariri River gorge with its clear deep blue water. Then it proceeds through 16 tunnels and over five major viaducts, the highest having a 70- metre span. Anyone who has travelled the Canadian Rockies will feel quite at home on this 70-kilometer section between Springfield and Arthur’s Pass.

The “Tranz “ does not hurry. Passengers have time to enjoy the beauty and to appreciate the engineering skills that have made this trip possible. At Arthur’s Pass the train stops for 20 minutes so we enjoyed the invigorating mountain air and were fortunate to be entertained by two alpine parrots called Kea (pronounced kee-yah). These birds are only found on the South Island. Hunted mercilessly because they were suspected of killing sheep, their numbers declined to less than 1000 birds. Fortunately, since 1986, they have been protected .

The Kea is similar in size to a pigeon. It has mostly olive-green plumage with a long narrow curved upper beak. When it flies it displays beautiful orange feathers on the underside of its wings and tail.

The Kea’s notorious urge to explore and manipulate makes this bird a pest for residents and an attraction for tourists. Called “the clown of the mountains” it will investigate backpacks, boots, and even cars, often causing damage. They are also mischievous, flying off with unguarded clothing, wallets or passports.

Their curiosity leads them to pry at rubber on cars and tear plastic or leather covers– to the entertainment or annoyance of human observers. They can be very “cheeky” ignoring the car owner who tries to shoo them away.
We hated to leave our entertainment but the train was on its way, leaving Arthur’s Pass, and descending eastward beneath the Southern Alps, through the Otira Tunnel, which opened in 1923. Then it was reputed to be the longest tunnel in the British Empire and the seventh longest in the world. Today it is the third longest in New Zealand. Beyond the tunnel the small town of Otira is set in a narrow valley over-powered by steep rocky cliffs. On a good day sunshine hours are brief; rain or drizzle is the norm. Rusty relics of old steam locomotives and old dwellings are reminiscent of the old days.
As the train emerged from the tunnel we viewed a panorama of lush alpine beech rain forest and brilliant yellow flowers covering the mountain slopes. It was a fabulous trip, eventually passing the Grey River and reaching the little town of Greymouth, the final destination.
The Tranz Alpine journey takes 41/2 hours one way so it is easy to do the round trip in a day. However Greymouth is a great base for points of interest on the east side of the South Island and we still had to see the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Greymouth also turned out to be a great place to shop for Pounamu, jewelry carved in jade, an industry that dates back to the early Maori.

Tranz Alpine Express – 0-800-872467 in New Zealand