Girl on a train: to the edge of the world on the Interislander and Coastal Pacific

In the second instalment in a three-part series on the Great Journeys of New Zealand, Madeleine Chapman travels from Wellington to Christchurch on the Interislander and Coastal Pacific.

Read part one here

The young man behind the counter on the Interislander laughed at me when I asked for a glass of red wine. He turned to his coworker, said “red wine”, and they both laughed.

I watched them, waiting for an explanation.

“Today’s a red wine day,” he said. “As soon as people see someone else with a drink, they order the same thing. Yesterday it was ginger beer, today it’s red wine.”

I made as if to protest then realised that he was right. I’d seen a woman with a glass of red wine which had reminded me that I should make the most of the complimentary drinks in the Interislander Plus Lounge. When I looked around at the few glasses on tables, the majority of them held red wine.

It was apparently some sort of social psychology effect in action. Humans as sheep, following the next person for fear of causing some sort of disruption or error.

As I walked back to my seat, an older gentleman passed me on his way to the bar.

“A red wine, please.”

The young man behind the counter laughed again. It was 9:30am.

Cruising south on the Interislander (image: supplied).

After my 11-hour train journey on Saturday, Monday’s three-hour ferry ride across Cook Strait was a breeze (it was very windy). Travelling on the Interislander is less a commute and more walking into someone’s lounge in Wellington, sitting on a couch, then three hours later walking out of that lounge in Picton. Was Dorothy commuting when her whole house was transported from Kansas to Oz? Exactly.

Except not many lounges I know of have a moving view of the Marlborough Sounds. Sailing (to the other side) through the valleys, it felt like we were far, far away from New Zealand. New Zealand, according to my weekend journey, was a country of beautiful rolling greens, a lot of sheep, and stunning bridges. Where did these tropical island-looking sounds come from? It was disconcerting to see the scenery change from city to deep serenity in the space of an hour. And yes, as I do every time I take the ferry, I did look up houses for sale in the Marlborough Sounds and contemplate a career change.

Me and my new neighbourhood (Image: Madeleine Chapman)

The seas were glass and the sun was out (again, incredibly) and we slid across the strait so quickly I only had time for one glass of wine and two servings of hash browns. We docked in Picton at lunchtime and it took five minutes of walking to reach the town centre.

I was once again reminded how inconveniently placed airports are in every city. I boarded a train in downtown Auckland and disembarked in downtown Wellington, then boarded the ferry in downtown Wellington and disembarked in the middle of Picton. I was managing to operate completely outside of cars and roads and it was magnificent.

I had an hour to spare before my next train trip (departing from, you guessed it, downtown) so I did the two most natural things in the world. First, I got fish and chips for lunch and ate it outside. It was lunchtime, it was sunny, and I could see the water. I was legally obliged to eat fish and chips. Second, I visited the local secondhand bookstore and, after much browsing of the latest critical darlings, bought Sushi For Beginners by Marian Keyes.

Having lived only in the North Island and therefore been completely dismissive of the South Island my whole life, the words “Picton to Christchurch train” meant nothing to me. Thankfully, The Great Journeys of New Zealand managed to capture everything in the journey name: Coastal Pacific. In other words, I’d be gazing at the Pacific Ocean for just over five hours.

I have relatives that live in Nebraska, the literal middle of America, and they’ve never seen the ocean. To a lot of people, looking at the ocean is like looking at the Grand Canyon; a terrifying, expansive wonder. But to me, looking at the ocean is just looking at the place I go to experience numb privates. I needed to open my mind to appreciate something I’d been spoiled with, and I set the tone by rereading a rom-com novel I’d read as a 14-year-old.

The Coastal Pacific train crosses the Kahutara River (image: supplied).

The train left on time and was exactly the same vehicle as the Northern Explorer. Same windows, same viewing platform, same seniors tour group, same Val Olyphant. But while the train was familiar, the track it travelled on was new.

When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck 60 km south-west of Kaikōura in November 2016, entire sections of the Main North Rail Line between Picton and Christchurch were buried under massive slips. Other parts of the rail line had been uplifted and shifted towards the ocean. The damage was severe, and conservative estimates placed the Coastal Pacific voyage out of action for at least a few years. Ten months later, freight lines started up again, and in December 2018, the Coastal Pacific ran for just the summer. It’s now running from September to April every year.

It wasn’t sunny anymore. The greens, blues, and whites of the North Island journey had been replaced by browns and greys of the South Island’s geology as we made our way towards, and then along the coast.

What is there to say about the Pacific Ocean? It’s huge. Trundling along in a relatively tiny train carriage and looking out the window, all I could see was water. Because of the overcast day, there was barely a horizon. It felt like we were tiptoeing along the edge of the world which, in a sense, we were.

Kaikoura being rebuilt (Image: Madeleine Chapman)

As we neared Kaikōura, more colours were added to nature’s palette. Yellow, red, orange, silver, all hi-vis. Work was still being done around the tracks, with a seawall almost completed and looking like something out of Minecraft. There’s something surreal about seeing human attempts to stand up against nature. It’s impressive – the seawall was huge and strangely beautiful in its symmetry next to the choppy ocean and craggy cliff face – but can only do so much. On either side, far greater forces are at play.

My day had begun in Wellington, the capital city bustling as people from all backgrounds and status made their way to work. Over ten hours, that landscape would become water, then a miniature Wellington in Picton, then a town recovering in Kaikōura, and finally a city recovering (again) in Christchurch. It was clear to see the changes across those hours: the roads thinning and hills flattening. Changes I’d never noticed every time I inevitably slept through a plane flight.

As we pulled into Christchurch, the signposts of regular proportions returned; houses, buildings, cars. I got off the train and walked down a suburban street where the biggest thing to look at was a two-storey house. Looking at an endless ocean off the edge of the world for hours will make anyone feel insignificant. Stepping over snails and twigs on the footpath, it felt good to be big again.

Read part three here – Girl on a train: How the TranzAlpine made me at last notice New Zealand

This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwirail. Learn more about our partnerships here


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