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PartnersDecember 2, 2019

Girl on a train: How the TranzAlpine made me at last notice New Zealand


In the third instalment in a three-part series on the Great Journeys of New Zealand, Madeleine Chapman completes her odyssey by travelling from Christchurch to Greymouth (and back) on the TranzAlpine.

Read part two here.

After 20 hours of travelling with an abundance of personal space, someone sat next to me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. We were on the TranzAlpine journey, one of New Zealand’s major tourist attractions and the train was packed. Even in the off-season, New Zealand’s nature stays beautiful.

Our journey would not be quite as anticipated. As happens often in a country sitting directly on top of two fault lines, a slip had buried a portion of the rail line outside Greymouth. The train would take us as far as Arthur’s Pass before transferring to a bus service. That bus drove us by the slip and we watched as men and diggers literally pieced the track together again. (The line reopened on November 21 and the TranzAlpine has now resumed full operations.)

As well as being the busiest of the three journeys, the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth was also the most high-energy. Gone were the lazy hillsides and quiet carriages of the Northern Explorer, and gone was the dense silence next to the ocean on the Coastal Pacific.

At the first glimpse of the Waimakariri River below, its water looking like bubblegum candy, the whole carriage stood for a better view. Passengers from down the train dashed past our seats to access the open-air viewing carriage, their DSLR cameras in tow. We were travelling alongside it, not across it, so there’d be plenty of opportunities to capture its beauty, but unsurprisingly everyone wanted to capture the first one just in case.

The human impulse to capture a moment or location in time will likely remain until the last of us is dead and gone, but never did it look more redundant than on that train journey to Arthur’s Pass. Thousands of photos were taken each time we emerged from a tunnel to an even more stunning view. Thousands of photos that may never be looked at again because the best way to experience the beauty is to just go and see it. And it is beautiful, but also with its moments of white-knuckle exhiliration.

We went across a bridge with barriers on either side, despite there being no pedestrian access. They were there, we were told, to “protect the train and track workers from NorWesterly gales”. We may have figured out how to strangle the planet slowly with plastic over the years but those rails reminded everyone that nature merely needs to sniff at you and you’re done.

But on the other side of the railing was perhaps the most visually striking scenery anyone on the train, myself included, had ever seen. Looking down into the valley, with cliff faces on either side and the sun streaming through the trees just so, it was worth the risk.

It only took a few hours to get to Arthur’s Pass but I was spent. I was used to seeing New Zealand on a miniature scale, the bright blue squiggle of the Waimakariri River appearing on my Instagram feed every summer. But seeing it up close, and realising it still looked better no matter what angle you saw it from, was exhausting.

Transferring to the bus, I was scared to fall asleep when there was so much to see outside the window. Two minutes into the second half of our journey, a third of the bus was snoozing. A woman with “ROTORUA” stitched on her beanie slept the entire way. Behind her, an older woman was taking photos. After ten minutes, I finally glanced over and was face to face with myself. She’d taken half her photos using the front-facing camera. In a month, her adult children will hurriedly collate her holiday photos into a slideshow and in the middle of it will be me, staring out the window with my mouth just a little bit open thanks to my weird jaw alignment.

If travelling is life condensed, it makes sense that we’d sleep through large chunks of it, or not be ready when the big moments arrive, or be ready but not focussed on the right things. There was an air of tension around people, nervous that they’d missed something. When the woman in the Rotorua beanie woke up in Greymouth and her companion told her of all the things she’d slept through, she was unbothered. “I’ll look at it on the way back.”

I took this one! (Image: Madeleine Chapman)

I was in Greymouth.

Technically I’d reached my destination. Auckland to Greymouth via rail (and ferry and bus). I ate a pie and looked at the mountain over the Speight’s Ale House. No one else seemed to notice there was a beautiful maunga literally in Greymouth’s backyard.

When you’re surrounded by beauty all the time, it’s easy to take it for granted because it’s reliable. The trees are always there when I walk to work. Mt Eden isn’t going anywhere soon. There’s no urgency in appreciating it.

I promised myself in Greymouth that I would pay more attention to my surroundings when I got home. I’ll go for nature walks! I’ll take day trips to explore! I’ll do literally anything that’s not hurriedly getting from work to home and back to work! Even as I was making these promises I knew I wouldn’t keep them. Too many things get in the way. It took voluntarily locking myself in the reverse-fishbowl of a train carriage for me to finally pay attention.

Over three days I spent 30 hours travelling from Auckland to Greymouth by train, ferry and bus. I saw hills, mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans, sheep, llama, goats, cows, and a seconds-old calf. Between the sights, I had some of the best naps of my life. On Wednesday night I taxi’d to Christchurch Airport and caught an 85-minute flight back to Auckland. It was fine.

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

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