We took the bus from Punakaiki to Greymouth, where we boarded the Tranzalpine Express from Greymouth to Christchurch, from the west coast to the east coast. For the fans of Lord of the Rings, the line crosses a few places where the films were made.
New Zealand has three passenger train lines. The Tranzalpine Express and the Coastal Pacific on the South Island and the Northern Explorer on the North Island.
The Tranzalpine Express is a beautiful train. We sat in a “scenic coach” which gave us spectacular views of the landscape.
The train passed through the Arnold River Valley and along the banks of Lake Brunner. We drove through mountain valleys and broad riverbeds. Once we had passed through the Otira Tunnel (which is over 8km long), the landscape began to change. We had left the West Coast Region but had not yet arrived at the Canterbury Plains outside of Christchurch.
We stopped at Arthur’s Pass. It is a small town, roughly at the mid-point of the journey. From here to the next stop, Springfield, the journey is spectacular. We passed through many tunnels and crossed four long and high viaducts. We felt as if we were floating in the air.
In Springfield, we left the Alpine region. The descent is quite remarkable.
About 60km outside of Christchurch, the landscape becomes flatter and more agricultural. The Canterbury Plains are one of New Zealand’s main farming areas.
The TranzAlpine is one of the world’s greatest train journeys. The distance is over 200 kilometres, and it takes just under 5 hours. We were not bored by the constantly changing and beautiful landscape. The carriage was calm and quiet, people whispered. Everybody just looked out, too afraid to miss something.
Welcome to Christchurch
We only spent 1.5 days in Christchurch. It was a stopover to change for the trip to Kaikoura. So, we just concentrated on the old town.
Reality catches up with you in Christchurch. The destruction after the 2011 earthquake was still quite visible, even 8 years later, in 2019. The buildings that are now being constructed are earthquake-proof.
Quake City is a museum that tells the story of what happened and also provides a good education on how to prepare for earthquakes and explains the science of earthquakes. Christchurch still suffers from a certain trauma after the quake. People are very silent when they go to the earthquake museum. Everybody speaks in very hushed tones to respect the victims. There is a memorial with 100 white chairs to commemorate the people who died in the quake. We saw this when we left Christchurch on the bus to Kaikoura. It was a moving sight and gave me goose pimples. Although New Zealand is a quake area, this particular one was the strongest on record. There were two in a relatively short space of time, which is why the experience was so phenomenal. The emotional impact of the earthquake can be really felt in the museum and is difficult to explain it outside the museum. At our accommodation, our host explained to us that many of the local population are still traumatised eight years later, especially those who lost loved ones on that day.
The city has a population of 350,000 making it the largest city on the South Island. It celebrates its English heritage like nowhere else in New Zealand. It is geographically diverse; you can drive from the beach to the mountains in less than two hours.
We also saw a beautiful park with oversized trees. Christchurch’s old town is very much in the English Victorian Style. Many buildings were rescued and consolidated to preserve them.
We also went to the Canterbury Museum to explore a little bit about the Māori culture. We were able to really learn about the development of New Zealand into the place it is today. You can also see the world’s largest collection of moa bones. (An extinct bird, which could not fly and was bigger than an Emu).
Regretfully, we did not have the time to go to Akaroa. It was a former French settlement, about 90 minutes from Christchurch. It is situated on a peninsular. It is part of the mainland but detached enough to be different. The streets have pretty French names and are lined with charming cottages, cloaked in roses.
We wanted to continue our journey to Kaikoura, New Zealand’s ocean playground.