Last week, Kerry and I headed off for another South Island adventure, with family this time. No bike riding, but a train trip on the TranzAlpine, through the Southern Alps to the West Coast. On the day we left home I dressed for the cold, boots and all, as Christchurch, our first destination, is always colder than Auckland in winter. On the plane, I felt like a swaddled babushka and sweated in my seat, while I looked out in awe at the snow-clad Kaikoura Mountains on the East Coast. What stunning views. And luckily I had the window seat. And, yes, I was the photographer this time.
I have wanted to do this train trip for ages, as everyone who has travelled through the Southern Alps raves about it. My sister, who lives in Christchurch, told me how stunning the trip is when snow lies low. Well, there was little snow in fact as the temperatures for that month had been the highest on record. Still, I love train travel, and this trip was no exception. I held my phone ready to catch the passing scenery as the train travelled serenely through farmland towards the Otira Gorge.
Ooh the brooding cloud I love to sketch, and although I had my paper and pencils, it was impossible to capture a scene at speed. Maybe I’d work from a photo later. Dark pines proved a perfect foreground for the glimpse of snow-capped ranges beyond.
It was so peaceful sitting on the train, lulled by its gentle rocking, looking out; the odd hawk swooping for food, dramatic changes in the terrain. I really liked the layering of the land, and the subtle change in colouring between the winter pasture, the mountains, and the leafless tawny shrub. But little snow here on the tops. In the valley before Arthur’s Pass, beech trees hugged the land beside the road we were now running alongside, heading towards the Otira tunnel, 8.5km long.
Kerry went through to the observation deck as we approached the gorge, so I didn’t try to take my own photos there. Unfortunately he didn’t get one either, because of the crowd on the deck. When trying to find an image of the gorge online, I found this lovely oil painting from the Christchurch Art Gallery collection, done by a Scots/ New Zealander, John Gibb (1831-1909). I tried to imagine him setting up with his paints and easel out in the wild, and couldn’t. He must have been made of hardy stuff.
Once we were through the gorge, the weather closed in, and the scene was muted through light sleet falling. Beautiful but eerie. Rata trees line the steep slopes, but sadly it wasn’t the season for their scarlet flowers to bloom. You need to catch the train in early summer for that spectacle. Then the rain became heavier, which isn’t unusual for the West Coast. I laughed when looking up details on the Web, under Climate and average weather for West Coast. I quote: A lot of rain (rainy season) falls in the month of: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December. October is the most wet month. How pleased I hadn’t travelled then!
The train ran between the road and the river for a while. Kahiikatea, NZ white pine, had replaced the dark beech. I love the Kahikatea forests, as the trees are a tidy conical shape, which makes them easy to spot. Wetlands had replaced the road, which abounded with flax and reeds. So, although the skies were gloomy there was plenty to enjoy.
I was sorry to disembark in Greymouth as the weather had become worse. The rental car pick-up was a breeze, but the winding drive to Franz Josef in driving rain, with rivers rising, was more hair-raising than I would have liked.
To be continued…