Passing panorama: New Zealand’s glory from a train window

Thirty years after the TranzAlpine was launched, Susan Grossman boards one of the world’s most scenic trains at Christchurch, before completing her trip on North Island’s Northern Explorer

It’s 8.15am on the dot and with one mellow toot the TranzAlpine passenger train is off on its journey from Christchuch to Greymouth. As we rattle through the flat and fertile Canterbury plains we are soon climbing up steep gorges in the foothills of the Southern Alps, the backbone of South Island. Below, I can see the startling blue water of the Waimakariri river valley. Pink and blue lupins line the tracks along with rows of pines.

The railway covers 223km, tracking its way over four viaducts and through 16 tunnels, taking four and a half hours to Greymouth on the west coast – a tad faster than the stage coaches that took two days to get food across to gold prospectors in 1866. The stage coach was once known as “The Perishable” because of the fruit and vegetables it used to transport along the way.

It’s a very different story now the train has reached its 30th anniversary year. The carriages are modern, with wide, non-reflective windows, wifi and a running commentary in Mandarin and English. The seats are spacious and windows panoramic, perfect for enjoying the wide-screen scenery – from the pastoral Canterbury plains, through forest and lowland rivers, up to tussock sheep stations. The landscape we pass through from the comfort of our carriage tells the story of New Zealand’s prosperity. There are defunct coal mines, stubbly hillsides and saw mills, while the temperate rainforest is dense with native pines, beech and conifers – the same ones used by the Maori to make their traditional canoes.

New Zealand’s trains provide great viewing areas to enjoy the scenery.
Nothing to rail against … New Zealand’s trains provide great viewing areas to enjoy the scenery. Photograph: Alamy

Two hours into the train journey we arrive at Arthur’s Pass, where, through rolling white mist, we can just about spot snow-capped mountain peaks. This pass, the highest over the Southern Alps, was used by Maori hunting parties long before the railway was built. We approach the 8.5km Otira tunnel, completed in 1923; up to 18 trains a day still climb up and down its 1:33 gradient, transporting coal from west to east. Even now it’s a hazardous process preventing locomotives from overheating and shutting down. The train stops while our duty manager uncouples the carriages to get us through safely.

Soon after, we are in Greymouth, a town known for its hunting and jade-mining past, and also the end of our journey. You can while away an hour or two on a tasting tour at the local brewery or a visit to Shantytown to learn about gold mining. But for most visitors it’s a setting-off point to see the spectacular Fox Glacier, a 13km-long maritime glacier on the west coast that is perfect for ice-climbing and walking. Instead, I stop for a pie and a cup of tea in a local cafe and an hour later start the return journey back to Christchurch.

The Fox Glacier on South Island.
Ice and easy … the Fox Glacier on South Island. Photograph: Alamy

There, in New Zealand’s third-largest city, badly damaged by the earthquake of 2011, I am surprised to see hoardings and bulldozers, and the cathedral still propped up on splints. When British settlers arrived in 1880, Christchurch was destined to become a model of class-structured England, with churches rather than pubs, and land owned by gentry with English-style gardens.

The earthquake fortunately had little impact on the botanical gardens. Here, the smell of eucalyptus and mock orange wafts through avenues of trees while visitors take a leisurely punt along the Avon river. Creative Christchurch survives in the “container city”, where pop-up shops and banks do business. Cycleways have helped the revival, but those who live there are frustrated with the slow progress of its regeneration.

I head to the Heritage Hotel, a historic local government landmark which now offers 32 stately suites, “Italian renaissance palazzo style”, each with state-of-the-art kitchens. A sweeping central staircase and long corridors remind me of the grand hotels in London’s Park Lane. From Christchurch, I fly back up to Wellington and then I am off again, this time on the Northern Explorer train that runs from Wellington to Auckland and takes 10 hours.

Completed in 1908, after 23 years of construction, it is New Zealand’s longest-running passenger service. My journey starts at 8.55am, rumbling through the heart of the North Island and an ever-changing landscape of baize-green hills with folds like origami and gorges plunging into turquoise lakes. As we cross the Wellington fault line, Kapiti Island, a predator-free bird sanctuary, sits slumped in the Tasman Sea like a giant jelly baby. Photographers pile into the open-sided observation carriage, greedy to capture every vista.

Green and pleasant land: hiking at the Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing on North Island.
Green and pleasant land … hiking at the Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing on North Island. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

By lunchtime we reach a stop named National Park, where some passengers get off to trek the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s oldest national park and a World Heritage area. The rest of us stay put and enjoy lamb shanks and mashed potato with a glass of Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc.

We reach Hamilton at 4.30pm, a small land-locked town on New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato. I disembark to catch a bus to Rotorua, well known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. The bad-egg smell of sulphur that greets me is no deterrent. My final destination, the Polynesian Spa, offers mud wraps and a Priori Coffeeberry Yoga Facial for $179NZ (£95), but I decline. Instead, I steam in mineral pools overlooking the lake, and admire the sunset. What better way to unwind after New Zealand’s two most scenic railway trips?

Way to go

Susan Grossman travelled with KiwiRail ( from Christchurch to Greymouth. Flexi fares start from NZ$199 single (£105) on the TranzAlpine and NZ$179 single (£96) on the Northern Explorer (from Wellington to Hamilton or Auckland). The Heritage Hotel Christchurch ( has double rooms from £160. Prices at Polynesia Spa ( start from £15.

Browse The Guardian’s selection of some of the world’s best rail journeys on the Guardian Holidays website

Susan Grossman

The GuardianTramp

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