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Our Travels in New Zealand Part 2

Author: Mal Part (More Trip Reviews by Mal Part)
Date of Trip: March 2007

Day 17 – TranzAlpine Train Trip

The motel’s proprietor has a train station pick up and drop off service, which proves a great boon for us. He’s there at 7-40 and we’re at the station, getting our seat assignments for the train, in plenty of time. The place is packed – this train is said to be one of the great rail journeys of the world, and tourists, rail enthusiasts and regular travellers ensure that it’s full every day. See: About – Booking Ahead in Section 4.

The train gets under way; off across the Canterbury Plains and on, up, into the eastern stretch of the Southern Alps. The train is comfy and it has a buffet car and an observation car. Well “observation car” sounds a bit grand – it’s more like a cattle truck with handrails.

The highest point over the Alps is Arthur’s Pass at 735 metres (2,400 feet), where the train stops of a ciggy break and to let people off. The only reason the train can get across the Alps at such a low level is that a tunnel has been built through them. This is the famous, even infamous, Otira Tunnel. It was started in 1908, but the rail company went bust in 1912 and work stopped. The NZ Government took over the line, but the war delay resumption of work until 1921. The tunnel was finished in 1923. It’s 7km (almost 4½ miles) long – the 7th longest in world. The scenery is rather spectacular all the way through the Alps - even in summer many still have snow on the top. The train passes through the pretty town of Brunner and runs alongside its large boating lake, and through the town on InchBonnie, now owned by a man from Auckland. Apparently, a large farming concern sold off a huge parcel of land and the town stood on part of it. The farmland was very poor, but the sale included the freehold to both the land AND all the properties on it. The sale was by auction and there was no reserve – the Aucklander bid $17,000 and got it!!! He now owns 1000s acres of land, a couple of dozen houses, a church, a church hall, the town hall, a public park, some WCs and a lot more besides. He lets the houses for $60/month providing tenants live in them and agree to decorate the outsides.

The train’s end is Greymouth, which turns out to be better than it’s written up in the guidebooks. There’s a pleasant enough main street, a harbour and a pretty quayside. We have a coffee and hot snacks, and take a walk along quay before getting back on the train for the return journey – turn-around time is only 1 hour.

On the way back, we’re sat opposite a South African couple and get to chat about NZ and SA. Little of interest comes out of this except that they advise that the best time to go to the Cape Town area is March. I’m interested in this because we may yet go there at some time in the future, and local information is always better than guidebooks and climate charts.

Since we’re not very hungry, we decide to go to the supermarket for something ‘light’ for dinner, but we find nothing. As we come to discover, NZ’ers are not much interested in either frozen food or ready meals. There are a few frozen meals (curried chicken and rice, and the like), but the choice is poor and the quality looks ordinary. Other than that, the freezer is packed with ‘party ice’ and frozen peas.

Shame to say, we go to the local McCafé, where Chris has a chicken tandoori roll and I have a Big Mac. It’s our only fast food meal in NZ (honest).

Day 18 - ChCh

We decide on a late start and a quiet day in ChCh. We’re into town by 11am and come across a Maori dancing demo in Cathedral Square. The troupe is practicing for an up-coming competition, and give us a grand concert of Maori songs and dance; ending with the Haka, which pleases everyone.

Chris is looking for “vegetables” with her lunch, and we are advised to head for the “Oxford by Avon”. We’re told they do an excellent Sunday lunch, and so it turns out. We dine on roast lamb, four vegetables, gravy and apple pie for dessert. What could be more English on a Sunday? To add to the illusion, we eat our lunch watching punts go by on the river. But, to break the illusion, we also hear bagpipes? When we’ve finished our meal, well seek out the source – a Scottish Pipe and Drum Band is practicing in the park. They too have an up-coming competition but we don’t care, it’s free entertainment on a sunny Sunday afternoon to us.

When the band packs up we head off to the Botanical Gardens. However, it’s too late for a good look around so we decide to walk for a while and then sit in the sun and read for a couple of hours.

It’s about 6pm and we’re feeling a bit peckish (but not overly hungry after our meat + 4 veg. lunch) – we need some light. We make our way to Cathedral Square and see a restaurant serving NZ Green Lipped Mussels – perfect, nourishing but not too filling. We order two servings; one with mariniere sauce and one with sweet chilli sauce, plus a bottle of wine. We sit in the setting sun, eating 4-inch green-lipped mussels with fresh bread, and drinking Montana Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – what could be better?

Day 19 – Travel to Twizel

I’d failed to find any accommodation in Mt Cook Township or Twizel when I’d tried the previous evening, so I try again as soon as I’m up. I still get several places not answering, or saying their full. Then I find a motel in Twizel, but I can only get one night. I take it nonetheless and we decide to re-think our use of time in the Mount Cook area.

We’re on the road by 8-45 and after a breakfast of Eggs Benedict (Chris) and pancakes and maple syrup (me) in Geraldine, were in Twizel by 1-45. We spent some time on the journey re-planning and have decided to go up to Mt Cook today. This way, we can leave Twizel tomorrow and head off to Dunedin a day earlier than originally planned. So, we quickly get installed at the Aspen Motel and head off again for the 40-mile drive to Mt Cook. Naturally, the scenery here is absolutely spectacular – there are mountains all around, many with snow on the top and we have Lakes Tekapo and Lake Pukaki to accompany our journey. These two lakes have an amazing blue colour. We normally attribute the blueness of lakes and the sea to the fact that water (and ice) reflect blue wavelength light better than light of other wavelengths (hence, the blueness). But, these lakes are even bluer and a quite different shade of blue because of their mineral content – it’s a rich, pale, aquamarine, paddling pool blue, and very beautiful.

One company – the Heritage Lodge - owns ALL of the accommodation at the Mt Cook Township and it’s always full because every room has a view of the Mountain!!! However, they magnanimously provide facilities for other visitors and we park up in one of their car parks for a first look around. The mountain looms above us – this is about as close as you can get without putting on mountain boots and carrying an ice pick! It’s beautiful, and you can clearly see the snowfields on the top and the glaciers descending from it; clouds form and break away from the very peak and, against the blue sky, paints a very pretty picture.

We go to the DOC Information Centre to ask about local walks, and select a 1-hour, hillside walk that gives good views of the mountain from a new vantage point. It’s a good walk, with DOC-provided steps and handrails for the steepest and most dangerous parts (see About: View Points and Walkways in Section 4).

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