Tuesday 9 October 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 4 - Green and silver, blue and gold

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour

There was some barely-concealed envy this morning, when those of us who had been consigned to what was clearly, to us, the inferior hotel, came to breakfast with the others. They thought they too had been somewhat hard done by - but there was no comparison. Not that our hotel was bad, just very ordinary, cramped and basic (that's Greymouth for you) - but we were already used to finer things. Spoiler alert: there would be compensation once the tour reached Mt Cook.
Back on the bus, we headed south, across the new bridge that replaces the country's last road and rail bridge (which must have astonished and horrified foreign tourists over the years) and came to Hokitika. We cruised through the town, past the driftwood name-sculpture on the beach, the clocktower roundabout, all the paua and greenstone shops, and along the river which was busy with dedicated whitebaiters.
Our destination was the Mahinapua Treetop Walk, a relatively new operation that is pretty flash. It's the usual elevated walkway, but it's 450m long with a 40m high (or 116 step) tower giving views from the mountains to the sea, and over Lake Mahinapua. It's well done and, from the lack of vibrations, well-built too - though I was glad they provided one cantilevered section for people who like a bit of movement (me) to feel a small thrill. There was lots of birdlife and song, some very tall rimu trees and, back at the cafê, good coffee.
Then we drove back to Greymouth to fill in some time before our next train trip. I have to say, it's a depressing place, tatty and unkempt, with its loveliest things the art and souvenirs inside the shops and galleries. The Grey River would be an asset, if it weren't necessary to hide it behind a high stop-bank. I walked along the top, spotting yet more hopeful whitebaiters, and was quite moved by the excellent memorial to mining deaths, more than a century of them, covered in names from the various disasters, and ending (I hope) with Pike River.
And then it was time to board the TranzAlpine train for our ride across the narrowest bit of the Mainland, through the Southern Alps to Christchurch. It was my second time aboard, the first a few years ago in summer, and I was hoping that this time there might be snow to enjoy - but not really, as it turned out. No matter: it's always a spectacular trip. First of all there's the subdued green and silver of the Coast, with misty Lake Brunner, and an area of untouched virgin bush that's so high and dense that calling it 'bush' is a real insult. The commentary is interesting - in 1908 the Blackball miners went on strike for a half-hour lunch break, an improvement on the fifteen minutes they'd been allowed in their ten-hour day
Then came the Otira tunnel, where a row of peeling houses looked dreary enough without our being told that in winter they get only two hours of sunshine a day - and 5m of rain a year. For the next 15 minutes we sat in the dark as we went through the 8.5km tunnel - 15 years to build, on a 1:33 incline - to emerge into glorious sunshine. 
We stopped briefly at Arthur's Pass, where this time there was no kea perching on the sign, and then continued through the golden tussock country to the dramatic Waimakariri Gorge, the blue of the river far below as we crossed a series of bridges and viaducts. 
The contrast with the other side of the Alps was stunning, and we chugged smugly across the farmland of the Canterbury Plains into Christchurch, my home town, where we were to spend two nights at the Commodore Hotel.

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