There’s nothing like having to get up on a Saturday morning earlier than you would during the week to propel you out of bed. Especially when it’s still dark outside, raining for the sixth day straight, and you have a ten-minute walk in front of you to the nearest bus stop. But thankfully it was all in the spirit of travel, the mission of the weekend being a five-hour journey across the country on the TranzAlpine Express to the West Coast. After two months of sticking close to Christchurch, I was going on a trip and I couldn’t have been more excited about it.
With two carry-on bags and a broken umbrella in tow, I boarded the MetroStar, a popular bus route, which connected me to the Orbiter, another line that took me to the Christchurch Railway Station in the suburb of Addington. A note about the Christchurch bus system: it is perhaps the least informative system with the least identifiable routes in the world. Having spent six months in London, I had adjusted to an almost overload of information – each step was clearly demarcated with a white plastic post and appropriate street name. On the buses themselves, these locations are displayed on a miniature marquee of sorts, scrolling brightly and unavoidably by. And for the visually impaired or dumbly unobservant, a cheerful voice announces every approaching stop and once pulling away, reiterates the bus number: “22…to…Piccadilly Circus.” If you miss your stop, shame on you.
Christchurch is another story. None of the stops have signs or posts with the street names or locations on them, and neither does a helpful announcer do the job. I’ve never clutched a map so tightly as when riding a bus in Christchurch, my head jerking up and down to follow each passing street on my map. It’s exhausting, especially when I’m bound to pass the stop anyways. But such was not the case as I stepped off my bus in Addington and arrived at the train station the suggested twenty minutes prior to departure. I was eighteen minutes too soon. It was the easiest check-in known to man, only a matter of seconds passing as I received my ticket and found my seat on coach M, conveniently adjacent to the viewing carriage.
The train pulled away and it became clear I’d be getting more for my money than I’d originally expected: natural scenery and a chatty tour conductor to boot. People like Charlie should never be given a mic. Think overexcited announcers at high school basketball games or over-involved DJs at wedding receptions. In addition to facts, “interesting” tidbits, and lines he obviously uses every journey (at Arthur’s Pass, for instance, he tells us to have a five-minute break for “fresh air or nicotine, whichever your poison”), he embellished the ride with stories and anecdotes completely unrelated to the task at hand, tales of his wife Carolyn losing her wedding ring in a pigpen or a man rescuing his three-old son after he fell into a hole in a frozen lake. On one hand, I didn’t want to seem rude to the Indian couple sitting across from me by popping in my iPod (what can I say, it’s my poison of choice), but there was no way I could take five hours of Charlie’s constant blabbering. Like any good talk show, he made pitches for the various products and souvenirs available on the train, including a DVD made about the journey with “first-rate commentary,” no doubt provided by yours truly, Chatterbox Charlie.
The trip began average enough, as the train passed through the Canterbury Plains, which, as you might imagine, did not have much to offer in the Visual Stimulation Department. Much of the immediate scenery was brush, dead in winter, with scrubby little bushes and piles of gravel and stones scattered about. These gave way to hills and mountains that sloped down towards the tracks, covered thickly with monochromatic trees a color that Crayola would aptly market as Polished Pine or Wintergreen Dream. The clouds were low and heavy, settling on the tops of the mountains, and occasional waterfalls emptied their load in the river below. The river beds were immensely wide and rocky, mostly small grey stones, with the water weaving in and out in no apparent pattern. Charlie confirmed this observation as we followed the Waimakariri River. Stretching 150 kilometers long, he explains it is a braided river composed of numerous channels. It doesn’t flow from bank to bank like a normal river might, but during a flood, it can be quite the force to be reckoned with. Through the gorges and valleys, though, the snow-capped peaks are always just a little too far off. I never got the feeling I was truly traversing the great Southern Alps.
But apparently this thought never crossed anyone else’s mind. The viewing carriage was swarming with passengers and low-end DSLRs swinging from their necks. Buzzing with the excitement of a press junket, it might as well have been the paparazzi and each vista a celebrity. The views go in and out as trees give way to the river and tunnels to the valleys. A forlorn woman looks up at me, camera in hand, and says, “I missed the money shot.” This was five minutes into the journey. I did my best to assure her there would be many, many more. Clearly no one believed me as they continued to fight for prime viewing spots at the open sides of the carriage. You should’ve been there for the rainbow, set against the snowcaps – it was the Brangelina of all views. As avid of a photographer as I am, I found myself agreeing more with the man next to me who set his camera down and said, “Nothing beats the human eye.”
I mentioned earlier the ridiculous amount of rain Christchurch had experienced during the week leading up to my trip. This continued throughout the first part of the ride, which was especially unfortunate on the viewing carriage where each drop sliced against your skin. I’d looked up the forecast for Greymouth and was pleased to see a row of tiny dancing suns for the week. But…it is the weather and I knew better than to let the weathermen of Greymouth play with my heart. Halfway through, we entered a tunnel, the Otira Rail Tunnel to be exact, that at the time of its completion in 1923, was the longest tunnel in the British Empire and the Southern Hemisphere. Measuring 8.5 kilometers long, even today it’s the seventh longest in the world. The gradient is 1 in 33, meaning roughly that for every 33 meters covered, the track increases in slope by one meter. Because of this and the length, gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide can be easily trapped in the tunnel, proving dangerous for both the train and its occupants. They’ve developed quite the system to counteract this, with a door closing behind the train as soon as it enters the tunnel so a large extracting fan can clear out the fumes. Just as the second door shut as we left the tunnel and emerged in Otira, the sky burst into a vivid blue, void of any raincloud. I was ecstatic.
And as the sky cleared, so did the viewing carriage. While the start of the journey found not a spare place to stand outside, the cameras were soon laid aside and heads began to nod off. The majority of my car was asleep, slumped in their seats – myself included. It was as if their feast on earlier views and vistas had been one climactic sugar high, and now they’d crashed, unable to take it anymore.
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For the return trip the following day, the train couldn’t pull into the station in Greymouth fast enough, but my stay in Greymouth is another story for another day. As I found my seat, I noticed several familiar faces around me. While some had made the trip from Christchurch to Greymouth and back in one day and others had moved on to other parts of the West Coast rather than make the return journey, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who’d chosen to stay the night. Our eyes met each others’ with mutual recognition, giving knowing looks of sympathy as if to say, “I, as well, just spent the night in one of the most pathetic, depressing towns in existence.” Misery loves company, or something like that.
I was glad to find myself in a more attentive state of mind on the return. Maybe it was because Charlie had been replaced by a welcomingly toned-down version of himself, or that I’d had a full night’s sleep. I remembered Otira from the day before, in absolute shock to find a hotel next to the tracks. The conductor shared that the entire township of Otira is actually owned by a couple, Bill and Chris Hennah. Although they’d originally intended to buy only the historic hotel in 1998, it wasn’t until after they signed the contract and handed over $75,000 that they realized they’d bought the town – the land, hotel, community hall, fire station and engine, swimming baths, and seventeen houses to round it all off. That’ll teach them to read the fine print. Houses are available to rent for $110 a week, as long as you stay for at least six months and help paint your house. But, as the conductor mused, how do they get you to stay? Offer free beer or perhaps tie one leg to the veranda post?
From Otira it was through the Rail Tunnel yet again and another five-minute break at Arthur’s Pass. (We are told again to choose our poison between fresh air and nicotine, proving my earlier point about the use of stock lines). Here at New Zealand’s third highest point of 737 meters, fifty people make their home and livelihood. I hastily sent up a prayer of thanksgiving that I hadn’t accepted a job position in the town, saving both myself and my family a good deal of heartbreak as I would have most likely chosen to end my life there. But things got worse…we drew near the village of Cass, population one – a man named Barry, nicknamed Rambo for God knows what reason, who works on rail maintenance in the area. Little wonder he’s single. We stopped in Cass to “pick up passengers,” but all I could think was what in the world were they doing there?
Finally we passed through Bealey Village, where we could see the Bealey Hotel set in the distant hills. All things considered, such as its utterly isolated location, the hotel has an unexpectedly well-designed website, on which it states invitingly, “Enjoy the solitude of the secluded mountain environment.” Yeah, no kidding. Apparently after the owner opened the hotel, he claimed to see a moa – a long extinct native bird of New Zealand – and produced the requisite fuzzy photos to support his story. Like any good hoax, it caused quite a fuss at first and unsurprisingly brought a steady flow of business to the hotel. It was then disproved and the owner was accused of inventing it all for the sake of marketing… But can you blame him? Wouldn’t you do the same having discovered you’d foolishly opened a hotel in a rarely-frequented remote village?
And then we were back to rolling through the Canterbury Plains, as flat and uninteresting as a veritable Midwest cornfield. Not to mention it was pitch-black by this point. So that was that – from Christchurch to Greymouth and back again, 223.8 kilometers each way, covering 16 tunnels, 5 viaducts, and the sorriest bunch of towns you ever did see.
Christchurch…oh blessed civilization.