August 02, 2011


David Ellis

WHEN the New Zealand government decided in 1883 to build a railway line between Christchurch on the South Island's east coast and Greymouth on the west, many of its ministers mused openly about an appropriately slap-up celebration to which to invite themselves for the line's completion.

But even though it was just 224km in length, they were a bit premature: by the time the last dog-spike was driven, most of those ministers were has-beens, politically or mortally – it had taken 36 years to get the line across the island.

Of course no one ever imaged it would take that long, but then no one had ever built a railway over – or through – the formidable Southern Alps before.

Laying the line across the Canterbury Plains from Christchurch was a breeze, but once into the Alps that breeze deteriorated into a gale: conditions could be so atrocious that to prevent being blow away by the howling winds, workers  roped themselves to bridges, or to railway lines while working in precarious ravines and gorges.

In winter equipment was ice-locked in frozen rivers and lakes – inspiring workers to dub their primitive construction camps Mt Misery, Starvation, Klondyke, Siberia Curve…

And when it was found there was simply no mountain pass the line could follow where the rugged Southern Alps plunged downwards to the west coast, the courageous Kiwis embarked on one of the world's most ambitious tunnelling projects: an 8.5km shaft driven at an amazing 1-in-33 slope down through the granite heart of the mountains.

By then the line ran from Christchurch on the east coast to Arthur's Pass 737m high in the Alps, and from Greymouth on the west coast to Otira near the base of the Alps. It meant that the tunnel could be started from both ends, and when the last of 250,000 cubic metres of rock and earth had been removed and the two halves met in the middle of the mountains, they were just millimetres out of alignment.

The first train crossed from east to west in 1923, putting an end to Cobb & Co. whose coaches had crossed the Alps since 1866, taking three bone-jarring days for the trip.

Cobb & Co.'s staging inns once sprinkled the Southern Alps; today the few remaining are pointed out to holidaymakers on the TranzAlpine Express that does the hugely-popular daily return trip from Christchurch to Greymouth in just 4.5-hours in each direction, with an hour in Greymouth.

Highlights pointed out along the way include the Mount White sheep and cattle station whose front- and back-gates are 75km apart; the little village of Bealey where the believed-extinct moa (like Big Bird in Sesame Street) was allegedly sighted in a nearby forest in 1993, attracting hopeful but disappointed moa-watchers from around the world; the circa-1868 Jackson's Hotel near Greymouth – now a restaurant/tavern –  famous for its Possum Pies; and Brunner where in 1896 an horrendous coal mine explosion killed 65 men and boys.

And the little township of Avoca where a cantankerous police constable once amused himself spying on the colour of the smoke from rail workers' chimneys: if blue/grey they were burning Avoca coal, but if black it suggested stolen steam-train coal, and arrests followed.

He was transferred after his house exploded one night in smoke of another  hue – that of gelignite.
And Springfield where train crews slipped an onboard pie to Rosie the Station Master's Collie dog every trip – 5000 of the heart-stoppers in her 15-year lifetime.

As well as wide picture windows, the TranzAlpine has an open-air viewing carriage for grabbing stunning snaps of the Alps, farmlands, national parklands, deer and other wildlife, historic inns, viaducts, settlements and abandoned railway stations. And for train buffs, the train stops at remote Arthur's Pass, and Otira on the West Coast where two extra diesel locos are coupled-on for the haul up the 8.5km tunnel to Arthur's Pass on the return journey.

One of the world's great scenic rail journeys, the TranzAlpine full-day return trip costs NZ$209pp; there's a buffet car and bar and informative commentary.

Book through travel agents or see about doing either the day trip, or staying a day or so in Greymouth to visit the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, Queenstown and other attractions.

[] THE TranzAlpine Express rattles over a viaduct with snow-capped peaks behind. The middle carriage is open-air for snapping the views.
[]  PICTURE windows offer great views if you don't want to venture outside.
[]  YOU'LL not get views like these from the road – because there aren't any in these remote areas.
[]  ARTHUR'S Pass – 737m high in the rugged Alps, and about as far away as you can get from the coast.
[]  JACKSONS's near Greymouth: now a tavern, in its hotel heyday most famous cuisine was Possum Pie.

(Photos: Tranzscenic Tours

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