Backpacking Pensioners travel blog

The Southern Alps from the train

The Southern Alps from the train

Journeys end at Greymouth

The Southern Alps from the train

Arthur's Pass station

The Southern Alps from the train

A view from the train

One of the viaduct's we crossed

The view from the viaduct

The cruise liner in port

The Hägglund vehicle

Inside the Hägglund

Waiting for the storm

A mock up of an Antartic camp

Part of the Hägglund track


Six fifteen am and the phone alarm sounds. It had been my suggestion to set it for this time so I can not complain; well not too loudly. After a hurried breakfast we walk down the hill and catch the seven fifteen bus for Christchurch. Today we are booked for the Tranz Alpine train journey from Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west coast; and return. The train station has been moved to the outside of town and a taxi is needed. If we had got up a half hour earlier we would have had time to seek out the free shuttle bus but I vetoed that idea.

This Tranz Alpine journey is billed as one of the ten great train journeys of the world. I'm not sure if that is true but we can vouch for the fact that the journey was spectacular. The first part of the journey was along the flat ground of the Canterbury Plains where we viewed sheep or cows in fields. One area specialised in horses, either at stud farms or training for horse racing. After about a half hour we were climbing steadily and soon into the hills. The change in scenery was dramatic and the river below to our right was a wonderful ice blue colour. Some people rushed to the observation carriage at the back which was all walkway, empty of all furnishing and windows. When they returned to the warmth of our carriage they also were a wonderful ice blue colour.

My excuse was that the sun was not in a good position to take photographs. I rushed from my seat when Sylvia gave me a big prod at the announcement that muffins had just been taken from the oven and were available in the restaurant car. The train continued its climb along a labyrinth of gorges and hills known as The Staircase, crossing numerous H

trestle bridges and passing through a lot of tunnels as we drove through the Arthur's Pass National Park, a place of stark beauty that is synonymous with being in the heart of the Southern Alps. The train stopped at Arthur's Pass Railway Station which is 737 metres above sea level. The pure air was hardly dented at all by the smokers who took their opportunity at this 10 minute break in the journey.

Soon after leaving the station we were inside the Otira tunnel. A staff member explained that the tunnel was over 5 miles long. We were advised that it would be 16 minutes before we were through to the west side of the mountains so sit back and relax and enjoy the scenery of the tunnel.

When we exited the tunnel we were amazed in the change of the day from cold colours to ones of vibrant alive colours. Our journey was now downhill and had been since entering the tunnel which is the third longest in New Zealand, seventh longest in the world, and at the time of being built was the longest in the Southern Hemisphere and the British Empire. I spent some time in the observation carriage taking photographs as we travelled along in the warmer atmosphere of the west coast, and after a four and a half hour journey we were at Greymouth, one of the largest towns on the west coast.

There is a lot of history to Greymouth and we will learn much more of this when we are travelling in this area in our motorhome. As for this visit, there was not much to do in the hour before the train sets off back. I had to post a letter to our bank back home so we called in a main post office and then walked through part of the town and along the river bank. In the distance was the Tasman Sea, but we will see plenty of this when travelling down the west coast, probably from the advantage of looking down a sheer drop at the drivers side as we travel south.

The journey back was the same magic views in reverse and this time the temperature was more kind and I spent time in the observation carriage. Unfortunately by the time we were by the ice blue river the sun was too low behind the mountains for photographs of good quality, and the train was travelling too fast down the hill which caused blurring in the fore ground of the photographs. I gave in when my hands became too cold. This journey is definitely one to be recommended. From October 1st the cost of the return day journey will rise from 110$ to 180$; we even got a 10% discount for being over 55 so the fee of £35 each was well worth it.

Thursday 27th. I look out between the curtains and it is a nice day. Sylvia looks out 20 minutes later and asks, "Where did that big liner come from". Tied up at the dock was a big luxury cruise liner, the first of the season. It had travelled from Los Angeles via the South Pacific Islands to New Zealand and would be travelling on to its journeys end at Sydney, Australia. I hadn't even noticed it.

We are having problems with gaining access to our motorhome and today we have to visit a man named Brian at 'Expertise World Wide' which is located by the Airport and is opposite The International Antarctic Centre. This man specialises in the customs side of things. Brian turns out to be a very nice man who helps us with the forms for the customs people and tells us that the Quarantine Officer has already past our van as fit to enter the country. The workers at the Coach Company had clearly done a great job on cleaning the underneath and outside of the van, and all the evenings of hard cleaning inside the van by us had paid off.

Brian's office was close to the campus for those going to work on behalf of the USA, New Zealand and Italy, at the Antarctic. And as I noted before, across from the Antarctic Centre which is our next destination. We had an early lunch in the Centre restaurant before paying our entrance fees for 'The Ride' and the fun, exiting and interactive experience that a whole family would enjoy. Outside the building were some Antarctic Hägglund vehicles which turned out to be 'the ride'. Some rode in the front with the driver in conventional seats but we weren't quick enough, so we were in the back half; 5 sitting on each side and one with their back to the cab front, and squashed between us.

Mike, a Welshman, was the driver. He explained that we should have waited until after 'the ride' before we had lunch. Although there was a camera in our part so that he could see us, he informed he could not hear us so don't bother to scream. If someone is really ill we should pull the switch in the corner and he would stop and investigate. The big fluffy penguin which had been giving hugs to the kids, (I didn't have the bottle to go for one with Sylvia watching), gave us a sadistic wave goodbye as Mike bolted the door.

What a jerky ride it was round to the assault course; I wouldn't fancy riding for a whole day across the Antarctic in a Hägglund. By the time Mike had took us up, down and sideways over the small hills, across the 1.3metre crevasse, slowly up a larger hill and a rush down the other side, and then through water whilst explaining there was still a further metre of water beneath the vehicle, I didn't fancy doing the ride again. However it is an experience I would recommend and a great way to meet people. I now know what the cocktails must feel like when they are thoroughly shaken; thank goodness for seat belts and hanging straps.

The exhibition and information on present day events and conditions in Antarctica was interesting, and watching the 'Little Blue Penguins', (the same type we had seen in Australia), being fed, was very enjoyable. We then went into the cold room to experience what an Antarctic Storm would be like. After donning rubber over shoes and big coats we entered the room which was minus 8C. Right on time the storm began, our sky grew darker, and the wind howled. Throughout the kids kept going up the steps and sliding down a real ice slide. We shivered whilst we watched the neon sign keep changing as it recorded a wind speed which at it's worst was 27 ½ miles per hour and a wind chill of minus 18C. As the storm ended and our sky lightened a speaker pretending to relate a conversation announced, "The storm is past. Over and Out"

I thought, it's over and I'm out. Sylvia thought her nose must be blue but it only felt as if it was. The rest of the exhibitions were very good and the last room was a theatre with a large curved screen on which a long series of Antarctic pictures were shown. True to form, during the showing I went to sleep and was jolted awake by a sharp elbow and the words, "Do you want to leave". I thought, "No, I want to sleep", but I wasn't brave enough to say it.

Whilst journeying home we received a telephone call from Louise of Transport Logistics and she was able to give us precise costs for her services in getting our van to New Zealand from Australia, and Brian's fees for his services. Tonight I must phone Ann in Coupar Angus. She is trying to be very helpful but may have her hands tied due to all the conditions that now apply to money transfers because of the identity thefts that occur. But first we were to visit 'The Stand', Tod's café for our evening meal. A treat we had been promising ourselves.

My choice was grilled lamb and feta cheese and olive salad, whilst Sylvia chose chicken with her choice of salad; and she ended her meal with another slice of the house cheese cake. We were both very pleased with our meals. Also eating at the café was a Russian seaman who was the Chief Engineer of a Norwegian fishing boat in the harbour. Our conversation with this man and with our host Tod added to an enjoyable evening.

Antarctic Centre.

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