Christchurch Kaikoura Tranzalpine Scenic Railway
What would go through your mind if I told you about a place that had sparkling seas and snow capped mountains running side by side? A place where the sky was blue and the grass green, the air crisp and clean and the landscape dotted with lush foliage, displaying every colour on the palette? A place where there were several activities to be done and adventures to be had? A place where there were vast amounts of open space with friendly, helpful and cheerful people? Wouldn’t you call that Paradise?
I know a name for it – ‘New Zealand’!
New Zealand is said to be the youngest country on Earth. It was the last landmass discovered. The Maori people were the first people to migrate to New Zealand from across the Pacific. This happened as recently as a thousand years ago. Some anthropologists believe that the Maori originated from some place in Asia and travelled down to New Zealand, making it their home.
New Zealand is a country the size of the state of Colorado (USA). It comprises of two landmasses; the North Island and the South Island. In 1840, the Maori and the British Crown signed a treaty, the Treaty of Waitangi, which is New Zealand’s founding document.
Now, Queen Elizabeth II is the sovereign (1952). The Governor General is Anand Satyanand (2006) and the Prime Minister is John Key (2008).
We decided to visit New Zealand during the two-week break that we had coming up in April 2009.
I got busy amassing all the information I could on the country and the staff of Compact Travels ably aided me. As it eventually turned out, the itinerary they turned out for us, based on what we wanted to see and do, was so good, that we decided to follow that as our travel programme. After a flying time of about 15.5 hours (broken into 5.5 and 11 hours with a stopover at Hong Kong), we reached Auckland, the capital of New Zealand. We reached early in the morning. All the tiredness we expected to feel, somehow disappeared as soon as we stepped into the crisp air, so much so, we chose to walk the 20 minutes it took, to reach the domestic terminal for our flight to Christchurch.
Christchurch is a beautiful city, the international gateway to the South Island with a population of around 400000. It is believed to have been named after the famous Christ Church College in Oxford, U.K.
The city is compact and well laid out. The main square, where our hotel was situated was the Cathedral Square.
The Cathedral Square has a lovely quaint flea market, where one could find trousers, shirts, coats, hats, shoes, gloves and several other things.
The Art Centre and Art Gallery is located on the square. The weekends see spot performers and magicians performing for the public, out in the open, giving the weekend a very festive feel.
A bustling shopping area is less than a 5-minute walk away from the square. Also, at a very short distance is a lovely tree lined street with a stream on one side and pavement cafes on the other. It is a wonderful place to relax and have a cup of tea or coffee.
We visited the Antarctic Centre which was a place designed to give the visitor information about the Antarctic. One of the most interesting parts of the centre is a glass enclosure, called the Snow and Ice Experience. This is where one could experience an Antarctic storm.
We entered the enclosure after wearing the warm jackets and over shoes provided. The temperature inside was maintained at minus 8 degrees Celsius. Then, the wind started blowing, picking up a speed of over 25 kilometres per hour and creating a wind chill factor of minus 24 degrees Celsius. The drop in light levels, the howling wind and all the other noise effects created what I think will probably be the closest I ever get to experience a real Antarctic storm. It was certainly scary and I huddled into my jacket, trying to protect myself from the simulated onslaught of the freezing weather. This lasted for five minutes and the experience was exhilarating!
After that, we decided to go for a Hagglund ride. The Hagglund is an all terrain vehicle that is actually used in the Antarctica. The centre has created a course that duplicates traveling conditions in the Antarctic. The result was a wild ride that nearly threw us out of our seats and we got a taste of what those intrepid explorers to the Antarctic must be experiencing.
Of course the main attraction at the Antarctic Centre were the Little Blue Penguins. It was a treat to view these nocturnal little creatures. These birds here are the ones that have been rescued and now cared for. They were cute and comical with their jerky movements. One of them was limping about and then he turned to face us as if gently accusing us for making a mess of the environment!
That evening, we went for dinner to an Indian restaurant called the Raj Mahal. It was probably the most authentic Indian food I had ever eaten, away from home!
The next day, we hired a car and drove to Kaikoura, the seaside town from where we were going to go whale watching from a boat.
Kaikoura is a three-hour ride from Christchurch. It was a bright sunny day and the drive was spectacular. The route was very easy to follow and we had the efficient Global Positioning System (GPS) telling us how to proceed. The GPS had decided that it would not let us travel any faster than 100 kilometres per hour, much to the amused consternation of my husband, who was driving.
The true natural beauty of New Zealand began unfolding as we covered the distance. We took the scenic route which means we drove pretty much alongside the Pacific Ocean. The waves, crashing at some places, gently lapping at others, the call of seagulls and the rich greenery created an ambience that was breathtaking.
When we reached the Whale Spotting Station there was disappointment in store for us. The whales had moved out of the operational area so we could not see them. The operator suggested we take a cruise along the coastline and if we got lucky, we would be able to see some wildlife. Disappointed yet aware that the whales really had to do their thing and would not hang around just so we could spot them, we took the cruise.
25 minutes into the journey, the cruise guide spotted some activity and she asked the captain to take the boat in a particular direction. In a few minutes the boat stopped and we were asked to go out onto the viewing balconies and…oh…my…. gosh! There were 150 dolphins all around us, cavorting, jumping, twirling and zipping to and fro, everywhere we looked! I had never seen anything so fantastic. The dolphins were actually playing with one another. One of them put on a magnificent show for us by shooting vertically out of the water and twirling around before he dived back into the water.We were among the pod of dolphins for half an hour and all of us on that boat, had the time of our lives!
Later on we saw a few cliffs populated by seals and another couple of huge rocks dotted with sea birds.
On our return, the trusty GPS got us up to the door of our hotel, Kaikoura turned out to be a fantastic experience. The day after, we were joined by a couple of friends and the next morning we were picked up at the hotel lobby for a transfer to the railway station at 8 a.m. in the morning. We were taking the TranzAlpine Scenic Train journey to Greymouth and from there; we were going to Franz Josef to see the glacier. The TranzAlpine Scenic Train journey is rated to be one of the world’s great train journeys. It travels between Christchurch and Greymouth, spanning the distance between the Eastern and Western coastlines of New Zealand.
The train had comfortable seating arrangements and it had open viewing carriages for unobstructed viewing. We passed through the Canterbury plains and spectacular gorges and river valleys of the Waimakariri River. The train then climbed into the Southern Alps and then descended through a lush rich rainforest to reach the West coast town of Greymouth.
From Greymouth we drove to Franz Josef. We reached there at 7 p.m. in the evening and checked into the Westwood Lodge, a beautiful lodge, set among a bush garden with a view of the Southern Alps. The use of natural timber lent a very rustic feel to the place and the fragrance of the wood, permeated the air. It was raining hard but that did nothing to dampen our spirits and we soon set off to find a place for dinner.
We found a quaint little restaurant with food that was outstanding and staff that was most warm and friendly. There was a welcome fireplace and we had a good time standing around the fire, chatting with the owners and other customers.
The rain came down relentlessly but, being in what we figured was a rain forest area, it created a very unique and romantic atmosphere. All of us spent some ‘after – dinner’ quiet time next to the fireplace, sipping on something to drink and solving puzzles and then we retired for the day…Only to wake up to more rain!
We had planned to take the helicopter up to the Franz Josef glacier but the visibility was so poor that none of the operators were flying.