I love trains.
I love trains so much that when I was a kid I had a special closed off area in the basement called the “Train Room,” where I converted the old scratched up pool table into a miniature village serviced by a ramshackle collection of vintage and new train sets. I would go to the local hobby store and really geek it up with the owner about antique cabooses and the advantages of N over HO scale. So, when it came time to plan my route from Auckland to the remote town of Franz Josef on the South Island and something called the “Trans Alpine” was mentioned and the words, “one of the most picturesque rides in the world,” came up, I immediately worked it into my plans. However, I still had forty-eight hours, three buses, one flight, and some quality time on my own two feet ahead of me before I could ride the majestic train.
Having neglected to check out the Auckland War Memorial Museum, I headed up hill through the expansive Auckland Domain. The Domain is the city’s largest park, which, interestingly enough, lies within the crater of the Pukekawa volcano. As I neared the museum steps, I encountered a field overflowing with armored kids, running amuck in furry costumes. It was as if a group of Teletubbies were let loose to create their own absurd Renaissance Fair. Normally, I would question the meaning of such a scene, but it was far too comical to ruin the mystery.
The Auckland War Memorial Museum was quite expansive, spanning three floors covering Pacific People, Natural History, and New Zealand’s War stories. The ground floor contained a wealth of knowledge and artifacts from greater Australasia. But, it was the second floor’s Volcano room that sucked me in for over an hour (leaving me no time for the third-floor). New Zealand is a very new country geologically speaking, this I knew. However, what I didn’t know was that Auckland’s volcanic field is very active and overdue for an eruption. The Volcano Exhibit showed the outcome of such an event and the means in which the city has in place to deal with such a disaster. This made me feel a little better about my flight to Christchurch that afternoon.
When I exited the museum the kids were gone, but in their place, was a group of about twenty kilted, marching bagpipers and an enthusiastic crowd of redheaded spectators. I don’t know why it took me so long to go to the Auckland Domain, but I will certainly be back and I expect to see something good.
I caught my flight to Christchurch that afternoon. It was pretty uneventful except for this in flight video:
Christchurch changed some of my preconceived notions of Kiwi Cities. After the impeccable tidiness of Auckland, Christchurch felt like it’s punky little British sister. While it straddled the Avon River with beautiful parks and gardens, there was trash on the street, there was graffiti, and there were suped up cars from the 1970’s revving their engines. The South Island likes to think of itself as the Wild West of New Zealand, so in addition to the obvious English influences in the town, they seem to share an affinity for Cowboys and Indians. The bar the pink-haired receptionist at my hostel recommended would not have been out-of-place in Laramie, Wyoming. Yet, it’s not the town that draws people to Christchurch, it’s the lazy river walks through the cheery botanical gardens. After all, Christchurch is “The Garden City.”
As I walked in South Hagley Park through the fragrant rose gardens, I noticed a crowd gathering around a stylized tennis court. I was just in time for The Christchurch City Council’s Summer Theater production of The Anthony Wilding Story. Maybe you watch Tennis and know who this guy is, but I had no clue. As the production notes summarize, “This dynamic, entertaining, and emotional production goes beyond Wilding’s sporting life and reveals a truly fascinating New Zealander, born and raised in Christchurch before heading oversees to take on the world.” Any time Christchurch was mentioned the crowd went wild, and it made me sad that I could not think of a single hometown hero from my hometown of Springfield, Virginia.
That night, I stayed out way too late, heard way to many Eminem songs, and woke up way too early the next morning for my Trans Alpine adventure. As groggy as I was, I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole way. I sat across from a Russian couple for a short while until I made my way to the open-air viewing carriage and never returned. Camera poised, I watched the landscape transform from the sheep covered Canterbury Plains into the heights of Arthur’s Pass National Park with it’s snow capped mountains, steep gorges, and wide river beds. Words cannot describe this journey so I will let the pictures below do the talking…
The last leg of my trip was on Naked Bus. The trip from Greymouth (fittingly described to me by a Kiwi as “not our finest city”) to Franz Josef took about three hours, but I imagine it could have taken about two. We stopped at every small town along the way so the driver could smoke a cigarette, rousing us with his lively remarks, “go on. Get on out and stretch ya legs mates.” He would disappear, we would amble around, and then in about ten minutes we’d go for another thirty minute drive and do it again.
The snow-capped peaks of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook drew ever closer until we came to a stop in the two-street-town of Franz Josef. It is here that I will spend the first leg of my year in New Zealand, working for Scenic Hotel Franz Josef. I am glad to finally settle down for a few weeks and have a place to call “home,” but in terms of “working holidays” I much prefer the latter.
For Photos of Christchurch and the full Album of the Tranz Alpine click here