In 2010, I ventured across the Tasman Sea to the south island of New Zealand. I had wanted, for a long time, to see what is described as one of the most beautiful places in the world.
It was also a good spot for a practice run at lone overseas travel. They speak English, of a sort, their money is similar and they drive on the right side of the road which, in Australia and New Zealand, is the left. I was planning to drive through the Southern Alps, which extend down the western side of the island but to get there, I had to catch a train across from the east.
The TranzAlpine is rated as one of the world’s great scenic railway journeys.
We left Christchurch as 8.30am. Flat ground and tiny towns gave way to hills and valleys. We stopped at Springfield to stretch our legs, with the warning to use the toilets on the train rather than the station, to avoid being left behind. The train waits for no-one. I hoped the passengers who didn’t speak English got the message.
Hills gradually swelled to mountains as we passed over the turquoise Waimakariri River. Arthurs’s Pass cuts through the Alps from east to west and the hamlet of Arthur’s Pass is a base for exploring the National Park.
This was about as far away from civilisation as I could imagine getting.
‘These would be mountain people, wouldn’ t they?’ I said to the lady next to me, as we pulled slowly into the station for a ten-minute photo op. ‘They’d have stills in their back yard. They’re probably all related.’ I liked the image of moonshine being brewed by families all looking alike.
‘They’d be loners, for sure.’
There was an extraordinary quietness, even allowing for the chatter of we tourists. The air was pure and snow-capped mountains towered all around, protecting the little village, squeezed in at their feet.
The whistle sounded and I rushed to my carriage, terrified of being left behind.
At the front of the train was an open viewing platform and I decided to brave it. The freezing wind cut through me but it was worth it to be out there with the landscape, rather than watching it through a window.
The mountains began shrinking and I wished I’d thought to come out earlier, to lean over the railing as we crossed bridges and traversed valleys, and to gaze, awestruck, at the enormous crags of the mountains.
Too soon, they eased away to hills and then to flat ground. We pulled into Greymouth.