"Different Sights on Road + TranzAlpine Train Trip" Top 5 Page for this destination South Island Things to Do Tip by Kakapo2
South Island Things to Do: 122 reviews and 227 photos
As I have travelled on the TranzAlpine I can compare the road and train trip - and cannot really tell you what to do if you have to choose between the two kinds of transportation LOL
What is absolutely clear: The train trip is more relaxing, as you do not have to watch the traffic. But I can tell you, I was standing on the viewing platform most of the time, so I surely sit more when travelling by car ;-)
The road trip
You get fantastic scenery on the road trip which you do not see from the train:
1. the fabulous ascent of Porters Pass and the inner sanctum after the highest point of the road, with several beautiful lakes;
2. the fantastic limestone rock site of Castle Hill;
3. the dramatic downhill road through the Otira Gorge, with a waterfall diverted over the road.
And, as said, you can stop anywhere and enjoy the places, you have a chance of encountering wildlife like the keas, etc. I consider Cave Stream as a minor miss if you travel by train. Most people have no torches and do not enter the cave system anyway, and it is just another beautiful place in the tussock grasslands of the High Country.
The train trip
On the train trip you get some sights you can only dream of when travelling on the road. The most fantastic stretch is between Springfield and Cass. (Get on Googlemaps and you will see what places I am talking about.) The railway line first follows the Waimakariri River Gorge, your places of interest are Otarama and Staircase, then Avoca. You can access this area by train only. This meandering river gorge is like a mini Grand Canyon, just not red rocks, and the water at the bottom is turquoise blue on a sunny day. Absolutely breathtaking. You pass 19 tunnels and many scary bridges.
From Avoca you drive through tussock grassland with huge lupin fields in summer (usually late November until early January), and you pass Lake Sarah.
The railway line joins the road between Craigieburn and Cass, through Arthurs Pass. Then the train passes a 8.5 km long tunnel through the mountain (while car drivers hold their breath on the way down the steep gorge road) and comes out again before Otira.
Whereas most cars would carry on on SH 73, the train follows the route north (through Poerua), past Lake Brunner (Moana), and then to Greymouth. You can also drive this route by car.
What to wear and what not to wear...
A word about the viewing platforms of the train: If you spend a lot of time out there photographing, be prepared to be filthy afterwards. (Dark clothes highly recommended...) I really had a black face and smelled like a car engine under the shower. My hair was oily from the diesel fumes which envelope you especially in the many tunnels, and the shampoo not white but grey ;-)
Have some of those wet cleansing tissues at hand, for the case the toilet in your part of the train is out of order, as ours on the way from Greymouth to Christchurch, so you can clean your hands after excessive photographing on the platform. And go to the toilet before boarding the train. You never know... The only toilet stop in such a case will be at Arthurs Pass.
Food and drink on the train is very affordable, so no real need to bring sandwiches.
Best places to sit and stand
If you want to take photos of the Waimak Gorge out there make sure to stand on the right side of the platform on the way to the west and on the left on the way east (back to Chch). No need to get outside before Springfield.
Surely I am a big fan of the road trip but on the train trip you get other unique sights, especially through the Waimakariri Gorge.
My latest recommendation therefore is: Travel to Greymouth by train and back to Christchurch by car, or the other way round, and you get it all ;-)
If you make a return trip, consider staying in Moana on Lake Brunner. Greymouth is not a very spectacular town, and in the hour you have there you cannot do a lot, whereas you would have 2.5 hours in Moana for coffee and a very nice bushwalk or walk along the lake.
The full train trip takes 4.5 hours each way. Departure from Christchurch is 8.15am daily, departure from Greymouth at 1.45pm.
Tour and Intercity buses start right at the exit of the railway station in Greymouth. Shuttle services in Christchurch (esp. Canterbury Shuttles) cost NZ$ 5 if you want to go to a place within the so-called Four Avenues (Bealey, Fitzgerald, Moorhouse, Deans) of the central city.
For more pictures see my Travelogues on this South Island page.
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