Christchurch is one of two locations where you can catch the TranzAlpine train for the entire journey, with Greymouth on the other end of the line. Much like the Northern Explorer, the train makes trips between these two stops on opposing days. We booked this part of the trip long before any motels or car rentals because online travel blogs gushed over the raw and cascading landscape that engulf the train’s path. The Northern Explorer train ride a few days back got me hooked like a fish on a line. I ached for that open-air car and to fly through the middle of nowhere on grinding tracks.
The station in Christchurch was considerably more sizable than in Hamilton, where we last caught a train. People shuffled about gathering luggage and giving directions. With a final bit of advice and a cackle from the bag attendant, “when you get to the other side, just pick up the BEST bag!” we were off.
The journey was every bit as glorious as the first. Mountains formed a backdrop to teal-colored water and brilliant yellow flowers. We passed rural towns and camper vans parked at the foot of endless hillsides.
It was cloudy and biting cold on the first half of the journey, until we reached Arthur’s Pass, and then it was like the blue sky poured out from behind it. After getting a moment to stop and stretch our legs at the Arthur’s Pass stop, where hikers descended (we were warned to get back onto the train the moment we heard the horn!), the train rolled on and into the sunshine. The temperature was notably milder and the wind less vicious. At one point, I got a butterfly to land lackadaisically on my fingertip while the train was still moving.
We spent less time in our seats than on our previous train ride. There was a group of Chatty Cathys sitting just in front of us, giving unnecessary commentary about every leaf and tree we passed as well as oversharing the medical history of family members.
“We just bought some cards in the café car….Uncle Bob always played cards….Remember that Uncle Bob played cards? 2 years later he had that prostate issue…no 3 years…oh, see that tree? Grandmother had a tree like that….Remember grandmother’s tree?”
I could hear them through my headphones.
We arrived in Greymouth and bid goodbye to the lack of cell reception (and wifi) that allowed us to submerge into rural New Zealand. The car rental counters at the station filled up like a Manhattan subway car at rush hour. After wading through the chaos, we got our rental and jetted south towards Franz Josef. The entire trip was spent on a single road (highway 6), so directions were a non-issue as we regained our left-side driving sea legs.
We stayed at Glow Worm Accommodation, a hostel with private room options and free vegetable soup every day at 6pm in the kitchen (like staying at grandma’s). With a short window of time to spare, we left our things and drove off to take a quick hike at the Franz Josef Glacier. The mist began to coat our windshield as we pulled into the parking lot, but undeterred, we walked the 30-minute overlook loop with our phones cradled inside our hoodies. Unfortunately, the mist was too pronounced to see anything other than hazy hillsides when we arrived, and we were thankful that we didn’t attempt the longer hike to the glacier’s entrance.
The downpour hit as we sprinted back to the car, kicking up gravel onto our drenched clothing. We immediately took advantage of the outdoor hot tub back at the hostel, soaking in solitude with rain falling onto the overhead hut and foggy mountains within view. It was pure complacency and presence.
We ate quickly at one of 2 dinner options in town, serving over-sized portions of so-so food. As a British woman at an adjoining table remarked with eyes wide upon the arrival of her dinosaur-sized plate:
“That’s not a spare rib…that’s all of the ribs”
Katie abandoned me to pay the tab in order to photograph the eye-opening sunset outside, and it was only when she didn’t come back that I realized I was supposed to follow her. Cellphone reception—still not really a thing here.
We ran into a park just across the road and onto a hill to gawk at the orange sky with snowcapped mountains behind it. It made me feel like we were endless. We wandered the streets afterward until daylight had evaporated, fitting in like a puzzle piece. Travel makes those serene moments of calm and presence feel so much more distinctive and meaty. We returned to a room with damp clothes laying all over the place, aching feet, and feeling like we never have enough coffee to make it through the day. But I’m my very best self when in those moments of exhausted peace. It will never be a vacation to me. It will always be travel. I will always be a traveler.