Cheryll's Writing Journal

Musings, rants and ravings, plus gems of insight nobody wants to hear now that I've finally got them. Also neat stuff I found on the 'Net when I should have been updating this blog....

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Christchurch to Greymouth, NZ

At 6 the next morning, we walked the several blocks (maybe 3/4 mile) from our motel to the train station, lugging our baggage, which now included a third suitcase because one of the smaller ones was coming apart at the seams. (Honest, we hadn't bought anything yet! I think the clearer air down under made our stuff expand...) Our train was to leave at 7:45, which would have seemed very early except that we hadn't completely recovered from jet lag, so were still waking up in the very early hours, anyway.
We took the Tranzalpine Train from Christchurch on the East Coast to Greymouth on the West Coast.  Looks nice and flat and short, right? And it is flat, a grandually rising plane on the east side of the New Zealand alps, which are a ridge running down the western edge of the South Island.

Hmmm, ridge? Much more like the Rocky Mountains of the western US! You can see snow capped peaks from Christchurch, and just about everywhere else we went on the South Island.  They seem quite close, but the travel time across that stretch is more than four hours.  Pleasant hours, however, with comfortable seats and very wide windows.
You can't see them in this picture of the sign, but most of the car length is in glass. Passenger trains are few and maintained largely for tourists, now that roads cross the mountains in a few spots. It is said that every Kiwi drives, so there isn't much in the way of accommodation for pedestrians or public transit outside the cities! What limited rail tracks exist are used mostly by freight trains, which go faster than passenger trains, but that's okay by me because there is so much spectacular scenery to see.
Much of the Canterbury plain looks like this. It's pasture land, graneries and truck farming -- divided regularly by tall hedges neatly trimmed to look like walls.  The engineer, or maybe that voice over the loud speakers was the conductor, explained that these hedgerows were to provide protection for the sheep and cows from winter winds.  It doesn't actually snow that much, but the winds can be awful. It was hard to tell from the train, but these hedges looked to be trimmed off flat at anywhere from 12 to 20 feet high.

Hard to believe winter winds on this lovely spring day, but we remembered that only a week or two before we arrived, tens of thousands of lambs had died in an enormous late season blizzard . From the air, the Canterbury plains look like some huge green patchwork ala National Geographic photo spreads. This is the 'bread basket' of New Zealand.

I tried to get some pix of the newest farm animals, but they don't like the trains and were too far away. Our impromptu guide was telling us that the move to raising deer as meat was somewhat controversial, as they require more pasturage than sheep, goats or cattle, which means more water to irrigate pasture, as the summer has little rain. I squinted at what he was calling deer and decided they look like our little California Tule elk--miniature wapiti.

Along the roadsides, fence lines and anywhere else not mowed or plowed easily, were brownish green and greyish green shrubs covered with yellow flowers. These are the scourge of NZ farmers and ranchers. Invasive species are a pain anywhere, but in a land where just about everything people eat has to be non-native, the chance of bringing in something annoying, or even dangerous, is multiplied. Early English settlers brought not only food and forage plants, but also their familiar garden, hedgerow and meadow flowers.

Enter Gorse and Broom. Nothing in NZ (pronounced locally as en-zed) flora or fauna eats them, attacks them, or otherwise controls them. And they both love poor soils, semi-drought and wintery conditions. Land cleared of the native flora in order to provide pasture for non-native animals is heaven for these two weeds. Gorse is woody and full of spines, so avoided by cattle and sheep, alike. Broom's tiny grayish leaves taste bad and being a legume it makes millions of seeds that burst outward from the pods. Both gradually fill in any empty ground until the farmer must take a bulldozer to clear again. At this time of year, we could see hundreds of hillside acres of slightly mustard yellow gorse and paler yellow broom along drainage ditches and fence rows. Clearly a constant battle.

After about two hours, the train began to climb out of the plains and into some pretty spectacular mountains. There was still snow and/or glaciers above us, but the passes were clear and full of that peculiarly deep wet green of alpine meadows. I gather that even these meadows are not native, and the hillsides have been cleared of brush to allow grass to grow for sheep. And there are sheep everywhere, looking at a distance, rather like lice nits on a particularly ratty baby blanket. No disrepect meant; I just have a strange mind, LOL.

Cattle graze in and around gorse thickets in the flat valleys, but these are few and far between, as those valleys have been cut by spring runoff from snow melt. New Zealand describes her rivers as braided, because they are inconstant. It's flood or trickle with them. They lay wide swathes of gravel across the flat lands, and cut new beds for their silvery streams every time it rains. From the plane it looks very much like braided water!

Up close, those stream beds actually have no sand visible in them, just boulders ranging from fist size to school bus. The train crossed and recrossed several river beds on very long tressels, even though the water didn't look all that deep or wide.
That isn't sand at the water's edge down there; it's gravel so big that you can't walk on it.

I was totally frustrated by the double paned glass in the train windows because all I could get were reflections in the camera. There was a special open air car for those brave souls who wanted to take pix, and husband is one of those. He went several times, but had to come back inside to thaw out regularly. It is early spring in the mountains, so only just above freezing, to which one must add the windchill factor of a moving train.

We passed coal mines and their tiny settlements, which used to be served only by the trains before the government put a road in place. The summit is Arthur's Pass, which on the downside has the longest railroad tunnel in NZ, if not the world. It is a fifteen minute ride in pitch black which can take only one train every four hours in order to allow the pumps to refresh the air inside for the next train. If the power goes out and the fans aren't running, neither do the trains. People died in there regularly until this system got worked out!

All of this was explained to us passengers in alarming detail as our train waited for about half an hour to enter the tunnel. It gave us time to look out at what remains of the settlement of Arthur's Pass and wonder at the fortitude of those folks hardy enough to stay in a place that averages 15-30 feet of snow every winter.  All the buildings were wood frame, looked to be very old, weather beaten and heated only by wood or coal. I'm betting they were uninsulated, as well, since Kiwis pride themselves on being tougher than the environment. If I hadn't seen folks out hanging clothes on the line, or smoke rising from a metal flue or two, I'd have said it was a ghost town!

On the west side of the mountains, it was a rainy day, very suitable for Greymouth, I thought, since the town is built on either side of a river flowing into a tiny bay. By the time we got to the end of the line, all was grey: sky, land, sea and town.
After the very bright sunshine of Christchurch and the plains, this was sort of a shock and neither camera dealt with it well. All the pictures we took there are very dark and dreary looking, even though it didn't feel that way at the time. The people in this shot are waiting for the same bus we are. NZ has a national transport system, so that you can usually catch at least one bus a day going just about anywhere. Out on the West Coast, these are not usually very large buses, ranging from about 30-60 seats. But they all have wrap around glass for catching the views!

Greymouth is pronounced Gray mouth, not greymuth. Awkward to say, but this EnZed, and they do things their way. The town of 30K or so is the Western seaport and handles mostly fishermen and tourists these days. It is the gateway to the wilds so popular with outdoors enthusiasts of all kinds.  It used to ship coal out, but now the trains take coal from the many mines along the coast all the way back to Littleton, which is Christchurch's international port. It may reflect a change in who's buying Kiwi coal, but also allows for much larger ships to come in.

We wandered about a bit while waiting for our bus up the coast to Punakaiki National Beach and forest. This is the home of Pancake Rocks National Monument and numerous beaches tucked into coves beneath huge rain forested cliffs. It is also where our overnight stop will be at Te Nikau Resort. (I'll explain what 'resort' means in Kiwi terms later.)



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