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Christchurch to Karamea by train (Trans Alpine)

(A very peculiar Alpaca Conference) October 2014

Planning (or the best laid plans of Mice and Men)

The yearly three day Alpaca Association New Zealand (AANZ) Conference & National Show occurs every October, and moves between the North Island and South Island. This year was South island's turn, so (much to Art's delight - not!) I informed him that we wouldn't take any animals, but we were flying up for it.

I duly went on line and did my normal search for the best dates & times for dates. Chose the ones I wanted, and pressed the button. A split second later I screamed. I'd booked flights for the wrong weekend! A frantic search through the terms and conditions confirmed what I already knew - because I'd managed to find ultra-cheap flights, I couldn't change them….. and the ones for the weekend I really wanted had meanwhile skyrocketed in price. Bugger! (Art really was delighted now, chortling 'What a shame - we'll have to do something else when we're there')

I decided to make the most of it. Earlier in the year we had taken the Coastal Pacific train from Christchuch to Blenheim - this time we would take the Tranz-Alpine train through the mountains to Greymouth. We'd pick up a hire car then drive north, to an old favourite of ours - Karamea. A couple of nights at 'the Last Resort' (so called because it's the most northernly and westernly hotel on the South Island), then back to Greymouth and the train back to Christchurch.

Day 1 - Auckland to Christchurch

Auckland Airport

I love the fact that you can book in on-line now - it sames so much hassle at the airport. We'd also found a fantastic online deal for parking on-airport - $54 for 5 days, instead of $39 per day if you paid at the gate. It was a whole 2 minutes walk to the terminal building.

I always find the facilities at Auckland Domestic terminal to be better than those at the International terminal, too. You roll up to the kiosks, type your booking reference and surname in, put the supplied baggage label on the case, then take it to the conveyor belt to be whisked away for the journey. Then you head for 'The Bach'. Here, you can buy a full cooked breakfast, or sandwiches & muffins, or anything in between - and all for a reasonable price. There's also a bar! But at 8:30 in the morning, this was a bit early, even for us! There's also a sushi bar, a Macdonalds (of course), and another of my favourites when in a hurry to catch a plane (and a regular with commuters) - Sumo Salad. Grab a coffee and a fruit salad with muesli & yoghurt to take through to the departure lounge.

The flight was just over the hour, and gave us good views as we came into Christchurch. You can see the main suburbs that were affected by the liquefaction of the earthquake - very sad to see.

Christchurch

As we were taking the train at 8:15 the next morning, we re-visited the Arena motel, in Addington. This is a very typical motel, with clean, comfortable rooms, and more importantly, they take you to the railway station as part of the service. One down-side is there isn't a straightforward bus from the airport, and it's not really easily walkable from the city centre. My travel organization skills were obviously at a low ebb for this trip - my investigations told me that the number 3 bus from the airport ($8 each) would take us fairly close to the motel. In fact, idropped us about 2 km away. Thank goodness for wheely cases!

At this stage, Art rebelled. He refused to walk into town - we had to take the bus. The number 7 from just round the corner took us right into the centre.

Three years on from the earthquakes, Christchurch is still struggling. The Red Zone has now been opened to the public, but it is one gigantic building site. It reminded me of Buncefield, in Hemel Hempstead, after the huge petroleum terminal explosion. The city centre still feels like a ghost town too - there are very few open shops, cafes & restaurants, and very few office workers. Construction workers & tourists are the main inhabitants. We wanted to see the two cathedrals - the old and the new. We'd visited the old cathedral and city centre befor the earthquakes, and it was a beautiful building. It was so sad to see it with the front missing. And the majority of the buildings that had surrounded it are just not there any more. We found ourselves totally disoriented, and couldn't picture where things were when compared with the old Christchurch. Spooky.

We wanted to see the new 'cardboard' cathedral, which was designed as a temporary structre while decisions were made about what to do with the old cathedral. The idea was that it would be based around four shipping containers, and the eaves of the roof would be made of thick cardboard tubes. In the end, they decided to make it a more permanent structure, and leave it in place for use by the church community that were the original inhabitants of the donated ground. We weren't sure what to expect from a cardboard cathedral - and were pleasantly surprised. What has been created is an elegant, peaceful and very modern building. The cardboard tubes that make up the rafters give a light, airy feeling to the whole building. It's been built with alternative uses in mind too - the surprisingly elegant wooden chairs can be stacked to clear the floor space, plus large doors can be opened up to increase the available space. We arrived when a service was in progress, and the acoustics are wonderful.

The trams are also running again, which is good to see. We followed the tracks to an area called 'New Regent Street'( name check needed), a pedestrian area where the cafe seats back directly onto the tram track. The guy on the next table to us kept on having to move is chair forward, as the tram drivers considered that he was too close. And as he was at most 6 inches away when they passed, i think they were right! New Regent Street has been renovated since the earthquakes, and is now very smart. But at 5:30 on a Friday night, I've seen busier bars! Hopefully its clientele will return with the continued city rebuild.

We asked one of the guys on the next table where the best place to eat was, and he directed us to Victoria Street, to the north-east corner of the city. This was a short walk, and there were restaurants full of people - but not as many as I was expecting. And the ones we went in were expensive - $33 for sweet and sour pork. Outrageous! But Art was beginning to rebel about walking further again. We were outside a Japanese fast food restaurant (Haichi) at the time - so that's where we ended up. And it proved to be a bit of a find! Three small dishes of chicken, beef & pork, plus a Japanese chicken curry and two glasses of Pinot Gris was under $50. Bargain! I treated Art to a taxi ride back to the hotel.

That evening we watched the first episode of 'Death in Paradise' on our computer before trying to sleep. The bed was fine - but we're too used to a completely quiet night now, so the traffic kept us awake :-(

Regent Street

Day 2 - Christchurch to Karamea via Greymouth

The Tranzalpine Railway

Our Motel host dropped us off at Christchurch railway station at 7:30, in time to book in for our 8:15 train. The tourist trains are very comfortable - lots of leg room, and a number of them have four seats facing a table.

Tip: The trains are rarely full, so my recommendation os to try and get a table seat. This allows you to spread out a bit, and eat your meal in comfort. Even if you are allocated a seat with no table, keep an eye out around you to see if any of the tables are unoccupied.

Like the Coastal Pacific, the journey out of Christchurch is across the plains. These are generally boring (although don't say that to a Cantabrian!). Bur from the point you leave the plains, the TranzAlpine is by far the more scenic of the routes. It is beautiful! And when you're up on the High Country, it is also very dry, as can be seen by the yellow grass - even in October. The train provides a commentary of the journey, but it's just lovely to sit there and watch the sceneray roll past. I'm using the time to type up this diary. One thing I forgot to bring - my crocheting. Ah well - i'll just have to get a glass of wine from the buffet instead!

Greymouth car rental

We arrived in Greymouth about 30 minites late, at 1:15. We'd arranged to pick up a rental car from Thrifty - booked via a website called 'Vroom, Vroom, Vroom!'. They look at all the rental companies then send you through details of the best deals they can get. Our 'deal' was for about $44 NZD for each of the two days we wanted the car for - but of course, by the time you've added additional insurance (to move the excess from $3000 to $300), then the surcharge for paying by credit card (which I always begrudge), it's never that cheap. It worked out in the end at $75 per day! Quite a difference. However, we had a white Accent hatchback, which would do what we wanted very nicely, thank you very much, and had a nice chat with the lady on the rental desk, who had a couple of stroppy macho alpacas that she really didn't want. (apparently she can't find a vet in Greymouth to wether them. Really, Greymouth Vets - get your acts together! Alpacas are gaining in popularity, and need their medical care as much as any other animal).

We put the GPS on and entered 'Karamea'. The time was now 2:00 pm, and we had 190 km and a 2 hours 40 minutes journey to get there. Once you're out of Greymouth, you can't get lost. There's no other road off until Westport, 100 km to the north. And I love NZ driving! Hardly another vehicle on the road. We'd also forgotten how beautiful this coast is. The sun was out, the surf was up (and spectacular). Unlike other roads in NZ, this one has plenty of places (official and unofficial) where you can pull off and take a photo. We did so, many times.

Wild west Coast
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

About half way between Greymouth and Westport are the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. The last time we were here (on our South Island Grand Tour in the MG) it had been raining, and the surf wasn't that strong. What a difference the weather makes! It was amazing. And free.

Note: Unlike many other places in the world (the US and Canada come to mind) you do not have to pay to get into our nationally owned parks and to most of our natural treasures. And long may this tradition continue.

The area has been well planned, with good parking, and a couple of shops and reasonably priced cafes. Leading to the Pancake Rocks are well maintained and safe paths. There are a couple of places where the steps are a bit rough and steep, so people with major mobility problems would struggle - but for most people, they'd find the path more than manageable. There are viewing platforms at strategic places, with rails to stop the less wary from placing themselves in danger. And the surf was high enough that the Blow Hole was blowing!

We spent a good hour here with the cameras, and having a bite to eat. Then looked at the clock. Bugger! 4 o'clock - and still 2 hours drive to go! We'd better get a move on…. Although tempted to stop for some more spectacular views, we kept on going into Westport.

Westport

A sign as you arrive at Westport announces that the population of 'Westport and the surrounding area' is 6,000. So not gigantic. And how big is the surrounding area? Anyway- it has a small town's amenities, including a New World supermarket and a petrol station.

Tip: If you need provisions, or you're running low on fuel - get it in Westport! There aren't many petrol stations or shops in this neck of the woods.

Our local farmer had been here last in 1965, and left us a vety cryptic text message - 'Say hello to the barmaid in the 'Black and White Tavern' - I told her I'd come back some day and never did!' I had visions of finding a grey haired old biddy with a Gold Card, still waiting for her beau. Apparently there had been 41 taverns in Westport back then, and the sport was trying to have a drink in each one and stay standing.

We didn't spot the hotel… maybe it was one of those that had closed.

In Westport, you take the road to Karamea (90 km away - next fuel, 90 km). Now this road is the start of a very long dead end road. Before Karamea are a couple of small communities, most servicing the inland coal mining indistry. One is Granity. It's a reasonable size (well, comparitively!) but has no grocery store that we could see. It did, however, have a bottle shop (for alcohol) and a fish and chip shop. After running along the coats, the road heads inland and uphill, to an area of pastures. The weather changes up here - the hills catch the cloud, and you drive from blue skies to black rainclouds. Then down to the coast again.

Karamea

You see the first 'Welcome to Karamea' sign 30 kilometers from the village centre. I assume this is for the Karamea region. The houses here are really spread out. We drove past a sign for one village - and couldn't see a

Karamea Tavern

house in sight! (some village!) Eventually you come to the signs for the Karamea Holiday Park, where we'd stayed on our last visit. Then, about another 5 km down the road, you come to the edge of the village 'for real'. There's a 4 square supermarket (open 7 days until 7:00 pm), and another couple of little shops that don't look like they open too often. We stopped for provisions (wine, bananas, a bar of chocolate and insect repellant - on the cashier's advice!), and carried on to the hotel.

The Last Resort Hotel

We'd decided that we'd go slightly up-market for this trip, and give a miss to the (very basic) cabin that we'd last stayed in at the holiday park. The Last Resort is well set up, with a bar and restaurant. Our room was reasonably large, with an en suite bathroom, but no television (not a major issue at all). It was rather rurally built, with portholes rather than windows looking out to countryside at the back. The main windows looked out to a wooden wall - so not very picturesque. I quite missed the completely rural outlook we had at the holiday park, and the take weka that used to come for breakfast every morning!

After booking in We headed for the beach, for an evening photographic session, then to the Karamea tavern - the only other place in karamea where you can get a cooked evening meal. And an excellent meal it was too - Pepper steak for Art, and Fettucini for me. Served by the Four Square cashier. (You have to multi-task when you live in the sticks!)

Day 3 - Karamea

We had Grand Plans for today…. and the weather was looking good. We grabbed a coffee and muffin, and headed north.

Past Karamea, it's tarmac until you turn off to the arch and caves. Then it's gravel for 13 kilometers. I think they must have improved the road though, as our memory of it was of a very bumpy, pot-hole filled road. Our poor old MG sports car really struggled with it!

If you talk to the locals they'll tell you that Karamea has its own microclimate. It has less rain than other areas of the West Coast. I think it's because there is an area of flattish farming country before the ranges. But as you travel into the ranges the clouds begin to gather. We set off in sunshine, and arrived at the first car park in cloud, with a few spots of rain.

One thing I love about New Zealand, and in particular South Island, is the way they cater for tourists. They recognise how important they are for the local community economics. At the first car park, there are roofed seating areas and toilets. And tame wekas. These are protected birds, and supposedly rare. You won't believe they're rare by the time you leave the West Coast though - they're everywhere!

The paths to the archways and caves are well maintained, and easy to walk. And there are many photographic opportunities along the way. We experimented with moving water - see what you think!

By the time we got to the second car park, it was beginning to rain hard - so we wimped out, and drove back to the coast. Where it was dry, and if not exactly sunny, bright. We headed further north, to the end of the road, and the start of the Heaphy Track.

The Heaphy Track takes 3 to 5 days to complete, depending on your level of fitness (and, I assume, the weather). But we did do the first part of it, to the suspension bridge over the river. We'd seen a couple of young fit men complete the walk, so were really pleased to see a group of older walkers coming towards us. They all looked happy to be coming to the end of what, for them, was a five day walk. I take my hat off to them though - I'm lucky to get Art to walk for half an hour, so there was no way we were doing it!

Scotts Beach is well known for its seals, but is an hour's walk further up the coast. We were really lucky to come across a solitary seal on the beach.

Back in Karamea, we found a very rural sight - a couple of cows in the high Street. They shouldn't have been there, so we helped the locals round them up before heading back to the hotel. In the bar, we met the walkers! That evening was very entertaining…. well, let's put it this way - our drink bill was twice as large as our food bill! Our impression of The Last Resort is improving substantially.

Karamea Arch
Mirror Lake

Day 4 - Karamea to Christchurch (backwards)

We were up and ready to go at 7:15 - but unfortunately the hotel wasn't. It opened its doors at 7:30. Serves us right for not paying the bill the night before. But we had 6 hours to get to Greymouth before our train journey back to Christchurch, and Art had set his heart on seeing Cape Foulwind.

First stop was Westport, for fuel for the car and ourselves - bacon and eggs in a local cafe. We also found the Black and White Hotel - and very tatty it was!

Just out of Westport you see the signs for Cape Foulwind. It's about 16 kilometers off the main road, but you loop round so you don't have to retrace your steps. There's a modern lighthouse (and a photo of the old

lighthouse, that looks much more picturesque), and the start of a coastal path that heads south. Then we drove to the Seal Colony, and found lots of sunbathing seals and the other end of the coastal path. Worth the detour.

Then it was foot to the metal, arriving in Greymouth just after 12 noon. We dropped the car off, booked in for the train, left our case with them, then went for a walk along the harbour wall before finding a seat in the bar across the road from the railway station.

And of course the train was late - so we had another drink!

So now we're on the train, and I've just woken up from a nice snooze.The scenery's still lovely, but it's looking a tad chilly out there so I don't think I'll find the viewing carriage….

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