New Zealand cycle trek, Chapter 12: All aboard for farewell climb over Alps

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 20, 2016 19:22

Bateman’s Blog

After 10 days of cycling on New Zealand’s South Island, Ben and I make the obvious decision: to do it again.

But not on heavy touring bikes laden with gear. We’re not about to pedal up the same steep, grueling Southern Alps passes a second time. No, we are smarter than that.

We do it by train. We book passage on the famed Christchurch-to-Greymouth TranzAlpine Express, and leave the climbing to a couple of diesel engines.

No, the TranzAlpine doesn’t follow all of our 500-mile Christchurch-to-Queenstown cycling route. But it does climb Arthur’s Pass on its mountainous, 139-mile journey  from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea. And it does follow the Waimakariri River canyon, along which we pedaled during the very steep second day of our bike tour.

We could see the tracks from the Bealey Hotel, where we stayed midway through our own coast-to-coast trek and where we heard tall tales of mammoth Moa birds in the brush.

There are plenty of good reasons why at least 999 of 1,000 New Zealand tourists pick the TranzAlpine over touring bikes: comfortable seats, huge windows, open-air viewing cars, courteous staff members, a rolling bar and café car, and little or no chance of breaking a sweat, getting bit by sandflies, cramping up, losing a spoke, snapping a chain or getting a flat.

30-chris-grizzled-train-stoppedAll this said, the TranzAlpine’s Feb. 12 run left a few of our fellow passengers far more stressed out than Ben and I had been anytime during our 10-day ride. And by our conductor’s account, more had gone wrong on this trip than any on her six years with Kiwi Rail.

In fact, so much went wrong that the railroad sent us a 50 percent refund. Sure, the train was four hours late arriving back in Christchurch, but I was once 12 hours late on the California Zephyr and Amtrak didn’t throw me a dime.

Things begin to go south less than halfway into our journey west: The air conditioning gives it up just beyond Springfield. Although no more than 80 degrees outside, our car gets pretty stuffy.

Here’s a rough timetable of what happened next:

9:30 a.m. – Train stops amid sheep ranches, and the onboard crew works on AC.

10 – Train resumes journey.

10:05 – AC fails again.

10:30 – Staff passes out free ice cream bars to passengers.

Noon – We are told technicians in Arthur’s Pass will again attempt a repair.

12:30 – Train leaves Arthur’s Pass; AC still blowing hot air.

2:20 – TranzAlpine arrives in Greymouth, nearly two hours late. Efforts to fix AC resume after passengers get off.

3:30 – Eastbound TranzAlpine – the same train turned around – leaves Greymouth. AC still a furnace.

4:20 – Joanna announces the TranzAlpine is so late that a bus – apparently much faster and certainly much cooler than the train – will meet us at Arthur’s Pass. There, passengers needing to get to Christchurch in time to catch planes, make dinner dates or go to bed early can switch.

4:22 – A Taiwanese couple sitting in front of us ask us to translate Joanna’s accented remarks “into American English.” On hearing it, they panic and immediately sign up for the bus.

5:45 – We arrive at Arthur’s Pass; no bus is there.

6:45 – The bus still hasn’t arrived. Increasingly edgy passengers ask Joanna to call their airlines and hold planes for them. Rolling her eyes, she says she’ll do what she can.

7 – A bus driver walks up to our rail car and asks if “someone here needs a coach.” That’s us, we say. He goes back to retrieve the bus, which is parked next to the wrong tracks.

7:30 – About a third of our passengers switch, and the bus leaves.

7:40 – We leave.

7:45 – A fellow TranzAlpine passenger comments that passing out free beer “is the least this railroad can do” to ease our alleged anxiety. This does not happen.

8:30 – Beer – fully paid for – sells out at the bar car. Water, coffee, tea, soft drinks are now free, but going fast.

8:45 – In a moving mea culpa, Joanna apologizes over the PA for all that has gone wrong and thanks passengers for their understandingHAY-BALES-FOR-KIWI-NOTES.

9 – More free ice cream bars and cookies are passed out.

10:05 – We arrive in Christchurch, about four hours late.

10: 35 – We eat dinner at our hotel, which arrives at our table on time.

Yeah, we could have joined the chorus of discontent, making believe we were wronged bit players in some extremely low budget disaster movie – or more properly, an inconvenience movie.

But look at it this way: On the TranzAlpine we covered nearly 280 miles of gorgeous scenery, got free ice cream bars, enjoyed great views from the open-air car (where Mother Nature’s air conditioning was on) and sweated but a small fraction of the gallonage we shed pedaling.   Also, I love trains. So would I complain about spending four more hours on one?

Kiwi Notes

 Answers to a few not-so-pressing New Zealand questions:

Q: What’s with those hay bales shrink-wrapped in pastel?   

SPIDER-WEB-FOR-KIWI-NOTESA: A machine first bales the hay then wraps it in air-tight plastic to preserve it for later use as sheep and cattle feed. The huge, multi-colored wrapped bales are a common sight on South Island pastures.

The outfit that makes the wrap points out that no hay barn is necessary to keep the bales dry, but concedes that “they can smell, and some people (and their neighbors) don’t appreciate this.”

Q: What spins those gossamer webs around twigs of roadside brush?   

 A: The builders are very common nursery web spiders. The females carry egg sacs in their jaws, then build tent-like webs on the twigs as hatching becomes imminent. Next, they stand guard outside the silken tents as the young are born and grow within.

The males? Typically, they get eaten by females after mating. But some of the craftier guys cheat death by bringing their eight-legged brides a distracting wedding gift — typically a fly. If this behavior sounds vaguely human, it probably is.

Q: What is an “accident black spot”?

 A: If you see a sign warning that one is ahead, slow down. In New Zealand, black spots designate the sites of at least three and usually many more fatal or serious injury accidents within the past five years. They are earmarked by the Ministry of Transportation for extra vigilance and engineering improvements aimed at lowering the crash rate below the “black spot” threshold.

Perhaps because violent crime is minimal in New Zealand, auto accidents are morbidly fascinating to Kiwis. “Serious Crash Unit,” a TV show on accident investigations, is popular nationwide.

Summaries of a few coming episodes:

“The SCU uncovers some disturbing facts when it probes a crash involving a 4-by-4.”

 “Two vehicles are destroyed in a fatal crash on Albany Bridge, but who was to blame?”

“A young dad crashes his car on the way to visit his kids, and the SCU suspects his brakes were to blame.”

“A man heading home from a party crashes his car into a tree. Was drink involved? Or were car parts in his trunk a clue to the real cause?”

BLACK-SPOT-SIGN-FOR-KIWI-NOTES“A driver dies when his modified car is carved in two by a harrowing collision with a rubbish truck.”

“A mother is badly injured when her car collides with a truck. Was she distracted by a phone call?”

“An American father and son, bicycling through a South Island black spot, slip on a dead possum, bounce off several hay bales, and become ensnared in spider webs. The SCU promises answers.”

Read previous chapters at




Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 20, 2016 19:22
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