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Running along the Pacific Ocean just north of Kaikoura on the Coastal Pacific train. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

The Coastal Pacific train rolls out of the pretty harbour town of Picton, perched in the Marlborough Sounds on the top of New Zealand's South Island, and climbs first into mist and then into a clearing sky.

It is reputedly one of the great train journeys, scything through the Marlborough wine region, washing along nearly 100km of Pacific Ocean coastline and tracking alongside the Kaikoura mountains. It travels both ways, of course, but today I'm heading south.

The main passenger carriages have mostly seats in pairs that can be turned to make "fours". Seats are ticketed and allocated. There is a lot of legroom, small tables, mains power and a hat rack above on which to put extra items.

Soon we are climbing up and over the Dashwood and Weld passes. Sir Edwin Dashwood was an English baronet and early explorer, here looking for good land, and Sir Frederick Weld established a sheep run in 1847.

Soon, to the east, there's a view over Cloudy Bay and Cook Strait. Captain James Cook first sailed into these straits in his ship Endeavour in 1769. It's a tricky spot, the Tasman Sea and Pacific Oceans meeting here and causing dramatic water conditions.

Soon, on the left is the Cape Campbell lighthouse, marking the end of the Cook Strait, then the salt lakes of Grassmere, where seawater is allowed into shallow ponds, and evaporation leaves the salt behind. It is used for bleaching paper, preservatives for timbers, salt licks for animals, and only 5 per cent goes for domestic purposes.

Enough sightseeing and history, and the regular narrative supplied through a headset at the relevant moments in this journey. It's time for lunch. The train, run by KiwiRail, is only a few carriages long, with a cafe carriage and an open-viewing carriage. Doors open automatically, and I walk down to the outside dining car. There is a choice of nicely prepared sandwiches and rolls ($NZ6 to $NZ7, approximately $5 or $6), pies and savouries, all-day breakfasts, hot meals such as Thai green chicken curry ($NZ13), beef bourguignon ($NZ12) or baked Agria potato ($NZ10), coffee, tea, soft drinks or alcoholic drinks.

As I settle with my sandwich, the Coastal Pacific is passing through Ward, named for Sir Joseph Ward, who was prime minister from both 1906 to 1912 and 1928 to 1930. He was born the son of an alcoholic who died aged 31 in Melbourne and his mother moved the family to Southland and opened a boarding house to give her children some financial security. Joseph Ward didn't go to secondary school and, despite his own later insolvency, was at the helm during important construction phases of the train tracks of New Zealand. I'm grateful to him for his part in putting rails under me.

Soon I am back out in the open viewing car, enjoying the wind as much as the view. It's a stand-up car with big rails - one closer than the other to keep passengers away from the open sides. The children love it.

But there's a good view inside, too. The hat rack is transparent, as is the panel above it - coupled with the big windows, this gives good, almost-all-round vision.

And now we are down on the coast, heading for Kaikoura, the South Pacific Ocean rolling in - the next land over the horizon is Chile.

The train tracks follow the curves of the coast for almost 100km - a great snake, passing over the Clarence River, with the Kaikoura mountains inland and, later, the 2610m Mt Manakau.

The Kaikoura mountains are snow-capped and dramatic.

And then we are heading further into the Canterbury region, the biggest administrative region in New Zealand, with a population of about half a million people, and crossing the Waiau River, famous for trout and salmon fishing. Rising in the Spenser Mountains and running east to the Pacific Ocean, it is a braided river, with a wide, criss-crossed, stony bed. This type of braiding, caused by a meandering river in a wide bed, coming through young, rapidly eroding mountains only occurs in Canterbury, Alaska and Canada, and parts of the Himalayas.

The town of Domett is named for another man who was prime minister, albeit briefly -Alfred Domett - who interests me for having been both premier and poet, and a friend of Robert Browning. His book of poetry Amohia, A South Sea Day Dream is one of his best known, published in 1872 and describing Maori life. His book Flotsam and Jetsam (1877) was dedicated to Browning.

After the smaller wine-growing region of Waipara, we are on the home run through the late, low sun, towards Christchurch.

The cafe car is announced closed and sheep give way to sheds. Too soon we are nosing into this coastal city at the end of a great journey.

FACT FILE

See travel agents, many of whom have recently been trained by South Island tourism representatives and are focused on putting together packages there, with Air New Zealand having started direct flights between Perth and Christchurch late last year.

For more on the trains of New Zealand, and bookings, visit kiwirailscenic.co.nz.

For more on New Zealand, visit newzealand.com.

For flights, visit airnewzealand.co.nz.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

Trains and ferries link islands

KiwiRail treats its Interislander ferries as an extension of itself, so it is possible to travel the length of North and South Islands and across the Cook Strait by train. The ferries are seen as a link in the service, taking rail passengers between the two lines.

The other great train journey on South Island is the TranzAlpine, which crosses the Southern Alps at Arthur's Pass, as it travels between Christchurch on the east coast and Greymouth on the west. It is possible to "complete the loop" by riding the Coastal Pacific from Christchurch to Picton, driving between Picton and Greymouth, and then joining the TranzAlpine from Greymouth back to Christchurch. Or the other way round, of course.