Upon arrival in Nelson we booked ferry tickets to Wellington, which lies across the Cook Strait on the North Island. The act of booking nonrefundable ferry tickets caused the famed TranzAlpine Express train to reopen for business. The TranzAlpine was on my must-do list for New Zealand, so we scrapped our ferry plans and rerouted ourselves back down the South Island to the TranzAlpine’s west coast terminus of Greymouth.
The windswept west coast is raw and sparsely populated. On average it rains every other day. The region’s largest town is Greymouth, home to about 8,000 people. Our drive there from Nelson took us over twisty mountain roads, with stops for a short hike, a waterfall, and some of the best savory pies we’ve had yet. Before Greymouth we stopped off for a couple days in the town of Westport, which is home to a beautiful art-deco municipal building, a coal-mining museum, and not much else.
The coal-mining museum chronicles the history of coal mining in the area. The centerpiece is a railroad car from one of the incline railways that used to shuttle coal from the mines down to the coast. The incline railway used a cable to lower the heavy car full of coal down an improbably steep slope. The operation sounded fantastically dangerous. Today most of the mines have closed and the incline railways are no longer in use. The ruins of the incline railway and mine, in the former town of Denniston, is now open to tourists.
The road to Denniston climbed nearly 2000 feet through an endless series of curves and switchbacks, giving us a great view of the west coast’s narrow strip of farmland that separates the mountains from the Tasman Sea. At the top we found the ruins of the mining operation. While the buildings have been removed, their outlines remain. Rusting artifacts litter the ground. We took a short walk down a trail and saw dozens of old mine carts that had been abandoned, some of them clearly victims of a derailment or other accident. Our overall impression was of Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – but real!
The town of Greymouth itself doesn’t have much to offer. It’s wet, windy, and past its prime. However it served as an adequate base for a couple of expeditions. To get to the Hokitika Gorge we had to navigate 2-lane country roads which, despite the 100kph speed limit, have one-lane bridges. Luckily there isn’t much traffic. Our youngest was thoroughly unimpressed by the stunning rain forest and otherworldly colors of the Hokitika River as it flows through the gorge. He was more tolerant of the Punakaiki (Pancake) Rocks, a coastal rock formation made of hundreds of layers of limestone. The Punakaiki Rocks also have a rock formation that, in the right tide + wave conditions, causes water to shoot straight up out of the ground. Pretty cool! (The conditions weren’t right when we were there).
We didn’t make it down to the famed Franz Josef or Fox glaciers. These are best seen from the air, and the weather wasn’t cooperative the day we could go. Next time?
With time to kill on our last day in Greymouth we stopped by Shantytown, another heritage village. Here we panned for gold and took a short ride on a restored steam train. Though our visit to this mostly-outdoor museum was cut a bit short by the torrential rain that started just after we arrived, it was worth the trip.
Next up, we head back to Christchurch on our way to Wellington.