Once More, Into the Mountains

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17/03/08
Yes, I realize that it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and you may have been expecting an appropriately themed blog post from me as a result. Well, sorry to disappoint, but after the weekend debauchery, I haven’t touched a drop on this, one of the holiest beer days. I just didn’t have it in me. Rather, I was carrying on with my trip, now heading back into the mountains of Arthur’s Pass. Tonight I’m staying in NZ’s first hostel for the night, and tomorrow I’ll be doing a full day of hiking before getting back onto the train bound for Christchurch. The journey today took me right from one coast to the other, in what would probably have taken me at least a couple days. The train was quite comfortable, but I’ve gotta be honest, doing nothing all day is a pain in the ass. I was nodding off several times due to lack of stimulation. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Do read on and check out the day’s map for full gory details of the trip, and my attempt at physical activity at the end of the journey.

I had a really great night’s sleep finally last night, after staying up only a little late in order to get some photos posted on flickr. Did you check them out? My other two roomies were already in bed and trying to go to sleep, so there was no trouble with people coming in and out at all hours. When the alarm actually woke me up, I decided to tack on an extra half hour, since I had very little to do other than put some stuff in my day bag and head out the door. I’d already packed up the big bag and locked it up for safe keeping while I was in Arthur’s Pass. I even had a free shuttle to take me to the train station to make sure I made it on time. In the end, he was sort of late, and we were cutting it quite close, but it was still no sweat. At the station, it’s very low-tech. The lady had a printed sheet with names that she’d check off, and then hand-write a boarding pass for you. No paper trail, no receipts or anything for me.

I headed down the platform and boarded my car. It was a packed train for the trip from Christchurch to Greymouth. I was sharing a table with 3 other people. An older English couple, and a Vietnamese fellow a few years younger than me. We made some idle chit chat for most of the rail trip, and it was fairly pleasant. Most of the way across the mountains, there was also some commentary being provided by the onboard staff, telling us stories of the various little towns we’d pass through, along with some colourful tales of some of the locals, like the fellow in the 30’s who ran a car ferry, charging a princely sum of 1 Pound. People didn’t think it was a fair price, and tried fording the river in their cars. When they’d get stuck, he’d happily offer his towing services… for 5 Pounds! Rumour had it he would also dredge the river, to ensure cars wouldn’t make it! Then there was the story of the Auckland couple in the 90’s, who noticed a motel / tavern for sale in Otira, and decided to put an offer on it, which was accepted, for the low price of 70,000. While signing the papers, they realized they had actually bought the majority of the town, including a row of housing, the municipal buildings, and the town swimming pool. They still own it all, and there is a rumour they recently turned down a million + buyout offer.

Those were the sorts of things that kept the trip rolling along and kept me interested most of the way. The scenery wasn’t ideal for the trip, as there was pesky clouds over much of the trip. Also, it was virtually impossible to take any decent pictures through the windows, as there was a horrible reflection the whole way. There was a viewing platform, but it was 5 cars away, and the only time I tried to make my way there, it was super-crowded, so I didn’t bother. The line crosses many viaducts and traverses 19 tunnels in the journey from east to west (well, and obviously also west to east). The longest tunnel being Otira tunnel, which at the time was the longest tunnel in the British empire I do believe. It takes almost 15 minutes to get through, and it boasts a one in three grade, which is quite steep. It has a clever system for getting rid of fumes, but it means after a train goes through, you have to wait 20 minutes for the next one to be allowed through, in order to allow the air to be flushed.

Coming out at the other end, the end of the line was Greymouth, a town I’d already been through on my bike, on a rainy day. This day wasn’t that much better, but at least it wasn’t raining this time around. I actually went back to the exact same place to eat lunch this time. I started at another place, but the person taking orders at the counter was so surly that I told her to cancel my order and that I’d rather eat elsewhere. In all honesty, I didn’t travel half way around the world, cycle 4200km, and go for a nice train trip just to have someone be grumpy to me! Luckily, this has virtually never happened to me on this trip, which is amazing, considering there isn’t tipping here! Anyway, my second try was a success, and I even had a shamrock Swiss roll for desert, which was my only real ‘green’ option of the day.

After lunch, it was time to get back on the big train. This time however, the car I was put in was virtually deserted! There were only 5 of us on the whole thing. Plus, we were right next to the viewing platform car, so this time, I was able to freely pop back and snap some shots when I felt like it, and kick back in my group of 4 seats to listen to music and just enjoy the ride in peace. It was perfect. Shame the weather wasn’t. In about two hours, we were back at Arthur’s Pass, and it was time to explore a little bit. I headed straight for the DOC office to ask about tramps. There was really only one option, called Avalanche Creek trail. It’s a 6-8 hour walk that I plan to do in about 5, which takes you up steep slopes to about 1840m, offering you some amazing views of the surrounding areas. They warned me that it might be windy, and advised me to fill in an intentions form if I go up, just in case. There are some pretty steep dropoffs in the area. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

After that, I went to the hostel to see if they’d gotten my late-night email requesting a room. Luckily they had, because as it turns out, I got the last bed! Once again, things worked out for me, which I’m thankful for. I settled into my room, then decided to go for a walk, after the day on the train. I found a trail called Devil’s Punchbowl Falls track, which was supposed to be about an hour. Well, it was more like a half hour, but it offered some pretty awesome views along the way, and the falls were quite nice.

I wrapped up my Arthur’s Pass tour by calling in to the Wobbly Kea restaurant and bar for supper. Fresh chicken tortellini with a mushroom sauce and shaved parmesan on top. It was very delightful, and I even ate all the onions that surprised me by hiding in the sauce. After all, the little hiker needs his nourishment for the big hike, right? In summary, I’m glad that I came up to Arthur’s Pass, and am looking forward to tomorrow’s hike. I need some exercise 🙂 Till then, hope you’re all doing great.

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