Back in Australia, I debated about how to spend my time in New Zealand. I'd of course heard all the stories of its natural beauty, and knew it was set up for backpackers to a degree, but I had to do some research to find out what the options were. After consulting a few fellow travelers, I ended up booking a reservation with the Magic Travel Network. Similar to the Baz Bus system I used in South Africa earlier this year, it's a hop-on-hop-off bus system looping around the major sights, attractions and cities in New Zealand. I invested in a pass incorporating both the North and South Islands, with the idea of starting in Christchurch and ending in Auckland to catch a flight back to North America.
After a couple of days bumming around in Christchurch, I began my "Magic" adventure. The first leg of my trip consisted of ride on the famous (at least in New Zealand) TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth. The track cuts though the heart of the Alps in the northern part of the South Island, which if you believe the brochure is said to offer some of the most impressive scenery in the world.
The train chugged slowly out of Christchurch, passing through the Canterbury plains; acres and acres of green farmland pushing its way into the small foothills to the West.
I was a bit bummed at this point, as I ended up with a backwards-facing seat at the front of one of the middle cars. Not the most ideal seat for scenery. Fortunately, the train was equipped with an open-air "viewing carriage" which allowed snap-happy tourists like me to get outside for some photos.
As soon as I could, I navigated my way between the sun-hat wearing gray-hairs and the overpriced beverage carts and found a little corner to myself. Unfortunately, there were no chairs in the viewing car so we had to stand the entire time. For most people, there's no problem. In my case, it was a bit of a risk. As my head is pretty much level with the top of the train, it created a few scary moments when we approached the tunnels.
Thirty minutes into the ride, we ended up leaving New Zealand and entered Middle Earth. I forgot where I was. Beautiful emerald plains sloped up into pine covered hills. Small streams trickled through wide stone-covered riverbeds which chased the tracks of our train.
Tall, snow-capped peaks appeared on the horizon. Opal-blue lakes opened up in the foothills to our left and right. Flocks of white sheep pranced around on the grassy hills. Herds of cattle gathered under old, gnarled trees. Fields of unused pasture land were littered with yellows, purples, pinks and whites.
Our train rambled through small stone tunnels and over rickety steel bridges. We rolled over deep green ravines with pencil-thin waterfalls, and under rocky stone hills covered with gold flowers.
I've been on bullet trains in Japan, slow ramblers in the mountains of Peru, packed sleeper-cars in India and beautiful passenger lines in Eastern Europe. All have their own charms and beautiful scenery, but this was a ride I was truly sad to see end. In four hours, I saw landscapes it would have taken days to see in other parts of the world. New Zealand is blessed with scenery other countries would kill for. And this is just one small train line in one part of one island. How much more was there to see?
I guess it would have taken some of the drama out of the story, but it seems like The Fellowship could have saved a lot of time and had a better trip if they'd just taken the train.