Having completed a roadie from Picton to Kaikoura during the coastal corridor’s massive repair after 2016’s devastating earthquake, this train journey was always on the ‘to do’ list.
Seeing the rail track so close to the road was incentive enough to imagine the relaxed comfort of a train to embrace the scenery. Gazing at the scenery from big glass windows is one thing. Standing in the bracing wind of an open-air observation carriage is a different experience altogether – better for photographs, lousy on the hairdo.
The Coastal Pacific is one of KiwiRail’s three Great Journeys of New Zealand – 274kms between Christchurch and Picton, 175 bridges and 22 tunnels. While the hinterland is picturesque and a considerable part of the entire journey, the 98km coastal leg either side of Kaikoura is the most spectacular. Squeezed between mountains and the sea, the rail track handshakes with the road in several places. Coming face to face with passengers in Maui vans, truckies and holidaymakers – close encounters become a honking of horns and cheery waves. Passing within cooee of homes in seaside villages and backyard housing on the outskirts of larger towns; locals also enjoy their daily contact. Train spotting is still obviously a favourite pastime.
Apart from the relaxation of the trip itself, it’s also informative. Headphones invite tuning in to a recorded documentary at various intervals. You learn that the Canterbury Plains are the most ecologically affected in the country; that rivers are snow fed from the glacial headlands in the Southern Alps; that ‘climate change’ actually dates back more than 5000 years, when ‘climatic changes’ affected the area’s vegetation; and that the unusual patterns of Canterbury’s rivers are dubbed braided channels, due to the watery threads.
The landscape’s history is as fascinating as the towns. None more so than learning about Parnassus and its infamous cocktail – devised by Cheviot’s pioneers because it was a ‘dry’ area. How’s this for bravery: a concoction of Methylated spirits, Baxter’s lung painkiller and Worcester sauce!!!! Hardly nectar of the gods – from which Parnassus was named. Apparently, a nearby hill bears a similarity with a Greek mountain that was the mythical home of the god Apollo and muses. History is a marvellous thing.
Chugging between Canterbury and Marlborough, the landscape changes from rich farmland and rivers of the plains, to a coastline and subsequent vineyard-clad slopes of New Zealand’s largest wine area. Marlborough is also New Zealand’s home of salt. At around 1500 hectares, Lake Grassmere holds a unique position by the sea and ability to harness sunlight. Carved into a mosaic of settling ponds years ago, sea water is pumped in and left to nature, the sun and winds. As the water evaporates, only salt remains – harvested and distributed by Dominion Salt – here and overseas.
The sea also plays a huge role in the quality of Marlborough’s wine. Awatere is just 10kms from the ocean – an aspect which instils a richer taste to the grapes grown in the surrounding slopes. Everywhere you look, vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see – right to the sea!
Nowhere is the sea more visible and had more impact on an area however, than Kaikoura. The foreshore changed forever when the 7.8 Richter earthquake heaved the seabed up nine metres in places. Devastating Ohau’s seal colony and inland nursery, crayfish and paua beds for several years; anyone who didn’t know the coastline pre-earthquake would have no appreciation of how much things changed here.
At times Mother Nature shows no mercy. But she also forgives and repairs – maybe differently; in some ways better perhaps. While life in Kaikoura is almost back to normal, no-one really knows how the resident sperm whales were affected. But the seals adapted, crayfish and paua are back on the plate – with the return of the legendary Nins Bin on this exquisite coastal highway. There’s a new outlet on the block too – along with various new look-out points guarded by carved pou and information boards commemorating the massive repair of both the road and rail along this extraordinary coastline.
This is a fantastic trip. Cherish it as a one-day return. Divide it in two and explore Picton. Enjoy it one way as a great South Island experience. Stop off at Kaikoura for a few days and marvel at this precious, beautiful place. However you do it – just do it. The Coastal Pacific is truly one of this country’s great journeys.