TranzAlpine: A train journey worthy of Instagram video

Siobhan Downes /

The TranzAlpine from Greymouth to Christchurch is regarded as one of the most scenic train journeys in the world.

Ah, the romance of the rails. Spending leisurely hours staring out the window, watching the scenery unfold. Striking up a conversation with the mysterious stranger in the seat beside you. 

Agonising over which filters to use for your Instagram photos.

I'm on the TranzAlpine train from Greymouth to Christchurch, widely regarded as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world.

Keep your camera out at all times on the TranzAlpine.

Keep your camera out at all times on the TranzAlpine.

At least, that's what the KiwiRail magazine tells me, as I settle in for the four-hour ride. The magazine also informs me that there is a #NZbytrain competition where I can post photos I've taken onboard to social media and go in the draw to win a travel voucher.

Challenge accepted, I think to myself, digging my iPhone out of my bag.

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The TranzAlpine crosses the Waimakariri River.

The TranzAlpine crosses the Waimakariri River.

Disaster. It's running low on battery. I start to panic, cursing myself for not charging it earlier. Maybe someone in the carriage has a portable charger I can borrow?

I don't need to worry. Next to my seat are a pair of power sockets. I plug my charger in and wait anxiously, thinking of all of that scenery that is just waiting to be uploaded to Instagram.

When my phone is charged, I head out to the train's observation deck. Tourists armed with iPads and fat, expensive DSLR cameras stand guarding their spots on either side of the open-air viewing platform.

It's drizzling as we snake our way into the mountains. But the hardy snappers zip up their rain jackets, and hold their cameras at the ready.

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You can learn a lot about photography from this bunch. For instance, there are apparently three main vistas you should be attempting to capture while riding the TranzAlpine.

The first is a rainbow. They appear with surprising frequency on the side of the tracks.

I just so happen to be standing in prime position on the right hand side of the observation deck when, out of the native flora, a spectacular multi-coloured arch emerges.

I'm going to get so many likes, I think gleefully, lining up the shot.


It's a Trainbow! #nzbytrain #rainbow #travelgram #newzealand #tranzalpine

A photo posted by Siobhan Downes (@siobhan.downes) on

I barely have time to snap my photo before I am jostled out of the way by a woman brandishing a zoom lens.

Another popular shot is any livestock that should happen to reside along the route.  

As we pass a sprawling quilt of paddocks, another woman positions her iPad like a long-range hunting rifle. She zooms in close, framing the faces of a few bored-looking sheep.

The ultimate money shot is, inexplicably, a photo of the train itself.  

It is a hard-won photo, achieved only when the driver twists around a bend, causing the front of the train to move briefly into sight.

"CORNER," someone barks as we begin to curl around the tracks, and everyone leans dangerously over the side, thrusting their cameras out with reckless abandon in a bid to capture the train at its best possible angle.


A photo posted by Siobhan Downes (@siobhan.downes) on

But the TranzAlpine is a slippery mistress, and she soon straightens out again, much to the chagrin of the paparazzi pack.

We reluctantly return to our carriages to avoid being poisoned by the train's fumes as we approach the Otira Tunnel, which, at 8.5 kilometres, was the longest tunnel in the British Empire when it opened in 1923.

It took 15 years for an army of men with pickaxes to construct, and it takes 15 minutes for the train to rattle through. Unsurprisingly, there is no mobile signal.

I have to wait until we stop at Arthur's Pass to get my Instagram fix.


A photo posted by @prince_of_colombo on

Some passengers opt to get off the train so they can say they have stepped foot in the South Island's highest altitude settlement, but I barely look up from my phone. I am uploading my rainbow photo - which I caption "trainbow", in a moment of great wit and genius.

Before long the train is moving again, and a voice announces over the intercom that we are nearing the most photographic section of the journey.

"Get yourselves a spot on the observation deck!"

I join the mad rush of bodies to the back of the train, where the team of amateur photographers I encountered earlier are already standing their ground.

There is a short but intense debate between one couple about which side of the train will offer the best views. In the end, they go their separate ways, muttering to themselves about aperture and shutter speed. 

The Staircase Viaduct over the Waimakariri River is the highest crossing of the journey, and the lead-up is indeed spectacular, all plunging gorges and golden tussock.


A photo posted by Alex Block (@alexblock) on

I take it all in through the screen of my phone.

As I write this now, I am searching through my photo gallery for inspiration.

I have little memory of the scenery, because I didn't end up spending leisurely hours staring out the window, watching it unfold.

I have no stories to tell you about my conversation with the mysterious stranger in the seat beside me, because I didn't end up speaking to anyone.

But I do have my Instagram account. And a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

The writer travelled on the TranzAlpine courtesy of Tourism West Coast and KiwiRail.




Coleraine Greymouth offers all of the comforts of home with its spacious suites, tastefully decorated with original art and local photography. Set in the middle of Greymouth, it's the perfect base to spend the night before you set off on your TranzAlpine journey. An executive king room is priced from $165 a night, or upgrade to an executive king spa, including a double spa bath, from $185.

The writer stayed courtesy of Tourism West Coast.

In Christchurch, the five-star Hotel Montreal, overlooking Cranmer Square, offers a luxurious end to your TranzAlpine adventure. All rooms feature a private balcony, 50-inch plasma television, iPad, complimentary high-speed wifi, modern bathrooms, unique furnishings, and art works. The standard junior suite, with generous living area, spacious wardrobe, and en-suite bathroom, starts from $450 a night.

The writer stayed courtesy of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.

 - Stuff


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