* This article first appeared here in the Sunday Times
We sat waiting rather impatiently for a lucky break in the clouds. Several of the flights before and after ours had already been cancelled because of heavy fog and cloud cover. To be honest I’m not sure why I was surprised – this was after all Aotearoa, Maori for ‘the long white cloud’.
Our anxiety was fairly well-founded; the ensuing trip had been meticulously planned out and would involve planes, trains, and helicopters – all to explore one of the most dramatically beautiful places on earth. The voice on the speakers above suddenly announced that boarding was happening, and the fidgety crowd of us nervous travellers quickly made a b-line for the boarding gate. Only minutes later we were flying from the North to South Island, high above a cloud that seemed to stretch the length of the horizon.
While this trip would take in some spellbinding landscapes, it was also a deeper journey. The tragic passing of my father during the pandemic was exasperated by New Zealand’s tight borders, meaning I was only able to visit three months later – the challenge of a globally-spread family as I live in South Africa. This was a necessary mother-and-son-trip, to allow nature to both nurture and usher in the beginning of a healing process. For that is one of travel’s subconscious gifts. Where wild landscapes help provide perspective and invite healing through beauty.
Our South Island sojourn would begin in Christchurch, then traverse the breadth of the island and finally explore the West Coast, before making the journey back home in reverse.
Christchurch is the South Island’s most populous city and living up to its namesake, parts of the city bear an uncanny resemblance to Oxford, after which much of it is intentionally modelled. Following the River Avon as it winds through town – in the comfort of a traditional punting boat – it’s hard to imagine you’re not in the United Kingdom. Not incidental perhaps, as our guide later joked that the city is ‘sometimes more English than England’.
The 2010 and 2011 quakes reeked a devastating effect on the town, but a decade later the city seems to usher in a new lease of life. Most people knew someone who was affected and as a local told me, while the shocks were strong, so was the resilience of the people.
Hagley Park is the large and central green lung of the city, proudly wearing its autumn coat when we arrived. Thankfully, our home base while exploring the town was The George Hotel, set on the fringe of the park. Initially catching my attention as the city’s only boutique five-star hotel, we quickly realised that it was not only the location that sets the property apart, but also the perceptive hospitality and the attention to the finer details.
Since sheep famously outweigh outnumber Kiwis almost six-fold, the melt-in-the-mouth Lumina Lamb Rump served up by the talented kitchen at the in-house 50Bistro was a must-eat. Consider it the lamb equivalent of Wagu beef; finely marbled, 100% natural, free-range, grass-fed and finished on specially cultivated chicory herb pastures.
As avid wine sippers, my mother and I were desperate to taste our way through a few of the local wineries. Much of the Canterbury hinterland has been converted to viticulture with roughly 75 estates calling the region home. Here, Riesling and Pinot Noir dominate the local plantings. The amusingly-named Cheeky Wine Tours lead us to the George’s Road Wines where Kirk Bray, guided us through his family of boutique wines, and lastly the intimate tasting room of Torlesse where I was delighted to discover a Verdelho; picture the fragrant Viognier producing a love child with a crisp Sauvignon and you have a Verdelho.
Finally, it was time for the activity around which the trip had all been planned. In researching my New Zealand visit, I’d read about a tourist train that traversed the breadth of the South Island – including tunnelling directly through the Southern Alps. The TranzAlpine begins its epic 250-kilometre journey in Christchurch and ends in Greymouth four hours later.
The carriages are split between seats arranged around tables (used to accommodate groups or families) and then rows of comfy padded seats. The audio commentary offers insight and anecdotes along the way – including an introduction to some of the entertaining characters – the devious hotel owner who would reportedly deepen the river by removing stones, forcing desperate motorists to use his crossing services for a small fee.
The landscape shifts from farmlands to deep ravines where glacier-blue water and white river sands are cradled by forest-fringed cliffs. Approaching the mountains, the tracks take in four viaducts and fifteen tunnels, adding to the thrill – and of course best enjoyed from the open-air viewing carriage. After the fresh air, the dining cabin’s kitchen provides flat whites to help defrost, followed by tasty lamb shanks (with a glass or two of bubbly somewhere in between).
Possibly the most impressive part of the journey is that you traverse the Southern Alps – the mountainous backbone that runs 80kms down the South Island. The Alps are the meeting place of two colliding tectonic plates, forming the Alpine fault – a natural phenomenon so dramatic that it’s easily visible from space. These tempestuous plates cause the range to rise 5-8mm per year.
Erosion, however, reduces them by a similar amount annually. To give you an idea, if no erosion took place, the mountain would today reach a staggering altitude of twenty kilometres – more than double the height of Everest. At their current height of 2500m, crossing the range is still an engineering feat – accomplished through a steep tunnel, in which an additional engine is required to provide the boost along the incline of the track. Eventually, the journey levels out to swampy waterways, until finally reaching Greymouth.
Our hired car would take us the final two hours of the journey to Frans Joseph – the West Coast village named after its resident glacier. Soon after arriving, there was another lucky break in the cloud, and in minutes the towering and snow-laden mountains that once towered above now lay underneath as one of the Helicopter Line choppers whisked over the white peaks and valleys of the Ka Tiritiri-o-te-Moana – ‘frothing waters of the Ocean’.
The glacier is the largest of the 3000 in the country and as a result of global warming the total glacier mass has seen a 40% reduction – that’s only since the mid-19th century. It’s a 5-10-minute flight up, and then weather-permitting, a short landing and break on the glacier. The silence, grandeur, and utter otherness of the place was spellbinding. Once my jaw lifted from the floor I became giddy with delight, prancing about, making snow angels and almost forgetting to take a few snaps for some Insta-feed envy.
Back in town at Rainforest Retreat, the tropical sanctuary lived up to its name. A gentle rain began to clothe the forest, with the shifting clouds offering occasional glimpses of the mountains nearby. Our tree-house spa bath provided the space for necessary reflection. With a glass of sparkling wine in hand, a toast was in order; as we looked back on an exceptional journey through a land where the collision of elements has created one of the planet’s most dynamic landscapes.
Optional Side Bar: Fact Finder
- A stay at The George starts at R1500pp sharing
- TranzAlpine Train tickets cost from R900 per person one way. Booking ahead is essential at
- Cheeky Wine Tours facilitates not only wine excursions but also,Mt cook, Kaikoura, Akaroa, Hanmer, Christchurch City and Lord of the Rings. Tours from R700pp.
- Rainforest Retreat accommodation ranges from R350pp sharing for a room to R2500pp sharing for the Deluxe Spa Tree House (breakfast and minibar inclusive). rainforest.nz
- Scenic chopper flights including a glacier landing cost R2800 with helicopter.co.nz
- The quickest way to New Zealand is either flying Qantas via Sydney, or Emirates via Dubai.