For the return journey we had the option of either picking up a relocation vehicle to drive north, jumping on a plane directly for home, or booking ourselves on the Coastal Pacific for the rail journey to Picton and then either flying or taking the Northern Explorer from Wellington to Auckland. A couple of times before, we had tried to fit in the Coastal Pacific train trip after the service resumed on December 1, 2018 – following the Kaikōura earthquake on November 14, 2016 that shut the service down – but to no avail, so that was an interesting option.
Then the thought occurred … why not fly from Picton with Sounds Air? I had done this many years ago (in quite turbulent conditions as it happened). So our thinking was … let’s get off the train, hop on the 3.10pm flight from Sounds Air to Wellington and connect with a flight to Auckland – home by 7pm if we were smart about it. A few phone calls to check out the flights and it was all organised. Sounds Air made it even easier as they pick up passengers from their Picton office. I was so surprised at the costs: we flew at short notice so $120 each, but if you book ahead that goes down to $59 per person (dependent upon the day of the flight). That’s similar to or cheaper than a ferry ticket on either carrier, so price-wise this is absolutely an option. Costs for the train range from $89 to $159 depending on time of year and booking.
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So, we stayed the night in a motel in Christchurch, ready to get to the train station to board the Coastal Pacific at 6.30am on Saturday morning. And at 6.15am we were out waiting for our Uber – only our second time of using the service that we’d signed up for the night before to get into the city for dinner. We could have walked the distance (just over a kilometre) but who are we kidding – that wasn’t happening! We just wanted to get there relaxed, warm and ready to board the train and get some coffee and breakfast into us. We loaded our luggage into the baggage car and found our specified seats. We had a table, which was great for us as we always have our computers out doing this and that, and the train wasn’t packed full so there was plenty of space for the two of us.
The train has a dining car that offers pre-prepared food, real coffee, drinks, etc. – not what you might dream of after seeing movies with awesome meals in fancy railway dining cars, but the food available is Wishbone, a well-known food and café brand that we use regularly at Wellington and Auckland airports and hospitals. When faced with a Wishbone food cabinet I take forever to choose what I want, depending on what meal it is – the Caesar salad or hot roast chicken with mash is a regular for me, the scalloped potatoes and the odd sandwich as well. I don’t run to the sugary baked goods very often, but the caramel chocolate slice can be cut up into tiny squares and eaten slowly over the day along with a couple of coffees – no problem. Fair to say I enjoy the food experience for what it is, nicely presented healthy optioned tasty food options. The staff are always so accommodating and helpful to everyone as well. We have found this across the board, as we have now completed all three main rail journeys over the years.
The Coastal Pacific journey is so visually interesting, changing from city environs to Canterbury Plains farmland vistas, then climbing through the mountains and traversing the Okaharia Viaduct along the way. The first glimpses of water on the Kaikōura coastline brings a wave of anticipation for the rugged coastal vista we will be travelling alongside for the next couple of hours, while close-up views of some of the rail tunnels and bridges that have been repaired help us appreciate the tremendous effort that has gone into the reconstruction – a real treat being able to observe the roadway and works still underway in a very relaxed, comfortable mode of transport. No driving for da Brucie here – we could both enjoy the trip together. The train stops at Kaikōura, and you can leave it and stay a few days in the area to take in a whale-watching trip, or even swim with the dolphins. We didn’t get off, and the best stretch of the trip was still ahead of us. Our friends Dave and Lynn run Surf Watch accommodation, 16km north of Kaikōura on the cliff top; they came out to their viewing point and waved to us on the train as we went by. The Rock spent a lot of the trip in the open-air viewing carriage taking photos and talking with other travellers, pointing out things they might not be aware of to look out for. Those with a sharp eye will see plenty of seals in the water and on the rocks along the Kaikōura coasta, and the lucky ones may catch a glimpse of dolphins or possibly even spot a whale spout blow.
There is a lot to see along this section, with the new cycleway constructed alongside the rebuilt roadway, the seabed uplift, and as you get near the Clarence River area you can clearly see the large swathes of mountainside that dropped away in the November 2016 earthquake event. Nice to be on the seaward side of the train as we went past The Store at Kekerengu, and I noticed that the foreshore development nearby has been completed and is now officially a camp area. I looked up their website and found that a beachfront campsite for tents and RVs costs $12 per person; they have ablution blocks being built and there’s more development to come. The Rock and I have stopped over in this area for the night many times. Passing trains are noisy in the middle of the night, but the views and beach walks are incredible.
The large panoramic side and roof windows are fantastic for seeing the dramatic mountain and coastal views; they are un-tinted and non-reflective. To complement the views you can use the supplied headsets that run a GPS-triggered journey commentary(in five languages) at your seat, plus information displays and overhead HD video. The Coastal Pacific carriages have advanced air-bag suspension for quieter and smoother travel. Toilets are at the end of each carriage, so no worries there either.
Leaving the coast, the views change again heading inland through the dry hills to Lake Grassmere, a shallow lagoon on the coast between Ward and Seddon. The ‘lake’ is a series of controlled ponds that have sea water initially pumped into one of the ponds, then over the next few months the water is pumped from pond to pond to evaporate until it eventually reaches the correct salinity to form salt crystals. During this process an algal bloom develops and creates a pink tinge.
The hills in the area are succumbing to domination by acres of straight-lined vineyards, a lovely green against the dry grass surroundings. From there through to Blenheim, the train passes some large wineries with hundreds of thousands of litres of wine stored in large tanks, soon to be ready for bottling. The train stops for those who want to get off in Blenheim and to pick up passengers for the ride to the Interislander ferry connection.
The train arrived in Picton early, so we got off and headed around the marina for a walk and a coffee. Then we met the shuttle at the Sounds Air office and it was a quick drive to the airport halfway between Picton and Blenheim. Our baggage was soon loaded in and eight of us climbed into the plane. I chose to sit in the back seat by myself; I can get a bit claustrophobic at times and there were a couple of spare seats so I got lots of space. It also gave me great opportunities for photographs, of which I took hundreds. It was such an incredible view looking down over the Marlborough Sounds, seeing parts of Picton I didn’t know existed, and brilliant views of the coast. As we headed over Cook Strait the south Wairarapa coastline became visible and all too soon I was craning my neck to see and photograph Eastbourne coastline and the lighthouses I knew were out there. After landing we got ourselves sorted for the next flight up to Auckland.
It proved to be a great idea time-wise, for us in our situation. To leave Christchurch that morning and spend the main part of the day enjoying one of the most scenic and incredible train trips in the world with the Brucie, to wander around the lovely village of Picton enjoying the marina and waterways and then fly over it, and then fly to Auckland to be home by 7pm that night – wow, a really great day. I love the ferry trip across the Strait and recommend it to all and sundry, but this is an alternative option for those with less time who might want to drop straight into Picton and start their adventures from there or vice versa.
We have now ticked off the Northern Explorer, Coastal Explorer, TranzAlpine, Taieri Gorge, Coromandel Driving Creek railway, Kingston Flyer (long time ago) and Glenbrook Vintage Railway.