The rain had followed me all the way down the North Island. It didn’t rain all day, all every day, but it did rain every day, and some days it rained all day. Then I got to Wellington and it stopped, and stayed stopped as I took the ferry across to Picton and buses on to Nelson and then to Christchurch.
But it was raining again as the TranzAlpine Express pulled out of the station. I wondered whether its promise of “the trip of a lifetime” was meant to apply in all weathers, but I had not read it literally in any case. It depends on the rest of your lifetime, I guess.
The train spent the morning threading its way through an operatic landscape from east coast to west, from Christchurch to Greymouth, and the rain spoiled none of it: not the illimitable mountains, not the great swathes of forest with splashes of yellow and brown in amongst the dark green of the pines, not the fathomless gorges, not the fast-flowing rivers way down below. I would not think to call it a trip of a lifetime, but it was a nice way to spend a morning in New Zealand.
It was drizzling in Greymouth, which suited it. The girl on the desk cheerfully admitted that hardly anyone stayed there anymore. There was a For Sale sign outside the hostel. A German couple were the only other guests. “I love NZ but not Greymouth” someone had written on the wood of a bunk in the dorm room I had to myself.
It stayed fine, for a change, the next morning, as the InterCity bus chugged down the coast road and stopped off in the little town of Hokitika for a lunch break.
It stopped outside the National Kiwi Centre, which in the happily small-town way of New Zealand is a modest clapboard building, next door to Jeff Evans Plumbing. They had New Zealand eels, which they told me were anything from 85 to 100 years old and a tuatara, which they called ‘the oldest living dinosaur,’ as well as the kiwis, which I never managed to pick out of the simulated darkness.
The rain started to slap against the windows as the bus continued south to Franz Josef, where I had a hostel booked. It felt like a ski resort with its log cabins, chalets and homely wood smoke. The air was mountain fresh.
There was an anonymous poem from the nineteenth century framed on the wall of the hostel. It was simply called The Rain:
It rained and rained and rained.
The average fall was well maintained
And when the tracks were simple bogs
It started raining cats and dogs.
After a drought of half an hour
We had a most refreshing shower
And then most curious thing of all
A gentle rain began to fall.
Next day but one was fairly dry
Save for one deluge from the sky
Which wetted the party to the skin
And then at last the rain set in.
Franz Josef Glacier was hidden behind cloud, so there was nothing much to do but go to the Glacier Hot Pools. There are three pools in the middle of a rainforest with glacial water heated to 36, 38 and 40 degrees. It is open air, but with a canopy to keep out the rain.
I only had time, in the morning, to see the glacier from the bottom of the mountain, but it was still impressive from there: a bluey-white torrent of water, eight miles long, stopped and frozen, filling a crevice in the mountain like expanding foam.
I got back on the bus, then, for the last time, for a final dash south to Queenstown. It was an eight-and-a-half-hour run, but I had got used to spending all day on a bus by then.
Needless to say, it was raining. But if it blurred the sky into a miserable smudge, it at least made the waterfalls dramatic. The driver stopped, briefly, to let us get out and scramble through the forest to go look at one.
The road twisted inland, past Mount Cook, and wound tightly round the mountains – sharp right, sharp right, sharp right, sharp left – and the driver kept the speed up, taking a racing line in the big old bus when he could see far enough in front.
In the late afternoon, we shot over the Shotover River and pulled into a car park in Queenstown.
© Richard Senior 2016