It was my birthday at the end of July and instead of doing what I used to do (going out for dinner and drinks with my friends), I thought I’d have an adventure! So, I naturally went to my New Zealand ‘to do’ list and decided upon the TranzAlpine train, which runs from Christchurch to Greymouth and vice versa.
I flew down to Christchurch at midday on Friday and immediately set about exploring the city. I had been there on my previous visit to New Zealand in 2014 but we stayed outside in Purao, near Akaroa and really just drove through the city. Fortunately I prepared for the much cooler climes and was wrapped up in my cosy parka with my woolly hat as I walked around the city. Soon, I was met by the city tram and decided to go for a ride.
I got off the tram at New Regent Street, which was pretty lovely, if not a little empty!
I also quite enjoyed all of the (intentional) street graffiti that was dotted around the city, according to my nice tram driver, these pieces were commissioned to brighten up the city while the art gallery was closed.
After popping to my airbnb to drop off my bag, I headed back out to a restaurant that I was recommended, called C1 Espresso. They have a huge breakfast menu and a deli counter but what I was most interested in was the sliders, which are delivered via pneumatic tube to your table. Every so often, you hear a bell sound and this indicates that a tube of sliders is on its way. There’s a deal where you can get 3 sliders and curly fries for $22, which I went for.
After dinner, I went next door to Alice in Videoland to watch Dunkirk. I don’t claim to be any kind of film critic but I thought it was really well done. The story of Dunkirk has always held a special place in my heart as my Dad has always owned traditional wooden boats and in fact started the Thames Vintage Boat Club with his brother and some friends, and came across various Dunkirk little ships and their owners during his years on the river.
Early the next morning, I caught the train to Greymouth. It was a 4.5 hour journey that took us through the Southern Alps across to the West Coast and it was stunning! You might have read my review of the Northern Explorer train that I took back when I first moved to New Zealand? Anyway, it’s a very comfortable ride with a great cafe and an outdoor viewing deck, which was pretty chilly but fab.
We arrived in Greymouth at around 2pm, I popped into the Speights Alehouse for a quick fish and chips lunch before driving my hire car out to the Shantytown, which was built because the Greymouth community wanted to preserve the West Coast’s gold-mining past. There’s a lot to see here plus a steam train which you can ride on if you so desire.
On my way back to the town, I stopped at Garth Wilson Jade and met Garth’s wife Jo who told me about the history of the jade and the carving of pounamu. Garth is a descendent of the Ngati Mahaki and Ngati Waewae tribes who were the original pounamu traders in New Zealand. This allows Garth and his family customary rights to collect the pounamu from mountain sides and rivers. He then designs and carves each piece of jewellery out of the jade he finds. You can find out the meanings and stories behind each design and Jo also showed me how to recognise the rocks of jade on the beaches. I didn’t realise that the greenstone had the tensile strength of steel and can only be cut and shaped by diamond tools! I bought a beautiful piece in the porohita shape, which is a disc shape, representing the circle of life, which has no beginning or end.
With my knowledge from Jo fresh in my mind, I went to Ocean Beach in search of some jade and had a walk before watching the sunset.
I then went for a drink at Monteith’s Brewery and grabbed a light dinner. They do tours too, which would be good if you were a big beer fan.
The next day, my birthday, I drove out to Punakaiki, also known as the ‘pancake rocks’. It was about a 40 minute drive around the coast and the views were stunning! I barely encountered any other cars!
There’s a lovely walk that takes you around the rocks and the blow holes, unfortunately it was low tide when I visited so I didn’t get to experience the blow holes properly but I assume if you’re there at high tide, the water rushes into these areas and blows up like a fountain – probably covering you a bit! It was pretty cold when I was there so I think it was probably a good thing in hindsight!
I still had a bit of time to kill before taking the train back so I decided to go for a coffee at The Lifeboat. Located at the end of Greymouth pier, a lovely Dutch couple, Richard and Monique sell proper Dutch coffee and stroopwafel (homemade caramel waffles) from a lifeboat. It was a pretty blustery day and after finding out that it was my birthday, they didn’t hesitate to invite me aboard for a drink and a natter.
This became one of those serendipitous moments in life that warms your heart and soothes your soul. Richard told me that he started this business when he had hit rock bottom and wasn’t sure what to do next. His sister in Holland sent him a waffle iron and the family recipe and he decided to give it a go – I can vouch first of all that he has mastered the recipe and makes absolutely delicious stroopwafel. Meeting Richard was inspiring. He is so full of life and he wants to make a difference in the world. I spoke to him about his future plans for the business and he’s intending to help other people, who are down on their luck, to do the same thing and set up lifeboats all over New Zealand that can help people get back on their feet and find their purpose again. We discussed the fact that people are seeking human connections again and how important it is to be kind and understand that you just don’t know what someone has gone through in their lives, you should treat people with kindness. Anyway, I came away from The Lifeboat feeling uplifted, with a new perspective. I highly recommend all West Coast visitors to drop by and have a chat, buy some stroopwafel and drink coffee with Richard and Monique, it will probably be the best thing you do that day.
On the train back to Christchurch, I was able to sit on the other side of the train and see what I missed on the way out, including a big viaduct and the river.
I spent my birthday evening eating mac n cheese arancini with doris plum chutney and drinking pink negroni at The Monday Room. After grabbing a quick but delicious brunch at Black Betty the next morning, it was time to fly back to Auckland.
It felt so good to be travelling around again, it showed me that there’s still so much of this extraordinary country I still haven’t seen and I cannot wait!