Trans-Alpine Kea Encounters

Living in the UK it’s easy to become complacent about the prolific possibilities for public transport. Admittedly there are challenges to the system and frequent complaints about unsatisfactory services. But mostly we’ve found living without a car to be absolutely doable due to the availability of alternative options.

When we’re in New Zealand on the other hand, the services are pretty limited – unless you live in one of the larger cities. Like Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Christchurch or Dunedin. Train services in particular don’t allow people to move from city to city like they do in the UK. However, there are three magnificent scenic train journeys run by KiwiRail. Barry did the journey from Wellington to Hamilton on the Northern Explorer many years ago. On 28th November 2020 we had the pleasure of experiencing the Coastal Pacific journey. This year, we chose to book the Trans-Alpine in February, to coincide with our visit to Jamie in Christchurch.

The Story Of Our Journey Booking

The Tans-Alpine train journey had been on Barry’s bucket list for many years. We’d previously done most of it by road in the campervan in 2021 and 2022. But we wanted to see the landscape by rail, as there are parts you don’t see from the road. Plus I was determined to take another shot at seeing the elusive (to us) and highly intelligent alpine parrot, the Kea, at Arthur’s Pass Village.

The Trans-Alpine journey covers 223 kilometres (139 miles) one-way and takes just under five hours coast-to-coast through what’s known as the ‘Great Divide‘. The spine of mountains that divides New Zealand’s South Island.  We realise it would be far more breathtaking with snow covering these spectacles, but we decided to seize the day while we could.

We’d booked the ‘free’ campervan relocation deal in December, so had dates in mind. Our first choice was a stay overnight in the quirky hotel at Otira. Sadly the train stops here, but not for passengers to alight. The best option then was Arthur’s Pass Village for a night on the way to Greymouth. We’d heard from the ranger at the DOC centre there that a group of keas usually descend in the village around 4 pm.

Extending the adventure further, we booked to stay in Greymouth on the second night. I think we hoped it wouldn’t be as ‘grey’ there as our previous visit. A couple of months later, my friend Deb asked if she could come with us as she’d also always wanted to do the trip. It meant a slight change in accommodation choices so that we were staying in the same places. We booked a hire car for Greymouth too, as the accommodation was a distance from the station, and we felt there wouldn’t be much to keep us entertained in that city.

Christchurch To Arthur’s Pass Village

The train on Monday 6th March was absolutely packed full. Amongst our carriage, we had many nationalities travelling. The chap next to Barry was from the UK, and travelling alone. His wife had died before they could do the big adventure to Australia and New Zealand. Oh how often we’ve heard that story. Far too frequently people leave following their dreams till it’s too late. There’s a great saying by Buddha “The trouble is, you think you have time.” It’s one that resonates deeply with us both.

Sadly Deb wasn’t able to sit with us, as seats are all booked for you once you make the booking and we couldn’t change them which was a shame. I met her in the restaurant carriage on the way to Arthur’s Pass Village and had a coffee. Then I went to the open viewing carriage to see the sights more clearly – along with half the train! I got a few shots, but some had railings mingled among them. There was a smattering of snow on some of the ranges.

Arthur’s Pass Village

This was our third stop at Arthur’s Pass Village. We’d stayed there briefly for a lunch spot with Jamie, when she’d met us at Jacksons in February 2021. Then again with Kerry and Tony in May 2021. It’s a remote place, surrounded by magnificence.

Our accommodation at Arthur’s Pass Alpine Lodge was a bit of a walk away from the village. I obviously didn’t check that out as ideally, I wanted to be in the heart of it to get the best opportunity of seeing keas while we were there. The accommodation was superb, as was the welcome. Once we were in the village, I noticed there is a Motel across the road from the cafe. If we ever return, that’s where I’d book. Not because the Alpine Lodge wasn’t amazing – just because of my kea keenness.

The Devil’s Punchbowl Falls

Barry and I had walked up the 240 steps to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls in February 2021. Deb was keen to do it, but Barry’s dogy, arthritic hip, wasn’t up to the walk. Sadly just before leaving the UK in November 2023, he’d been informed that the x-ray taken last September showed moderate to severe osteoarthritis in his right hip, that will need a replacement ‘sooner rather than later’. We gambled on it not being too soon, as we didn’t discover the extent of the problem until the week before we flew! So we left him exploring the village alone – you can see some of the sights he saw in his slideshow at the end.

It’s a strenuous but spectacular walk. Well worth the prize at the summit of the sight and sound of the cascading 131 metres high waterfall. Plus we met a cute, friendly South Island Robin/Kakaruai en route.

Kea Encounters At Last!

We had our first real kea encounter that afternoon with what looked like a juvenile, tagged on his ankle ‘B2’. I spotted it (I’ll call it him for simplicity, plus apparently young non-breeding males often form “street gangs” of 15-20 birds, particularly in alpine tourist towns like Arthur’s Pass), flying down and landing on the roof of the café, before heading to a table where a couple had a drink and food. He attempted to grab some of their food and then approached me. I’m not sure what attracted him to me, it must’ve been something shining as I had no food. Although I’d wanted a close encounter, I wasn’t about to get pecked by that sharp beak! You can see my expressions and movements quite clearly in Barry’s images at the end of this post.

Kea are only found in the high country and mountains of New Zealand’s South Island and are the world’s only alpine parrot. Highly intelligent, they are a threatened species with only around 5,000 in existence. Horrificly, some years ago there was government funding to farmers to kill these beautiful birds, as they attacked sheep in the high country. Oh, my goodness! The high country is THEIR country – not the farmer’s or sheep! I find it abhorrent how ‘man’ can be so selfish and thoughtless in such situations.

“Kea and High Country FarmersKea once had a bounty on their heads, this causing a massive decline in the numbers of the species, and the contraction of their natural range back into the high alpine zones of New Zealands South Island. More than 150,000 were killed in the hundred years before 1970, when the bounty was lifted. The original reason for the bounty was that it was discovered that Kea were killing sheep on the high country stations. The Kea had unwittingly caused the death of sheep through their insatiable appetite for fat. The Kea would peck at the sheep’s flesh in the vicinity of its kidneys (a very fatty area) to obtain its feed of fat, this in itself did not kill the sheep, however infection would set in, eventually killing the sheep. It is theorised that this behaviour may have originated with Kea attacking the now extinct Moa for similar reasons. Modern management of a sheep station means that sheep are treated with antibiotics, and are more immune to infection. The Kea’s range is also now so reduced that conflicts are less likely.”

As inquisitive and cheeky birds, they’re well known for attempting to obtain food and ‘gifts’ from unsuspecting tourists. Unfortunately, if they are fed by them, they are at risk of dying as they forget how to feed themselves. There are notices all around to try and prevent this.

Provisions in Arthur’s Pass Village are meagre, with the store and café only open till 4 pm. The ‘Wobbly Kea Cafe‘ across the road wasn’t open on Mondays when we visited, so I had to try and find something for our tea. Bacon and a packet of cheesy pasta were the best I could find. Due to staff shortages, they only had counter food available – nothing from the menu even. Although it’s a remote spot, every time we’ve visited there have been heaps of tourists. It’s unfortunate that a way can’t be found to offer better food and beverage options.

We had a second kea encounter on the return to the café after our waterfall walk. It was, however, the same cheeky young kea trying to grab a tourist’s walking stick. Such a sharp-looking beak you really wouldn’t want that poking you!

Around 4.30 pm we walked back to the Motel just in time to see the train returning on its way back to Christchurch. Barry got some epic shots (again, see his slideshow at the end).

Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth

The weather had been glorious on the Monday of our journey to Arthur’s Pass Village, but sadly was overcast and much cooler on Tuesday when we got back on the train at 10.50 am to head to Greymouth. We had a quick walk back to the café, where B2 was scampering around again. We saw half a dozen other keas flying overhead too, but I only managed to get one in my sights!

The next section of the train journey wasn’t as picturesque, but there were still many highlights to soak in and capture. The 8.5 km Otira tunnel leads out of the village, which opened in 1923 to complete the Trans-Alpine railway route. At Arthur’s Pass, an extra engine is hooked onto the train to enable it to travel the steep incline to Otira. Near the Otira Stagecoach Hotel, the extra engine is unhooked for the rest of the journey to Greymouth.

Further on, we went past Lake Brunner and some way afterwards the Brunner mine site which we visited in 2021. A massive mine in the late nineteenth century, with dozens of families living in the area. In 1896, 65 mine workers died in an explosion, and still the biggest mining disaster ever in New Zealand. 

Overnight in Greymouth

Sadly it was still grey in Greymouth, just as it had been in 2002 when we were parked up for a couple of nights at the bar. And once again the sea was wild there where many have lost their lives over the years. We stayed at the Greymouth Hotel, in a comfortable two-bedroom unit a 2km drive from town.

Once we’d checked in and dumped our bags, we headed to Hokitika. Disappointingly we arrived there just after 3 pm to find a nice looking cafe closed at 3!. Fortunately, the pub across the road did okay meals so went there for lunch. Deb and I had a stroll along the beach, while Barry rested his hip and captured us on camera. I took the ‘obligatory’ Hokitika beach driftwood sign photo, I wonder who is responsible for making sure that’s intact daily?

In the evening we ventured out to Monteith’s Brewery and managed to finally find some decent food! It’s a very pleasant place to sit and chill, but for some reason, none of us took a photo!

Greymouth Back to Christchurch

The following morning we had a few hours to spare before the train back to Christchurch left at 2.05 pm. We wandered around the town, one of the ‘Goldrush’ areas of the South Island from 1864, then took the hire car back to the station. Interestingly there was no one at the hire car counter, so we just deposited the keys and walked away. A very different experience to hiring a car in the UK! We picked up lunch from Speight’s Brewery across the road, another fine establishment.

The journey back to Christchurch was a rather subdued affair as we were all a little weary. The weather was once again dismal, very different to the first day. We were extremely disappointed that earphones to listen to the commentary weren’t brought around for about an hour into the journey, and we’d missed that part on the way to Greymouth as we’d been in the open viewing carriage.

My ears pricked up as we meandered through the pastures of the flat and dry Canterbury Plains, as it was broadcast that there’s only a measly 0.5% of native bush left in that vast landscape of an area of 150 by 45 miles (240 by 70 km). I vividly recall our amazement at the stark differences in landscape from the lushness of the southwest corner of the South Island, to the barrenness Canterbury Plains area.

When Europeans settled Canterbury 150 years ago, the landscape was regenerating from the fires of early Maori, with extensive kanuka forests, pockets of matai and totara, and a mosaic of kowhai, cabbage trees, coprosmas, matagouri and silver tussock. But the region was a victim of its own geography. In hillier parts of the country, says [Landcare Research scientist, Colin] Meurk, patches of bush in gullies and steep faces survived the advance of farming. But flat Canterbury could be tilled “wall to wall”.

Back In Christchurch Before Heading ‘Across The Ditch’

We arrived back in Christchurch at 7 pm on Wednesday 8th March and returned to Jamie’s house. Deb stayed in a hotel overnight before returning to Gisborne the following day. We posted about our adventures on the 9th and 10th of March previously, before flying to Sydney for a Teutenberg siblings reunion on the evening of Friday, March 10th.

Our Australian escapades were costly – and priceless. We’ll reveal some of the best moments in the next few posts …

Barry’s Transalpine Slideshow

There are some superb images, as usual, in Barry’s slideshow. Click on the first one to start scrolling through …

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