Christchurch, NZ to Picton, NZ

3.2 mi / 9.3 mph / 46 ft. climbing
Home: Tasman Holiday Park

Our vague South Island plans had been to arrive via ferry to Picton (in the northeast corner) at the turn of the new year, and then do a roughly counter-clockwise loop of the entire island before returning to Picton and the ferry back to Wellington. A few weeks ago it had become clear that the chance had become rather low of us being able to ride all the way to Picton, and then back up much of the North Island, all before our April 3rd date at Hobbiton. On top of that, I was having a tough time finding a good route back to Picton. Part of the reason we had started our South Island adventure on the super-challenging Molesworth Trail was because it was one of the least-bad options for crossing the Marlborough region. We didn’t want to do that again (as awesome as it was!) and busy SH1 is really the only other option besides cutting back around to the West Coast and looping through Nelson (which was somewhat attractive because it’s basically the one main area of the South Island that we missed!)

But then I realized that we could take the train! I had always known about the tourist-train option, but had remembered mainly the North Island one, or the TranzAlpine that goes to the West Coast, and knew they were stupid-expensive, and bike space was pretty limited. But the Coastal Pacific, which runs between Christchurch and Picton once a day, isn’t that expensive (it covers a shorter distance), and I was able to reserve two bike spots for an extra NZ$20 per bike. The total for us and the bikes was US$223 (including a 10% discount from our Top10 Holiday Park membership!). So still stupid-expensive compared to the US$44 we paid to take the commuter train from Palmerston North to Wellington on the North Island, but as a way to cut a week of unpleasant riding out of our lives, it seems like a fair deal. And some people are happy to pay this much just for a sightseeing trip, so that will hopefully provide some value above the pure logistical assistance.

We rode across a couple miles of Chirstchurch’s dark pre-dawn streets, to a train station that sees little activity besides these tourist trains. Putting our bikes on any sort of transport is always a bit nerve-wracking the first time because we’re never 100% confident on whether or how it will work. This case was especially bad because the documents from the rail company are especially absurd, saying that bikes need to have their pedals removed, handlebars turned sideways or removed, etc. And then there is a “single bag” checked baggage allowance; while our 4 bags (each) are probably under the 23kg weight allowance, would they make us pay extra for the quantity? Online searches for people who have actually taken these trains before suggested that this was all a bunch of nonsense and we had nothing to worry about, but, would today be the day that they decide to start enforcing their rules?

Luckily, no. We rolled our bikes with all or bags on them into the station, checked in at the counter, and were told to just wheel our bikes to the baggage car once all the other passengers had delivered their bags. As expected, they told us to take our bags off once we got to the door of the baggage car (so the bikes could be lifted into the car), but then they were happy to just take all of our detached bags along with the (completely-intact) bikes. Easy! It remains a mystery why their official information is completely unrelated to actual practice, but one clue (“tires do not need to be deflated”, gee…thanks?) suggests that they might have just copied and pasted the bike section from an airline’s website?

The Coastal Explorer is such a tourist train that one of the 6(?) carriages seats no passengers and contains no amenities, not even glass in the windows! The “open air viewing car” sounded like a cool concept, but with no seats, the “windows” were too low for me to really see out of when standing. And later on, when there were better things to view besides this scene, reports were that it was too crowded to see anything anyway.

A nice feature that came with the expensive ticket was assigned seats (though I suppose that could have its downsides too). We settled in for the ~3.5 hour journey, and soon overheard a couple two rows away from Oak Lawn, Illinois. Also nearby was a young guy who worked as a conductor on Wellington’s MetLink light rail system, so he had tons of rail knowledge. He was traveling with his grandmother, and she had good steam-train memories that then produced stories from a similarly-aged couple in front of them. So, classic train-travel community. There were also headphones with periodic narrations about areas that we were passing through.

When we’re riding, we tend to draw a lot more attention from animals than the cars do, especially when Lamby yells to her sheep friends and sets them off running. Well, she must have been screaming her fool head off from inside Rett’s pannier inside the baggage car three cars ahead of us, because sheep, cows, and deer were doing more running than we’ve ever seen by the time we swept by.

The first third of the journey was the pretty but unremarkable countryside, but the middle third brought us to the highlight of the Kaikoura Coast. A perfect sunny day lit up the blue water as the train ran right along the shore (and through a million tunnels to pass through the rocky headlands). The guide said that you can usually see dolphins from the train in this stretch, which seemed unlikely to me, but holy crap, there they were! Easily seen leaping and flipping through the air, it also helped to have a train car full of equally-interested passengers all looking and pointing and hooting to make sure no one missed anything. Fur seals swimming with a fin up in the air were pretty easy to spot too.

Dolphins to the left, dolphins to the right. Not the easiest thing to photograph from a moving train, but the fact that I could get a picture with this many visible dolphins in the frame shows how ubiquitous they were to the naked eye.

Unfortunately Rett hadn’t known until now that swimming with the wild dolphins was something you could do at the Kaikoura stop, and since our schedule for the next few days was set, a last-minute course-change wasn’t in the cards.

A beautiful rocky coastline, putting up solid competition with the Pacific Northwest coast of the the United States.
Rocks in the water through the train window.
The Coastal Pacific train, well-optimized for its tourist sight-seeing role.
The open-air observation car on the Coastal Pacific train.
Exploding water on the Kaikoura Coast.
Panoramic ocean view from inside the wide-open cafe car.
The annual salt harvest underway at Lake Grassmere. It’s pink from an algae and archea that live in the shallow pools of evaporating seawater. Two mountain valleys inland is the Molesworth Trail we rode down 2+ months ago.

At Picton we simply reversed the process, collecting our bikes and bags from the baggage car and re-joining them on the station platform (this is essentially how bikes on Amtrak in the US works these days too). Picton was suddenly much greener with more-tropical vegetation than anywhere we’d been in the last six weeks, a clear preview of our return to the North Island. We did the short ride to our campground, slipped into some of the remaining open area in the “Tent Village” (all the individual sites were booked), and settled in for a multi-day wait for our ferry.

Day 2

The illness that had been softly grinding on both of us for the last few days perhaps (hopefully?) reached its peak on this day. We weren’t completely incapacitated, but headaches, some fever-symptoms, body/bone aches, and now a bit of coughing had us wondering if it could be COVID? It’s just about two years since our first infection in Mexico, and six months since our last vaccine, so, maybe?

Originally we had decided to stay in Picton for another day because accommodations on the Wellington side of the Cook Strait were really expensive for these days, so since the train had bought us some time, and the weather was nice, why not just camp on this side for a couple nights? We had had some thought of exploring some of the tangled winding Marlborough Sounds cutting through the steep forested hills in this beautiful area, but that definitely wasn’t going to happen now. Instead, we spent most of the day in the darkened lounge, Rett laid out on a couch and me mostly computing. She had “sicks meals” of ramen noodles for both lunch and dinner, while I just tossed a frozen pizza in the oven for me.

It’s funny (ha?) how Rett’s vomiting episode from a two weeks ago made me nervous about the next time we might get sick for a longer period, and…”Hello, Disease here! You called for me?” Luckily it’s hit us almost perfectly in this period where the little movement that we’re doing is not via our own muscle power, so while it hasn’t been fun, it could have been a lot worse.


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