TranzAlpine: a journey to pounamu country
Taking the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth is a must-do experience for any traveller to the South Island. Journeying from the golden Canterbury Plains, across alpine riverbeds and through the mighty Southern Alps, the half-day trip is an adventure by itself. But what if it’s just one highlight on your South Island escape?
Guest blogger Jacqui Gibson describes why off-season is a great time to jump aboard the TranzAlpine and how this scenic rail journey has the added allure of introducing travellers to the magical world of New Zealand greenstone.
Why now is the perfect time to travel
New Zealand’s cooler months are ideal for seeing the South Island at its best. Think: snow blanketed landscapes, chilly blue days and the sheer awe of mountain-fed rivers and jagged mountains wrapped in the arms of winter. On top of that, travel through New Zealand’s southern heartland by rail and you’ll have all the time you need to kick back, take in the spectacular vistas and unwind as you go. You won’t even need a road map.
Venture into the magical world of pounamu
New Zealand’s West Coast is known for many things – rugged mountains, stunning coastal beaches, lush rainforests and glaciers within easy reach. It’s also the homeland of Ngāi Tahu, the principal iwi of Te Waipounamu (the South Island) and the legal kaitiaki (guardians) of New Zealand greenstone or pounamu. Found as far north as the Taramakau and Arahura Ri vers and as far south as Fiordland and coastal South Westland, pounamu is undoubtedly New Zealand’s best known precious stone. For hundreds of years, it’s been fashioned into keepsakes, tools and weapons. Thanks to its huge colour variation, and unique connection to place, no two pieces of pounamu are the same. Today, it is carefully harvested and sustainably managed by the West Coast hapū (sub-tribes) of Ngāi Tahu. Travel on the TranzAlpine to Te Tai o Poutini (West Coast) to see New Zealand jade in public parks, on the shelves of gift stores and lining local riverbeds.
Start in Ōtautahi (Christchurch)
Christchurch is a great place to start your journey. Take a few hours to ground yourself in the traditions of Ngāi Tahu with Āmiki tours. Join the City Meander or Kai Safari tour to learn how pounamu travelled between coasts over centuries. Walk with guides to see some of the city’s most significant pounamu pieces, including Mauri Tau Mauri Ora, a 270kg pounamu stone carved by Fayne Robinson and gifted to the city by West Coast hapū, Ngāti Mahaki ki Makaawhio. Look for it at the entrance of Oi Manawa, the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial. Then jump aboard TranzAlpine to travel from the Christchurch Railway Station in Addington to Greymouth on the West Coast. Book your tickets online or call the customer services team on 0800 872 467 to secure your seat. The spectacular 223km rail journey leaves at 8.30am and arrives in Greymouth by early afternoon. Expect mountain, river and valley views for miles, 15 tunnels, four viaducts and access to plenty of yummy snacks from the fully licensed, on-board cafe. Enjoy a fun stop-off in the alpine village of Arthur’s Pass. As you cross over to the West Coast, keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of pounamu you might see in rivers along the way.
Welcome to Greymouth – often referred to as the heart of the wild West Coast. Once the site of the Māori pā, Mawhera (meaning wide river mouth), Greymouth is located in the rohe (tribal area) of the hapū known as Ngāti Waewae. Their rohe stretches from the Poerua River in Westland to the top of the South Island at Kahurangi Point and as far east as Arthur’s Pass. Walk towards the Grey River to see an impressive example of local greenstone. A large pale, white-flecked rock is mounted on a plinth along the city boardwalk. Installed in 2019, the stone commemorates Ngāti Waewae’s contribution to the district and the hapū’s relationship to the region. You’ll find it’s one of several big stones displayed throughout the city centre – how many others can you see?
Visit the pounamu centre in Hokitika
A coastal river town steeped in heritage, Hokitika is another top spot on the West Coast for learning about New Zealand greenstone. Hire a car, grab a taxi or take the half-hour bus trip to Hokitika to visit the Ngāti Waewae pounamu centre on Weld Street. Go there to learn about Ngāi Tahu’s unique traceability code that identifies where a piece of pounamu is extracted, processed and who carved it. It’s the only way you can tell the New Zealand greenstone you’ve bought has been harvested legitimately and carved responsibly. (You’ll find authentic Ngāi Tahu pounamu available for sale on all Interislander ferries, for example). The Ngāi Tahu pounamu authentication scheme, set up in 2010, is the only programme like it in the world.
Hear the story of pounamu
At the pounamu centre, ask staff to show you the variety of pounamu within the centre. Kahurangi, for example, is known as the lightest, most translucent of all the stone types. Raukaraka, meanwhile, is identified by its signature blend of green, yellow and orange hues. Talk to staff about the strong spiritual connection many people have with pounamu and its traditional association with mauri (life force). Ask them to tell you the story of pounamu and how the beautiful stone was created by a jealous taniwha named Poutini.
Go upriver with a local guide
Next, take a few hours to go on a walking tour of the Arahura River with Te Rua & Sons Pounamu Trails. Based in Hokitika, Te Rua Mason is an experienced guide with whakapapa (family) links to Ngāti Waewae who will guide you to where pounamu is found. Book a tour to learn about the history of the river and how to identify greenstone in its natural environment. Fossick for a piece of pounamu to take home. Remember to wear sturdy footwear and rug up warm.
Meet local carvers
Finally, the West Coast is an ideal region to meet local carvers. While you’re in Hokitika, drop into Traditional Jade on Tancred Street, a family-owned business with ties to Ngāi Tahu. Watch self-taught artisan Mark Pfahlert carving pounamu. Buy directly from the store or purchase one of his pieces online. Before you head back to Greymouth (to overnight or for your return TranzAlpine journey to Christchurch), don’t forget to pull into local carver Garth Wilson Jade’s studio on Rutherglen Road. With whakapapa (family) links to local hapū, Ngāti Waewae and Ngāti Mahaki, Garth descends from a long line of pounamu traders and today holds customary rights to fossick for pounamu on the West Coast. Talk to Garth about the best local beaches to independently fossick for New Zealand jade (yes, it’s legal to do this, but on certain beaches only) and the rules for doing it ethically.
Know before you go
As kaitiaki, Ngāi Tahu are the only people in New Zealand legally permitted to take pounamu from the wild. Today, their role includes authenticating pounamu and buying stone taken as a byproduct of mining. Ngāi Tahu also sell raw stone to registered carvers and sell and market products made from New Zealand greenstone. The worldwide supply of jade is running out – so the iwi (tribe) also plays a role in protecting the sustainability of New Zealand greenstone. They don’t sell raw stone to overseas buyers and ask all commercial interests who accidentally come across pounamu to authenticate it and not pass it on to the black market. You can support Ngāi Tahu by buying authenticated pounamu products and following the rules of fossicking: look for pounamu on the beaches between Greymouth and Milford Sound only and take only pebbles and stones.