Log In

Reset Password


Pat and Evelyn Watson took time away from their Waimata Valley farm to join 180 other travellers from around New Zealand on the inaugural Great Southern Steam Train Tour . . .

On a sunny Blenheim morning, 180 of us from all over New Zealand — including six from Gisborne — were waiting with excitement and huge anticipation for the arrival of a very special steam train.

The appropriately named “Wine Station'' was crowded with passengers enjoying complimentary morning tea while being entertained by a lively brass band.

The magnificent locomotive glided to a halt at the start of the inaugural Great Southern Steam train tour, organised by Pounamu Tourism.

The train was built in 1915. In 1925 it was renamed Passchendaele as a memorial locomotive, remembering the World War 1 battle in 1917 in which so many New Zealanders died. It later became derelict but fortunately was restored to its former glory, like Gisborne's own Wa165.

Most of us had fond memories of train travel in the “good old days” and revelled in the beautifully restored vintage carriages and the unforgettable, sounds, feel and smell of steam train travel.

Many of us had gathered in Wellington the previous morning to check in to the tour before taking the ferry to Picton.

From there we were taken by coach to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim, a brilliant new museum funded by Sir Peter Jackson, where we had dinner and wandered around the excellent exhibits. One of the most unusual and interesting was a reconstruction of a plane crash in the jungle.

Back on the train, we settled into our carriages and made ourselves at home. There were six carriages in all, an impressive sight — the middle car was the “ food car” where a busy restaurateur dispensed endless cups of tea, coffee, snacks and of course Marlborough wines which were topped up regularly by members of the friendly crew passing through the carriages.

We sat back and watched the extensive vineyards rolling by — Marlborough produces 85 percent of New Zealand wine — then on past the salt flats at Lake Grassmere.

'We felt like royalty, waving constantly!'

Waving to everyone outside as we passed by, we were intrigued by the endless groups of people who were stationed at a crossing, siding or hillside, many with camera tripods, to record the train's journey all the way south.

The enthusiastic young train crew referred to them as “Foamers”.

“What?” we asked.

“They foam at the mouth when they see a steam train!!”

Apparently our progress was advertised widely on social media and drew a huge response. We felt like royalty, waving constantly!

We stopped at Kekerengu for lunch, while the train took on water.

Buses took us to the nearby Winterhome Garden, a beautifully designed large (4 ha) formal garden on a hill overlooking the Pacific ocean. The garden had suffered badly, like all the area, in the huge earthquake when many brick walls collapsed and trees were wrecked, but it had been fully restored and was immaculate for our visit.

We stopped at lovely Kaikoura for the night. We were at the Anchor Inn on the foreshore with stunning views and an outstanding landlady, Lyn, who kindly took us to the railway station in the morning in her Smartcar.

The motel had suffered over $1m worth of damage in the big quake, but in the fickleness of nature, another just one along had only lost a mirror!

Many of the train passengers went out on whale-watching expeditions or walked to the nearby seal colony.

We all met up again at the railway station where we found our two “new” engines, red 1950s workhorses which were to pull the carriages right down to Invercargill. The tour was originally going to be steam all the way but new regulations meant that was no longer possible.

It made little different to us, happy in our vintage carriages, and there was one big advantage — “cab riding”.

Anyone who wanted could have a turn riding “up front” (under strict supervision and not having had any alcohol) in the first or second engine.

I was lucky enough to ride in the first engine with the driver and his supervisor, and was like an excited 10-year-old being permitted to pull the cord and make the wonderful “toot toot” sound. It was a great experience. Many took advantage of this treat, the train stopping at quiet places to change “cab riders” all the way south.

Although we had seen footage of the damage caused by the terrible 7.8 magnitude earthquake five years earlier, we were still shaken by the widespread and appalling changes and damage caused by that two-minute shake along the route. And very impressed by the huge amount of work it had taken to restore the main road and railway line. Whole hillsides had fallen away on the inner side and the rocks and seabed had risen metres on the beach side.

Then it was on down through North Canterbury and more vineyards for our stop at Christchurch for two nights.

Ahead was the journey to Invercargill, and then on to the West Coast.


Chuffa Chuffa: The restored steam locomotive which hauled six carriages from Blenheim to Kaikoura for the start of the Great South Island Steam Train Tour. All pictures by Pat and Evelyn Watson
A plaque on the side of the engine, named Passchendaele, remembers those New Zealand Railways workers who fought and died in World War 1.
ALL CHANGE: One of the two 'new' engines — 1950s style — which replaced the steam locomotive to pull the carriages from Kaikoura.
SEA VIEW: Passengers on the Great Southern Steam Train Tour enjoyed magnificent views of the Kaikoura coast.
ON OUR WAY: The rail line stretches out behind as the train heads towards Kaikoura.
First time: The inaugural Great Southern Steam Train tour
Immaculate: Winterhome Garden, a beautifully designed large formal garden, was badly damaged in the 2017 earthquake but has been fully restored.
CRASH LANDING: A realistic reconstruction of a plane crashed in the jungle is among one of the more interesting exhibits at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim.