IT HAS been just three years since Carolyn Kassing unexpectedly lost her husband.
Just six months later, her long-term friend and sister-in-law, Kiwi Eileen Kassing, lost her husband, and ever since the pair have sought out new experiences, travelling Australia on short tours after a long history of caravanning.
While the losses of their husbands is never far from their minds, a chance invitation from Eileen's brother Colin Lyford and his wife Glenda led to the pair crossing the Tasman in search of a new experience - a rare opportunity to tour New Zealand's South Island by train.
Having travelled much of Australia, Carolyn describes the scenery, seen from the large windows of the open cabin, as not unlike Tasmania.
"It's all been fantastic, really. I've loved every minute of it. I just really loved being able to sit back and watch the world go by," she said.
After a brief overnight stop in Wellington and an early morning ferry to the pure, sheltered harbour of Picton on the South Island's northern point, the tour properly began.
From the moneyed tourist spot Picton, the train meandered down the South Island's east coast, briefly stopping at the whale-watching town Kaikoura.
Where the Southern Pacific Ocean waves met a stony, windswept coast, a wave of excitement swept through the cabin.
Outside, hundreds of seals were resting and playing on the rocks as we went by.
That night, the only day of furious rain and hail, hit us in Christchurch - a city still reeling from the devastating earthquake of four years ago.
The evidence can still be seen, where many blocks of land, previously housing government buildings, hotels and shops, were reduced to dust and gravel, a stark reminder that the island nation is built on a series of fault lines.
After an early start, the train the next morning left for Greymouth, a coal port town on the South Island's green West Coast.
The day would be one of the most memorable, with travel through the snow-covered alps of Arthur's Pass National Park. Even as the train slowed down during the treacherous turns through the mountains, the cold air on the viewing platform was gripping, serving only to heighten the thrill of seeing an area where passenger trains can rarely travel.
For young train driver Kyle Swanson, the view from the powerful DXC5391 locomotive has not grown old despite the two years he has traversed it.
"It's got to be my favourite route - I spent five years up here as a shepherd, and since that have been driving trains," Kyle said.
"It doesn't matter whether there's snow or not - I reckon this job beats working in an office any day."
After arriving in Greymouth, a quick day trip to the historical re-enactment town, Shantytown, and veritable capital of jade, Hokitika, allowed for a bus journey through the thick, heavy forests that border the lakes on the western side of the alps.
The train hit the rails the next day for Oamaru, south of Christchurch, and back on the east coast, a beautiful town with bold period architecture. The next morning, the group met the train for the three-hour journey further south to Dunedin, a university town with a train station reputed to be the "most photographed" in the southern hemisphere. The steady pace of the train was not to be delayed, however, with a top opportunity to cover the viaducts that loom over the magnificent Taieri Gorge - a lush environment where the East Coast gives way to the Central Otago plains, before reaching the tourism mecca of Queenstown.
On the shores of Lake Wakatipu, beneath jagged tips of The Remarkables mountains, this southern city is known for its extreme sports but also provides a quieter side - walks around a reserve on the lake's edge to coffee and luxury shopping. Unfortunately, it was here that the trip ended for this reporter.
- The writer was a guest of Pukekohe Travel
South Island New Zealand springtime rail tour
Exclusive escorted chartered train tour of the scenic South Island
October 31-November 13, 2015
Experience the scenic South Island of New Zealand in style, travelling by day aboard an exclusive chartered train.
Springtime in the South Island provides a stunning panorama, and when coupled with the snow-capped mountain and lake scenery, New Zealand is at its best.
TranzAlpine rail crossings of the Southern Alps, Milford Sound Cruise, coastal rail journey to Christchurch, travel on the entire South Island Rail network, two nights in Queenstown, Dunedin, Christchurch and Te Anau.
Includes 13 nights hotel accommodation, daily cooked breakfast, lunches and dinners, and entrance fees, plus most luggage handling on tour, all for $4955.
Phone: 1800 797 495.
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