Surprise! It’s Your Birthday.

I turned 60 this year. 

“Where did the years go?” wonders that younger-self still hiding inside my mind.  

Our kids are marvellous at thinking ahead. A year ago they asked, “What do you want to do for your birthday, mum?” 

“Surprise me!” I said. 

It must have been that youngster talking. I don’t do surprises these days. I tend to have Plan A and B — and often Plan C tucked up my sleeve as well — to cover every contingency.

So, I coped with the stress of not knowing by haunting Briscoes until my ideal suitcase came on sale. Score!

Ready, Set … Go!

On the Sunday before the big Six-O, our kids Skyped in from all over New Zealand. 

“Pack your bags,” they told me. “Take Dad and catch the plane to Christchurch. He’s got the tickets.”

He did too! But wait, there was more.

“Next morning, take your motel’s free shuttle to the railway station and check-in for the Tranz Alpine Express.

Fantastic! Something to tick off my bucket list. 

I spent most of my Tuesday packing the new suitcase. Terry finished his farm work, rushed home and filled a carry-on bag in 10 minutes. Then we drove, flew, shuttled and with rumbling stomachs settled into our motel for the night.

Fortunately, The Pedal Pusher was 10 minutes’ walk away. I loved the bike-theme they had going on, and the food was to-die-for. Best of all, their weekly pub-quiz questions up on the TV screens kept us busy all night. So it didn’t even matter that were missing ‘The Chase.’

We’re Going On A Train Trip

The last time I took a long train trip we went from London to Paris on the Eurostar. We had security checks… passports… queues for miles and it took two hours just to get on board.

This time, we rocked up to the Addington station at 8 o’clock on a wintry Wednesday — with no paper ticket — and joked with the ticket officer as he scanned the list for “McNamee.” 

Our name wasn’t there.

“Are you part of a group?”  he wondered.

“No,” said Lyn.

“Yes,” said Terry.


I turned around and there they all were — Steph, Debbie & Craig, Jenny & Paul, Chris and our darling, little Harvey — dragging a pile of bags through the door. Only Dave was missing.

Did I cry? Of course, I did! 

The Tranz-Alpine Train 

Have you ever journeyed on a train? It’s a far cry from travelling by aeroplane or car. Here’s the deal:

  • Relax — your journey takes hours so enjoy the trip.
River flats and snow-covered mountains on the way to Greymouth.
  • Move — you’re not stuck in your seat, taking furtive trips to the bathroom just to stretch your legs as you do on a long-haul flight. On the Tranz Alpine, we could lurch through the carriages between us and the buffet car any time we wanted.
View from the open-air viewing car on New Zealand's Tranz Alpine train.
The train even has an open-air viewing car if you feel the need for a blast of fresh air.
  • Admire the scenery — there’s lots of it.  
Winter scenery heading into the mountains on the Tranz Alpine Express.
  • Read… play cards… chat… sleep…  or — if you’re like Debbie and have vital exams the following week — get out your laptop and study. 
  • You can stop off along the way.
Three daughters and grandson, Harvey, in a viewing frame at Lake Brunner.
“Framed” at Moana, Lake Brunner. Debbie, Jenny, Harvey and Steph.

Our Stopover At Moana — Lake Brunner

I’d never even heard of Moana before, but Steph spent New Year here with friends back in the day and loved it. So, we stopped there for the night. The kids had it all arranged.

We could have gone on a Lake Cruise or fishing or hiking — but not in winter with a two-year-old. So, we hung out together on short bush and lakeside walks, ate tea at the hotel restaurant and played Catan (my favourite board game.) The younger ones headed for the pool tables in the bar, but I was ready for bed.

The next morning, just before the train arrived, we grabbed a snack at the Stationhouse Cafe. What a gem of a place. I wish we’d discovered it the night before and had a chance to eat there properly.

Deep blue Lake Brunner.
Thursday turned on a picture-perfect day on the West Coast. Lake Brunner, taken from the swing bridge.

On to Greymouth. 

I’d never been to Greymouth before but I’d heard a lot about Shanty Town and the Pancake Rocks so I was excited to see if they lived up to their billing. 

But first, we checked into Mount Street Magic for the night.

What a house it was. An old, cosy rambling villa, perfect for our needs. Who wouldn’t love the vast, wraparound deck which had nooks and crannies for sitting and a great view over the Grey River and its infamous bar?

Once settled, Paul started cooking coq au vin as a birthday dinner. (It’s great to have a chef in the family.) Jenny wanted Harvey to take a nap. But the rest of us headed towards Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks.

Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks

I was scared that Punakaiki might not live up to its billing, but wow! It sure delivered.

First up, I can’t believe that it’s FREE to visit the Pancake Rocks. 

So much work has gone into creating the boardwalk so that visitors are safe while they explore. At the same time, it protects the precious landscape from thousands of tourists’ feet. It’s truly a special place.

Here’s a tip to avoid the crowds — take the walk backwards. When we saw a coachload of visitors moving clockwise around the walk, our family walked the loop anticlockwise. That way, we only met the crowd once in the middle. 

They say that a picture paints a thousand words. And our photos almost show how spectacular the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes really are. 

There’s so much more to do in the Paparoa National Park that I had to add “holiday in Punakaiki” onto my bucket list. 

Shanty Town

When you’re in Greymouth everyone says the same thing.  “You must go to Shanty Town.” Our train back to Christchurch left at 14:05 so we had a morning to fill. Shanty Town wasn’t very busy so it was, indeed, a great place to visit. 

Which to see first? The working steam train? Bushwalk? StageCoach? Chinese settlement? The sawmill? The old-time shops? We couldn’t possibly see everything in a couple of hours, but we did our best. Just like when we visited the Tawhiti Museum in Hawera, I loved the interactive way of learning the West Coast History.

My favourite was the aural walk to “meet” the publican, the miner, the miner’s wife, the storekeeper, the packer and so on. They told their stories when you walked near them.

If Harvey could talk he would tell you he loved the steam-train ride and finding a friendly weka outside the old sawmill.

Homeward Bound

We carefully set our seats up so that Harvey could have his afternoon nap on the train going home. Unfortunately, sleep was the last thing on Harvey’s mind. So the train trip home wasn’t quite as relaxing as the outward journey. 

However, when we weren’t taking turns with our wakeful little man, we put on our headphones and listened to the commentary on the passing scenery. With a mix of stories and facts, it’s an interesting way to learn about the area. 

A Family Tea And One More Treat

My birthday finished with a family tea. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins came and it was wonderful to see them all. Thank you, everyone, for travelling and helping me turn 60. I loved seeing you one and all.

My birthday was officially over, but there was one more treat to come because a whole group of us had tickets to Michael McIntyre’s hilarious Christchurch show. 

If you’ve never heard of Michael McIntyre (where have you been?) this joke cracks me up every time I hear it.

Two-hours of non-stop laughter is the best way to finish a week-long birthday party. 

Thank you so much to my family for all the time and trouble you took to create such a magical celebration for me. I couldn’t have wished for anything more.

Photos courtesy of Debbie and Craig Ward, Bridget McNamee and me.

Cherishing Memories On TOML

2 Replies to “Surprise! It’s Your Birthday.”

    1. It sure is. There are so many parts I haven’t explored yet, too. Whenever I get to the West Coast I always wish I had longer to spend there.

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