There are three main routes across the Southern Alps for cars but many more for those hardy and brave enough to tackle the journey on foot.
Arthur’s Pass is the most direct route from Christchurch to Greymouth on the West Coast. The road (also known as SH 73) is a masterpiece and it was the first stage of a 5 -day road trip which was a holiday for me and a return home for my rented JUCYmobile, a bright white RAV 4. I was taking advantage of an almost- too- good- to- be- true deal that is offered at various times during the year when vehicles need to be moved from one part of the country to another.
Driving out of Christchurch, SH 73 points directly at the snow capped mountains ahead. It doesn’t take very long before they are no longer in front but all around and as my trusty RAV 4 began to feel the strain of the climb I began to wonder who, in fact, was Arthur?
By the end of his life he was Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson. He was born in London in 1841 and was a world traveller by the age of 9, sailing to New Zealand with his dad and elder brother. Mrs Dobson arrived a year later with Arthur’s 3 younger siblings. Arthur’s father was a surveyor and a railway engineer and it seems that from an early age Arthur’s destiny was to follow in his footsteps; he was apprenticed with his father and spent months surveying North Canterbury, exploring the Southern Alps and glaciers, and climbing mountains. He was a friend and eventual brother-in-law to Julius von Haast (who gave his name to the second of the main passes across the Southern Alps) and he married the daughter of Henry Lewis (who gave his name to the third one). It’s a relief that we weren’t stuck with Julius’s Pass and Henry’s Pass although I wonder why not?
Today, driving through Arthur’s Pass, the effort required to journey on foot when the land was unchartered is hard to imagine. The landscape has been shaped by glaciers and is covered with tussock, grasses and beech forests on the drier eastern side and with lush rain forest, ferns and mosses in the west. Arthur found his Pass with the help of Māori Chief Tarapuhi; Māori had long used the route to trade pounamu (greenstone). With 4 metres of rain every year and 3 or 4 heavy snowfalls, the feats of these early explorers are astounding.
Gold was discovered on the West Coast in 1864 and a fast route was needed between the gold mines and the settlements in Canterbury. Arthur’s Pass was chosen as the preferred route and a road was commissioned. In less than a year in a bitter winter, one thousand men completed the job with picks, axes and explosives. After all that effort, and although the east-west route was fast, the route west to east was unpopular because of the steep conditions and the gold miners preferred to take their gold by ship to Melbourne.
The last upgrade to SH 73 was the Otira Viaduct which was opened in 1999. Everyone should stop to get a photograph from Deaths Corner lookout, high above the steep gorge and the tight zig-zags of the old road. If you’re lucky you will be entertained by Kea, mischievous and photogenic mountain parrots. Be warned, resist feeding them even if they look cute and hungry. They could become sick and you could be in trouble for intentionally harming protected wildlife.
A railway track was laid after the road was built and today the trip from Christchurch to Greymouth on the TranzAlpine Express is one of the great train journeys in the world. It’s a 4 and a half hour journey with a stop at Arthur’s Pass village, plenty of waterfalls, spectacular scenery and the longest tunnel in NZ. An hour in Greymouth and you’ll be back in Christchurch for tea.
Arthur’s Pass became a National Park in 1929 and has become a popular area for tramping, climbing and skiing but even driving across the Pass feels adventurous. The Southern Alps clearly define the weather between the east and west and it is not unusual for there to be 4 dramatic seasons in a day as you cross from one coast to the other. The wind seems to be doing it’s best to blow my RAV 4 off the mountain but we plough on concentrating hard on negotiating hairpin bends and resisting the temptation to pull over for yet another photograph. This time, I didn’t see any Kea, or mountain tops, but I’m not complaining. It’s just the excuse I need to go back another day.
- Check this website for re-location deals www.jucy.co.nz
- Everything you need to know about Arthur’s Pass from the excellent Department of Conservation website http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/arthurs-pass/
- Information on the TranzAlpine Express http://www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz/tranzalpine
- In Greymouth, DP One is a hip little cafe near the river (108 Mawhera Quay). Grab a leather arm chair or a comfy sofa and enjoy the coffee, almost-free wifi ($1) and groovy music.
Categories: New Zealand