Arthur's Pass

December 5, 2020
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ARTHUR’S PASS is the second greatpass in the Canterbury region and the most commercially important. It’scertainly the only one with a regular train service, stopping at a ratherSwiss-style mountain station at the Pass. The A-frame design has paintings onthe ceiling inside.


Arthur’s Pass Train Station. Photo by ‘FrancisVallance (Heritage Warrior)’, 22 June 2015, CC-BY-2.0 via WikimediaCommons.

The train service is a scenic excursion train called theTranzAlpine. In the South Island north of Christchurch,the Coastal Pacific and the TranzAlpine normallyrun daily services, year-round in the case of the TranzAlpine but not in winterin the case of the Coastal Pacific.

The TranzAlpine (red) and Coastal Pacific(green). Map by Jkan997, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the link to the TranzAlpine

Once you get there, by car or via the TranzAlapine scenicexcursion train service, you will find that are lots of tramps and other thingsthat can be done in the pass. Here’s a map from an excellent 33-page DOCbrochure called Discover Arthur’s Pass which I’ve rendered in monochromevia filters in such a way as to make the tracks stand out.

Trail map from Discover Arthur’s Pass(brochure), New Zealand Department of Conservation, 2012. Rendered monochromevia filter.

There are also lots of things to do, and heritage trails, inthe town itself, and they are described elsewhere in the brochure.

You can download the fullbrochure from also from DOC’s web page on Arthur’s Pass. The local website is also informative in moregeneral terms.

Craigieburn and Kura Tāwhiti (Castle Hill)

Before you get to Arthur’s Pass,travelling westward from Christchurch, you go through Porters Pass, which is920 metres or just over three thousand feet above sea level. That’s higher thanthe township of Arthur’s Pass, which sits at 739 metres or 2,425 feet, andcoincidentally the same height as the Arthur’s Pass summit, also 920 metres.Between the two passes, you drive through an upland landscape of lakes andriver flats, cold, bleak and bracing.

There are four skifields in this part of Canterbury, PortersSki Area, Mount Cheeseman, Broken River and Craigieburn. There is also theCraigieburn Forest Park with its many tramping tracks.

Check out DOC’s web pageon Craigieburn Forest Park

But probably the most culturally important thing thatyou will come to, between the two passes, is Kura Tāwhiti, also known as CastleHill, beside the main road to Arthurs Pass.

I hesitate to call Kura Tāwhiti Castle Hill: not onlybecause it is very sacred to Māori and should therefore have its proper name,but also because there are Castle Hills everywhere in New Zealand and evenanother in the very same area, so it gets confusing!

Kura Tāwhiti means ‘treasure from afar’ and refers to thecultivation of kūmara or sweet potatoes in this area, unusually far south forkūmara cultivation but very sunny and sheltered between the rocks. The area waslong used for shelter from the biting local winds by humans as well, and hastraces of 500-year-old charcoal drawings done by the Waitaha people.


The Kura Tāwhiti Access Track does a loop behind the stonesof Kura Tāwhiti, a loop which goes close to the top of Castle Hill (also 920metres). Kura Tāwhiti is quite close to Craigieburn Forest Park and very closeto a locality called Castle Hill Village, from which a number of other tracksgo up into the hills including the local Leith Hill Loop Track and the HogsBack Track that leads to Mount Cheeseman, Broken River and Craigieburnskifields, and to Craigieburn Forest Park more generally.

Here’s a story on KuraTāwhiti, from the pages of New Zealand Geographic: can also look up DOC’s webpage on the Kura Tāwhiti Conservation Area, asthe site is officially known.

The name Arthur’s Pass refers toArthur Dobson, the explorer who supposedly discovered it: though it goeswithout saying that the Māori generally knew of all the larger features of theinterior, including its useful mountain passes.

In the case of the pass that would be called Arthur’s,Dobson and his party were told where to go (in a friendly manner) by arangatira named Tarapuhi.

Though it formed part of a traditional trail, the passpresented engineering difficulties for anyone who proposed to build a road or arailway. Indeed, its advocates were lampooned by those who favoured otherroutes, such as Browning Pass.

A cartoon representing supporters of the Arthur’sPass route as deluded and drunk, from Punch in Canterbury (1865), Alexander TurnbullLibrary,,via TeAra, the online Encycloapaedia of New Zealand

The difficulties and expense were so great that there was norailway until 1923, when a rail tunnel through the summit of the pass betweenArthur’s Pass township on the Canterbury side and Ōtira on the West Coast sidewas completed. At more than 8.5 km (5.3 miles), the Ōtira tunnel was one of thelongest in the world at the time. People on one side of the mountains wouldpeer down the tunnel to get an idea of weather conditions on the other side!

As for the road, though it was built earlier, it clung tothe side of the mountains over the same stretch and was regularly wiped out bylandslides. Indeed, the skeptics had the last laugh in a way, when, after about130 years the government gave up on trying to repair the worst section andreplaced it with the 440-metre long Ōtira Viaduct.

Ōtira Viaduct, photo by ‘Mattinbign’, 30November 2011, CC-BY-3.0via WikimediaCommons


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