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Arthur's Pass and Ōtira

Published
September 15, 2023
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ARTHUR’S PASS is the most commercially important alpine pass in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s certainly the only one with a regular train service, stopping at a rather Swiss-style mountain station at the Pass. The A-frame design has paintings on the ceiling inside.‍

Arthur’s Pass Train Station. Photo by ‘Francis Vallance (Heritage Warrior)’, 22 June 2015, CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

View from inside the Arthur’s Pass train station by DB Thats-Me, 27 February 2010, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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

The TranzAlpine (Christchurch–Greymouth) and Coastal Pacific (Christchurch–Picton). Map by Jkan997, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Both services terminate in Christchurch.

Both by car and by train, you get there via the small town of Springfield, which has a very unusual claim to fame, as towns named Springfield go, in that it was the birthplace and early home of an important leader of the Chinese Communist Revolution, Rewi Alley.

At the Rewi Alley memorial in Springfield

Alley popularised the phrase ‘gung ho’, now a byword for enthusiasm in English: it literally means ‘work together’. As to how a man from a small town in New Zealand ended up at the side of leaders from Mao to Deng Xiaoping, well, that’s told in several storyboards on the monument.

The Rewi Alley Memorial

One of the storyboards at the memorial

Craigieburn and Kura Tāwhiti (Castle Hill)

Beyond Springfield, if you are travelling by road, you go through Porters Pass, which is 920 metres or just over three thousand feet above sea level. That’s higher than the township of Arthur’s Pass, which sits at 739 metres or 2,425 feet, and coincidentally the same height as the Arthur’s Pass summit, also 920 metres. Between the two passes, you drive through an upland landscape of lakes and river flats — cold, bleak and bracing.

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

Check out DOC’s web page on Craigieburn Forest Park.

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

I hesitate to call Kura Tāwhiti Castle Hill: not only because 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 even two others in the very same area, I believe, so it gets confusing!

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

Kura Tāwhiti, or Castle Hill. You can see the castle-like proportions of the outcrops in relation to the figures on the tracks.

An information sign

A rather informal-looking path between the rocks at Castle Hill/Kura Tāwhiti

The author, there

In winter, the area looks positively Icelandic. Here are some photos of the access track to Cave Stream, on the other side of the road.

And Kura Tāwhiti itself, including a new cultural pavilion.

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

Here’s a story on Kura Tāwhiti, from the pages of New Zealand Geographic: nzgeo.com/stories/the-rocks-of-castle-hill. You can also look up DOC’s webpage on the Kura Tāwhiti Conservation Area, as the site is officially known.

By the way, you have to go by road to get to Kura Tāwhiti, as the TranzAlpine’s line takes another route through these parts, through a district called Avoca, which has an interesting history of its own to do with now-defunct coal mines.

Arriving in Arthur’s Pass

Once you get to Arthur’s Pass, it is worth checking out the many hikes and other things that can be done in the pass. Here’s a map from an excellent New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) brochure called Discover Arthur’s Pass.

Trail map from Discover Arthur’s Pass (brochure), New Zealand Department of Conservation, 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0.

There are also lots of heritage trails and other things to do in the town itself, and they are described in Discover Arthur’s Pass.

You can download the full brochure from DOC’s web page on Arthur’s Pass National Park. The local website arthurspass.com is also informative in more general terms, and carries a link to the brochure as well.

Just off the map above, to the north, is the Temple Basin skifield. This is a club field which is not accessible by car. You have to hike up from a carpark near the main road, a climb that can take an hour or more for normal people, or less if you are super-fit and keen. There is a goods lift that carries people’s skis and packs up. It is a good idea to hang onto the poles, though, and use them as climbing poles on the track.

The skifield is worth hiking up to even in summer, for the view. The view over the pass from Temple Basin is praised in the brochure (December 2019 version) as follows:

A nature photographer’s dream. This track starts from above the bush line at the Temple Basin car park, five km north of Arthur’s Pass village. It zig-zags steeply up the hill to an open tussock basin, ski-club buildings and the Lockwood day shelter. On a clear day you get magnificent views of Mt Rolleston/Kaimatau across the valley.

By way of an update, I hiked up to the Temple Basin skifield for the first time, eventually, in spring. Here is a video I shot of that visit. It really is a beautiful climb, though a bit hardcore to get to a skifield!

Here are some photos I took, the first one of Arthur’s Pass township and all the rest of the track up to Temple Basin and the skifield, including the view.

I had always wanted to climb up to Temple Basin, and I am glad I have done it! There were only twenty to twenty-five people there when I made it to the field, mostly drunk students. There was beautiful fresh snow and the lodge on the skifield has modern bunkrooms, but I didn’t want to stay the night. I might have done if I had gone with friends.

Some tips about places to stay and to eat, and things to do

In terms of places to stay, there was a place called The Sanctuary which looked quite cheap. There is camping for NZ $8 a night, and the best place to camp if you want to sleep in your car and not pitch a tent is by the Visitor Centre, at the Avalanche Creek Campsite. There is a huge shelter called the Avalanche Creek Shelter where people can cook, and there are public toilets not far from the Arthur’s Pass Railway Station. You can stay for as little as NZ $15 a night in the backpackers’ hostels. And of course, there are the more expensive motel options available.

Here’s a story about what it is like to live in the town, ‘What it’s really like to live in New Zealand’s smallest town’.

You can eat at the Arthur’s Pass Store and also at the Wobbly Kea, named after New Zealand’s famous alpine parrot the kea, which had better coffee; but I ate at the Ōtira Stagecoach Hotel in nearby Ōtira, about 14 km closer to the West Coast, which in this area means 14 km north of Arthur’s Pass, as the road runs from north to south through the pass.

The ‘Stagecoach’ bit isn’t made up: for some time, before the completion of the Ōtira Tunnel in 1923, they really did run stagecoaches through this area. The hotel is full of old-time memorabilia.

The Ōtira Stagecoach Hotel

Apples on sale for $5 a bag outside the hotel

I don’t think the sign refers to the present king: somebody must have forgotten to take it down.

There are plenty of short walks to do from the Avalanche Creek Campsite. There’s a waterfall at the Devil’s Punchbowl, that’s about half an hour. And then there are the historic walks, and a walk to the Bridal Veil Falls and then over to Jack’s Hut. And the chimney-like Dobson Memorial.

On the other side, I did the Mount Bealey Track. These are all within an hour to an hour and a half. And then you can go up to the Arthur’s Pass Lookout, where you can get a great view of the Ōtira Viaduct and see kea.

Kea are rare overall, in part because their chicks and even adult kea are taken by feral cats and other introduced pests and predators. But because they are sociable and like to hang around people, doubtless on the lookout for scraps as well, kea are still a fairly common sight in the mountains. This is a paradox which masks their actual rarity.

Avalanche Peak is a one-day walk and is the most-climbed peak in the country.

What really astounded me was the number of huts around here. I would like to walk to Carrington Hut, five hours up the Waimakariri River. And from there, to cross the Taipoiti River and do the the Three Passes Route, of Harman Pass, Whitehorn Pass and Browning Pass/Noti Raureka. This route, so alpine that it’s recommended only to do it in summer, involves crossing a permanent ice-field with crevasses at the Whitehorn Pass. What an amazing hike that would be; though only if your skills are up to it of course! The DOC page on the Three Passes Route is full of tips on how to do it as safely as possible.‍

Carrington Hut at the far right edge, Clough Cableway and the Three Passes Route. LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY-SA 4.0.

And a lot of people go to the Carroll Hut just past Ōtira. That’s a three hour hike above the Ōtira River to Kelly Saddle, which the hut sits alongside.

But all adventure aside, I enjoyed the Ōtira Hotel!

A Difficult Pass to Keep Open

The name Arthur’s Pass refers to Arthur Dobson, the explorer who supposedly discovered it: though it goes without saying that the Māori generally knew of all the larger features of the interior, 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 a rangatira (chief) named Tarapuhi.

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

An 1865 cartoon representing supporters of the Arthur’s Pass route as deluded and drunk, from Punch in Canterbury, Alexander Turnbull Library, natlib.govt.nz/records/23091108

‍The difficulties and expense were so great that there was no railway until 1923, when a rail tunnel through the summit of the pass between Arthur’s Pass township on the Canterbury side and Ōtira on the West Coast side was completed. At more than 8.5 km (5.3 miles), the Ōtira tunnel was one of the longest in the world at the time. People on one side of the mountains would peer 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 to the side of the mountains over the same stretch and was regularly wiped out by landslides. Indeed, the skeptics had the last laugh in a way, when, after about 130 years the government gave up on trying to repair the worst section and replaced it with the 440-metre long Ōtira Viaduct.‍

The Ōtira Viaduct, with two kea in the foreground

The viaduct is not the only engineering marvel in the area. The 8.5 km Ōtira Tunnel, which celebrated its 100th anniversary on 4 August 2023. The tunnel was very expensive and took fifteen years to hew out of the rock, from 1908 to 1923.

Cartoon on the wall in the community hall at Ōtira, on 4 August 2023

Here’s a pan my editor Chris did around the railway station.

And here’s a video slightly under two minutes long, showing the excursion train of the day emerging from the western portal of the tunnel.

The Kea: Minor Menace of the Mountains

I was sitting there admiring the viaduct when my rubber-soled sandal was attacked by kea, which have no fear of human beings whatsoever and a peculiar obsession with rubber. Several kea gathered on a railing to wait their turn to have a go at my sandals. Kea are notorious for stripping the rubber from car windscreens and wipers and generally trashing campsites. They are also ranked as among the most intelligent birds in the world if not the most intelligent, so it’s a kind of mischievousness, I think.‍

Here’s one of the kea on the railing, displaying its red underwings.‍

Kea are actually fairly carnivorous, unlike most other parrots, and used to have a reputation for attacking live sheep. The farmers used to shoot kea in large numbers, though the modern scientific thinking is that such attacks are unusual and likely to have been vastly outnumbered by sightings of kea pecking at a carcass. On the odd occasion, even now, a kea that has developed a taste for live sheep has been legally shot by government rangers, though kea have, otherwise, been absolutely protected since 1986.

In flight, they do look a bit like eagles, which are known to go after lambs in Scotland and a few other places.‍

So maybe the kea were trying to eat my toes — now there’s a sobering thought.

Still, in spite of all the trouble they cause, it’s hard to dislike them!‍

And that’s all, folks!‍

(This story was slightly modified on 19 September 2023, chiefly to add material about the rarity of the kea and its vulnerability to predation.)

If you liked this post, check out my book about the South Island! It’s available for purchase from available from this website, a-maverick.com.


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