Southern Alps of New Zealand – Arthur’s Pass

braided riverSouthern Alps Magical National Park.

It takes me less than three hours to travel from plains to mountains; sea to snow-fed rivers; city to village; from current time to the ancient forests of Gondwanaland. (The Jurassic period super-continent from which New Zealand separated some 85 million years ago.)

Unlike the pre-European Maori who walked or early settlers in Cobb and Co. coaches, I travelled by the TranzAlpine train to Arthur’s Pass -the train that leaves Christchurch daily for the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Sharing the carriage were tourists from many parts of the world. Some were ready to test their stamina and muscles in the Arthur’s Pass National Park, while a family group were day-tripping, with five hours to explore the village, and me, looking for some rest and recreation.

Two popular walks near the village are The Devil’s Punchbowl and the Bridal Veil Falls.

The Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall with its impressive 131-metre drop is an easy one-hour return journey through stands of majestic white-limbed mountain beech trees. As you approach the waterfall, clouds of spray rise like mist, just as one might imagine the devil’s steaming cauldron does.

The other easy, yet even more beautiful walk, takes you to the Bridal Veil Falls. Although the falls are viewed from a distance, the walk itself is wonderful. Colours abound; crisp greys to soft emerald, or lime greens nestle alongside bright reds and orange. Numerous native ferns, lichens, trees, and shrubs seem to invite one to stop, admire, and record their beauty, while the piwakawaka (fantail) that accompany you are an absolute joy.

All through the village, population 55, and surrounding areas, are the sounds of birds. Bellbirds with their dulcet tones are so different to the kea with its loud calls as it glides loftily above all, displaying its orange under-wing plumage to us. The occasional gull calls from overhead too, reminding me what a narrow land New Zealand is.

Walking beside beech trees it is easy to believe that the forests of Gondwanaland looked just like these South Island beech forests. Fossils of beech found in Antarctica and descendants that survive in Chile, Australia and Papua New Guinea support this theory.

Brothers Arthur and Edward Dobson rediscovered the pass in 1864. Maori had used it as an east-west route to collect or trade Pounamu, the greenstone from which the south island is named, Te Wai Pounamu. The brothers named it Bealey Flat and finding the route made it easier to travel from coast to coast.

Some sixty years later travel became even easier with the railway and Otira tunnel, signalling the end of the coach era. Tunnellers huts, from early 1900’s, remain in the village linking past to the present. Originally unlined, austere dwellings, they were sold on the tunnel’s completion in 1923.

Some of the pioneering characters of Arthur’s Pass who bought these cottages includes the family of Guy and Grace Butler. One of New Zealands’ foremost landscape artists, Grace has works hanging in many places including the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch. Along with Guy who, according to his granddaughter Jennifer Barrer “gave up his legal practice to carry his wife’s easel,” Grace ran what was the first hostel in the village. Now called the Outdoor Education Centre, its front lawn was the site of the first skiing in the area!

I was fortunate to meet Jennifer who showed me through her ex-tunnellers holiday home that still has many pieces of the original furniture. Jennifer, an author, including a book about her grandmother, told me of her early days in Arthur’s Pass. They used to travel from Christchurch in a Ford V8 to restore the cottage her parents had bought; she treasured her times there. Jennifer loves alpine plants and had a magnificent flowering clump of the wonderful alpine daisy on display.

Arthur’s Pass National Park, created 1901, has 114,357 hectares within its boundaries and both tourists and locals appreciate its variety of tramps and some 28 public huts. If you plan to stay in some of the remote huts, tickets, or an annual hut pass, must be purchased from the Department of Conservation before your trip.

When on any walk in New Zealand mountains, remember to fill in an Intentions Card and leave it at the local DOC office, don’t travel alone, take extra food as well as everything you need to ensure your safety.

Other activities in Arthur’s Pass include skiing at Temple Basin, while the village itself is a good base for exploring Cave Stream Scenic Reserve with its 362-metre cave and interesting limestone outcrops.

Accommodation ranges from the YHA, backpacker hostels to motels, holiday homes, or bed and breakfast. Food covers the same budget to moderate price range. (See your local visitors’ information centre for details)

So whether it’s the proximity to ski-fields and terrific tramps, (the kiwi word for hiking!) or just a place to chill out with your holiday reading, Arthur’s Pass must be added to your holiday destination list!