Time is slipping by on me but I recently had to make that trip over the Alps to the wild wet West Coast again. The drive over Arthur’s Pass from Canterbury to Westland is arguably the most scenic 4 hr drive in the country. It’s not that the scenery is exceptional, rather it is the rapidly changing contrasts from the flat patchwork quilt of the Canterbury Plains over Porter’s Pass into the dry upland basin of Castle Hill cradled between the Torlesse and Craigieburn Ranges.
There’s the stunning karst landscape around Cave Stream and Flock Hill before dropping down an ancient terminal moraine wall to Lake Grasmere then out into the expansive upper Waimakariri Basin, on a good day the western skyline is lined with peaks and glaciers but this day it was not so great.
Crossing the Waimakariri River the road tunnels through the beech forest into the narrow Bealey Valley of Arthur’s Pass National Park flanked by the rails of the Midland Line and passing the start of several tramping tracks before emerging at the village of bach’s, railway houses, backpackers, YHA, club huts, National Park HQ and a smattering of lodges, restaurants and the like. A short haul and it’s past the hanging snowfields of the Bealey Slide, Temple Basin Ski Field and into the alpine scrub and tarns on the pass itself. Then the plummet through the cleft of the Otira Gorge “Select Low Gear” “No Stopping”. From here on down the landscape becomes increasingly primeval, trees draped with moss, rampant ferns and nearing the coast, tree ferns, giant podocarps holding aloft huge perching lilies and all festooned with lianas. Overall there is the dramatic change in the air, from the burnt rock smell of flint in Canterbury – by the time the road levels out near Otira there is the smell of decay, not unpleasant but that musty, mouldy smell that sometimes lingers near a waterfall, in a ferny grotto or when a rotten log is rolled over. The other big contrast is the weather, Canterbury is dry with either cold grey skys or hot, howling winds off the mountains (The Norwester). The Coast however is like Jemima in Longfellow’s There was a little girl :
“When she was good she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.”
Two weeks without rain is a drought, but when it rains it really sends it down but it’s otherwise fine, end result, Hokitika gets almost as much sunshine as Christchurch.
On this trip I’d set out into a moderate Norwester that rocked the car as I headed south to the Waimakariri Gorge to join the Arthur’s Pass Highway at Sheffield. I could see a line of cloud lifting off the Plains to the south as a Southerly front pushed up the country. A quick stop at the ‘Original Sheffield Pie Shop’ for take aways. Then following a tourist bus up to the top of Porter’s Pass the Southerly caught up dropping the temperature by a good 10 degrees and washing the windscreen. A few more spots of rain but reasonable weather held to Greyneys where trampers used to be able to flag down a train after completing the Mingha/Deception route over Goat Pass. No longer, the train these days is for classy tourists, not hungry hobbits in muddy tattered clothes, sporting festering sandfly bites, scraped shins and a thousand seeds of hook grass hanging on hairy legs above water filled boots from the recent wading of the river to reach the tracks.
A mile further at the Arthur’s Pass village and it was pouring, the gloom being relieved by the bright colours of the baches. No views today but this kind of country in fine weather is grand, in horrid weather it’s awesome. Never mind that the mountains are lost they have even more presence when they are only half sensed, defined only by the narrow strip of light along the centre of the valley. The bottom of the relatively new viaduct kissed the crimson canopy of a late flowering rata (sorry “No Stopping”, no photo) and in the pouring rain I remembered some of the lines to Tremayne Curnow’s 1920 ballad. An Anglican minister his circuit routinely took him over the Pass and while rail had made it to Otira on the West and Arthur’s Pass village on the East a connecting tunnel was still under construction. Passengers and freight were carried over the Pass in a Cobb & Co. coach (a ‘Concord’ from Concord, New Hampshire). A Cobb & Co. coach can be found in the Arthur’s Pass National Park, Visitor Centre.
Upon the topmost seat I ride
Ladies and baggage go inside
And as we cross the Great Divide
My collar forms a funnel
To catch the rain which wets me through
Don’t gush to me about the view
I’m cold and wet so tell me do
When shall we have the tunnel?
The view it fairly scares me stiff
The road’s a ledge along a cliff
The wheels go near it, heaven if
They made a deviation
I only hope that I survive
This perfect nightmare of a drive
To offer thanks when I arrive
Safe at Otira Station.
The driver tries to calm my fears
As round a hairpin bend he steers
There’s been no accident for years
He hastens to assure me.
I’ve done this job in wind and rain
Three times a week, and back again
For eighteen years, but all in vain
This has no comfort for me.
The scenery I understand
Is commonly considered grand
By tourists from another land
Who love each new impression
But I’m cold and wet as sop
And only think how far I’d drop
If I fell off the coach’s top
I freely make confession.
I’m no seeker after thrills
I’d rather travel under hills
Than over them in rain and chills
In constant trepidation.
I only hope some other day
To travel back the tunnel way
So may no further hitch delay
That blessed perforation.
Tremayne Curnow 1920
In 1923, Tremayne got his wish when the 9km tunnel was opened after 15 years of construction.
If I thought it was pouring earlier I had to reconsider when I stopped to eat the Sheffeild Pie Shop wares at Kelly Creek. Last time through in daylight there had been a trampers shelter here but alas it has gone perhaps under the creekbed. At Kelly Creek there is a steep track onto the Kelly Range and to Carrol Hut while another track follows the valley up to a saddle and into Hunt’s Basin where another small hut sits in a swamp at the edge of the treeline. From Hunt’s it is possible for experienced trampers to cross high alpine passes (Bijleveld Col and Campbell’s Pass) into the Waimakariri headwaters making a good 3 day hike into parts seldom trod (for good reason).
The carpark/picnic area had been sprayed with herbicide. Sometimes you gotta wonder what the Rangers are thinking. It looks awful, is unnecessary and what of people who picnic or layout their kit on the sprayed grass before the effects start to show? Roundup takes up to a week to die off and yellow like this looks like Roundup to me.
At Kumara (home of the popular races on the first weekend after New Year) a Westland Dairy Co-op tanker pulled out in front, mid-day turned to dusk and the rain was joined by a heavy shower, the wipers couldn’t keep up and I just tailed the dark blob of the tanker down to Kumara Junction. Here the road splits north and south. To go north there is an engineers joke. So you’re heading west and cross the rail line that goes south to Hokitika , you then turn right to face north, keep turning right to face east, cross the rail line again and then turn left to go north, anywhere else in the world you’d think it would be illegal to do a U’ie on a level crossing.
Just up the road is the 2nd to last road/rail bridge in the country. Built in 1890 the bridge over the Taramakau River was either the first or second steel bridge in NZ. The Iron Bridge in the Buller Gorge was built in the same year. While the other road/rail bridge is a wooden truss bridge over the Arahura just out of Hokitika. The Arahura bridge has a real nice clickety clack thing going and fair puts the wind up some of the campervan drivers. The Taramakau experience will soon be lost as plans are afoot to build a new road bridge.