Saturday 23 May 2015

Arthurs Pass- Heart of the Southern Alps

We had a fabulous time at Lake Brunner and were lucky to have a couple of fine days before the rain set in once again. We left Lake Brunner during a break in the rain, heading for Jacksons where we were going to wait until the weather cleared before crossing Arthurs Pass. You'll remember this post from earlier, well now I can tell you more about our drive over the Pass.

Arthurs Pass is one of three passes that link the east and west coasts of the South Island. The Pass climbs to more than 900 metres through Arthurs Pass National Park and is the highest and most spectacular pass across the Southern Alps.

It took three days before we awoke to blue sky and a view out over the Taramakau River valley.

Perhaps we should have stayed another day, the Jacksons Retreat Holiday Park had a number of walks, a waterfall, two lovely tumbling streams (which were gushing torrents by the time we left), lots of birds and glow-worms. But we were keen to cross the Pass while it was such a lovely day. On our way out we stopped at probably the prettiest dump station we’ve visited on our travels. The only problem being that the van was facing downhill and the tanks didn’t empty fully. But then that happens at other sites too, you’d be surprised how many aren’t level.

Just up the road is the historic Jacksons Hotel. The first Jacksons Hotel was built in 1868 and served as a stage coach post. It was rebuilt in 1872 on a higher site after it was washed away by the Taramakau River. The second building went up in smoke & was replaced by this one in 1910.

Our next stop is at the settlement of Otira which was once a bustling village of 600 people but now has a population of just ten or so people. The Otira Hotel was built in the 1860s and was also a stage coach post. After the Otira tunnel opened in 1923 the village became a busy railway settlement.

In 1998 Otira became famous in NZ when the whole township was sold for $73,000. The sale included the hotel, hall, fire station and 14 rentable houses on 20 hectares of leasehold land. Last year, after 4 years on the market, the pub was sold to a Motueka man.who plans to buy the rest of the settlement in a few years.

Although we didn’t meet the latest owner (he was away on a break) I get the distinct impression that he is slightly eccentric. As you can see, both inside and outside the pub, there is an eclectic collection of hundreds of items from a by-gone era. There doesn’t seem to be rhyme nor reason for some of the items, perhaps generous people have passed on their collections. I know I wouldn’t like to be the one dusting in there.

I got a bit of a fright when I opened one of the lounge room doors to see an old lady sitting across the room (left middle photo above). She didn’t have me fooled for too long though, I’ve seen the likes of her before. Paper mache ‘old people’ were regular visitors to Mum’s craft shop in Hawkes Bay. A lovely lady in Matata in the Bay of Plenty used to make them to sell and they’d sit in deck chairs outside the shop welcoming shoppers in- oh look, I just happened to have a couple of 'old people' photos! That's Mum in the centre on the right, in case you are thinking 'that one looks very realistic'- the photo appeared in the local paper.

Our next stop was at the Death’s Corner Lookout which overlooks the engineering masterpiece that is the Otira Viaduct. Opened in 1999, the 440 metre four span viaduct carries the road over a stretch of unstable land and replaced a narrow winding, dangerous section of the road that was prone to avalanches, slips and closures. As magnificent as the viaduct is I was more impressed with the artificial waterfall that was created to divert water over the two lane highway, to plummet hundreds of metres into the Otira River below.

One final stop at the summit of the Pass to check out the memorial to Arthur Dudley Dobson, pioneer, explorer, surveyor and civil engineer who discovered the pass in 1864 (although Maori did use it earlier). Arthur Dobson was born in London in 1841 and died in Christchuch in 1934 at the ripe old age of 93 - the fresh air obviously agreed with him.

We stopped in Arthurs Pass Village for a late lunch and then decided we’d stay in the village for a couple of days instead of heading further east to one of the numerous DOC camps along the way.

This DOC campground was a little different than most, it was just across the road from the DOC headquarters for Arthurs Pass National Park, just along the way from the railway station and backing onto the railway line and sidings including a historic turntable. The bank I’m standing on taking the photo is a flood bank for Avalanche Creek which runs through the centre of the village.

Avalanche Creek arrives in the village via three vertical waterfalls that cascade down the mountainside across the road from the camp. This small section is the waterfall at the bottom of the falls, the middle section can be viewed from a platform just above these and there’s a very steep track up to the top section. The water, as you can see is crystal clear, it pools just over the bank from our camp and disappears into the gravel underneath the rail bridge before emerging into the Bealey River on the other side. The gravel must be very porous because it’s hard to imagine that amount of water not forcing the flow all the way to the river.

The middle waterfall forms a beautiful backdrop to Arthurs Pass Chapel’s main window. Like a number of churches around the country nature does a great job at providing a moving living stained glass window.

Arthurs Pass Village began its life as a road construction camp and then grew to provide services for travellers on the road providing, amongst other things, fresh horses for the weary travellers on the 2-3 day journey. Between 1907 and 1923 the village became a worker’s camp during the construction of the Otira railway tunnel. Many of the holiday cottages tucked into the bush around the village are former worker’s huts. The post office was one of the more unusual post offices we’ve seen on our travels. It looked more like a bus shelter and I bet it would be very cold collecting your mail in the middle of winter!

There are numerous walks around the village and along the Pass but other than a short walk to Bealey Chasm we didn’t do any of the popular walks.  We did spend an afternoon hiking up the Otira Valley in search of the elusive Rock Wren- I’ll do a separate post on that- but with the sun not reaching into the valley until late morning and it being bitterly cold outside until then, we stayed in the van tucked up in the warmth.

Historic Jacks Hut, a restored roadman’s cottage, sits across the road from the Chasm carpark.

Some of the most prominent features of the village are the railway yards, buildings and railway stations (old & new). Not so visible is the entry to the 8.5km long Otira tunnel, in part because it’s hidden in the shade all day long. The entrance is the dark hole at the end of the bridge in the top left photo.

And while the Arthurs Pass is mostly a peaceful alpine environment, there is the frequent rumble of passing trains, day and night.

Most of the trains were hauling coal wagons back and forth from the West Coast coal mines, it was interesting to note that 5 engines were needed to pull the wagons up to Arthurs Pass from Greymouth. And only two were required to take the empty wagons back to the Coast; on occasion the 3 spare engines were hooked onto the back of the passenger train.

Twice a day the Trans Alpine Passenger Train pulled into the station, the train transports visitors on, what some say, is one of the worlds great train rides through some stunning scenery. Personally I think the road journey is more spectacular- we have done the train, 17 years ago, but I have little recall of it other than the tunnel which went on and on. Odd when it’s the scenery that I should have remembered. Although I do remember stopping at the old A frame railway station and hoping for a kea to make an appearance (they didn’t). The old station has now been replaced with a long low profile concrete and stone building- you can see it in the background of the photo of our van back near the top of the post.

Near the underpass to the station is this information board with the rock and the carved logo beside it. It’s a pity that lichen is overtaking the emblem.

Still to come from Arthurs Pass-

Cheeky, Curious & Charismatic Kea
Stunning Otira Valley


  1. Well.... Didn't know it was called "Death Corner" the publican you mention, was I think Lester Rountree, who used to own a sawmill at Lower Moutere... I built a shed for him in exchange for milling some timber at least 25 years ago, built like an ox so the bull in the china shop is a good analogy for him. This morn in Goldsborough I literally did some impromptu clowning around for the Kumara school kids gold panning day👍 op has come thru for fri 3th June Kia Kaha J
    Ps not raining on the coast at Hokitika today!

    1. Yes it is Lester, Jimu, although we didn't have the pleasure of meeting him. He's surely taken on a huge job with the Otira village- a very brave man IMO. Cold in Goldsborough I bet, it was raining when we visited (surprise, surprise) I'm sure the kids would have appreciated your efforts. All the best for the op, but you better check the date- 3rd June is a Wednesday..... :)


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