State Highway 73, Arthur’s Pass, through the Southern Alps, is one of New Zealand’s many spectacular drives.
The scenery includes pristine mountains and rivers, wild gorges, spectacular engineering at Otira viaduct, and a heritage township. There are many great walks and peaceful places to park up along the way.
From the east—Arthur's pass township
Three years ago, during winter, my husband, Sam, and I spent two weeks travelling the South Island. A star-spangled night promised a fabulous day to drive through Arthur’s Pass, but it was not to be. A tangle of cold fronts had rolled in from the west and it was a grey day. Heading west from Methven, we took the back roads and followed the Rakaia River inland to Lake Coleridge, which, sometimes sublime, looked bleak. We drove on.
It started to snow and by the time we reached Arthur’s Pass township, snow blanketed everything and fat snowflakes were falling down. Sound was softly muffled and the world was darkly bright.
The snow was deep enough to close the pass, and with the weather not predicted to improve, we decided to turn back, make a differnet plan, and have a crack at the pass another time.
Meanwhile, we wandered down the road delighting at what the snow had done to aesthetics: the usually dark bush was trimmed white, flax leaves curled under the weight of it, old corrugated iron cottages looked dainty, and the chapel, with picture windows of mountains instead of stained glass, looked heavenly.
Devil’s Punchbowl Falls
The walk to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls was a one-hour round trip. Ordinary bridges decorated with snow became things of beauty. Keas squawked as they flew; their red underwings and green bodies bright in the white world.
The waterfall area was completely monochrome, and though water was still gushing down, it was edged by millions of icicles. Black and white snow-covered foliage surrounded it, and I felt I had walked into an exquisite Japanese painting.
We left mid-afternoon, heading back the way we came, concerned that we might get snowed-in. But we were happy. The snow that changed our plans also gave us a whitely memorable day.
From the west—Otira township
Last year, and a lot of kilometres later, we approached Arthur’s Pass from the west. It was late winter and clouds shrouded the mountains above the snow line.
Otira township was the first fun place to stop. It’s eccentric in a once-was-New Zealand way, and the town owner (he has 18 houses, a fire station, town hall, and Otira Stagecoach
Hotel) accentuates the heritage aspect wonderfully.
The hotel has stagecoach wheels as its garden fence, deer antlers along the balustrade, and old farm machinery and vintage vehicles gently rusted where they stopped. The bar doubles as a terrific museum enjoyed for the price of a cuppa or a handle.
The next big thing is Otira Bridge. With modern engineering at its elegant best, the bridge floats above a rugged slip and flood-prone gorge like a delicately curved ribbon. The bridge supports are slender, the biggest span a curved 440 metres. It is a gravity-defying miracle.
Over the divide, on the sunny side, clouds were a mere fluff in the blue. We stopped for lunch at Bealey Hotel not because the food offered was spectacular but because the view was. The braided Bealey River sparkled widely as it wound its way between the mighty Southern Alps.
The views at Cass
We stopped again at Cass to view the scene Rita Angus made iconic in her 1936 painting. The pine trees have grown enormously but nothing else has changed much. The little railway shed and the clouds are the same. Rita would be delighted.
The reserve beside Lake Pearson was the perfect place to laze away the afternoon. There were ducks trailing ducklings, trout jumping, a lone fisherman gently casting, sunshine, and glorious mountains all around.
Oh, the joys of having a motorhome. We dozed, read, walked, and laughed, and then strolled under another star-spangled sky after dinner. We slept to the soft slosh of the lake’s tiny waves.