Like many things in life, the two-hour trip long SH73 from Christchurch to the forested alpine zone of Arthur’s Pass isn’t as much about the destination as the journey. It’s a stand-out drive for its big, bold, ever-evolving landscape. The scenery changes gear frequently from pastoral panorama to tussocky grasslands to breathtaking alpine beauty. Here are a few stops worth making along the way.
Cave Stream Scenic Reserve
The underground wonderland known as the Cave Stream is one of the most spectacular natural features in the Canterbury region. This area is known as an ancient pathway and a flax backpack, found on a ridge above the reserve (and now in the Canterbury Museum), is estimated to be 500 years old.
Within the 16ha reserve there are striking limestone cliffs, gorges and boulder outcrops as well as a few different walking options. Some short walks lead to the cave entrance and one goes right through - the 594m-long limestone cave is high enough for walkers to traverse its entire length. While it is not a difficult walk, heed the warnings and be prepared.
There are some interesting local inhabitants to meet along the way. Eels are known to travel up the stream, sometimes by hanging onto the clothing of cavers. These young long-fin eels (elvers) migrate up the Waimakariri and Broken rivers between July and December. If they hitch a ride the experience has been described as ‘disconcerting’ but they are harmless and, as our only native species and under threat, they are precious.
Another interesting local is the cave harvestman spider, which is a rare species (found only in this cave and on the West Coast) that lives in the ‘dark zone’ of the cave’s upper reaches. Cavers are asked to stick to the stream bed to leave the habitat of this threatened invertebrate alone.
The walk through the cave isn’t suitable for young children but the reserve is a wonderful spot for a picnic. The kids will have fun trying to spot eels and swimming in the always icy but beautifully clear Broken River close to the cave.
Cave Stream Scenic Reserve is located 40 minutes south of Arthur’s Pass on SH73. The car park is off SH73 between the Broken River Road bridge and the entrance to Craigieburn Forest Park.
If you’re doing the full cave walk, avoid an unpleasant experience by planning ahead. Tourists have been known to wander, gung-ho, into the cave on a hot summer’s day and soon bitterly regret their lack of warm clothing.
Every caver needs their own headlamp or torch, plus a spare for every person (check the batteries) and very warm clothing — wetsuits recommended. Go against the flow (enter at the outflow end), be prepared to climb a 3m rung ladder beside a waterfall, use a chain and steps along an overhang, and cross a waist-deep stream in 10°C temperatures.
Wear a helmet and sturdy boots and check the weather forecast for signs of heavy rain in the surrounding hills before entering. Don’t enter if the water is discoloured. Do not take young children.
Kura Tāwhiti (Castle Hill) Conservation Area
Between the Torlesse and Craigieburn mountain ranges lies Kura Tāwhiti (Castle Hill) basin - a valley of striking limestone rock formations. They are the water-eroded remnants of limestone formed 30 to 40 million years ago when most of New Zealand was under the sea.
The car park is usually full whether Kura Tāwhiti glows under blue skies or is being lashed by wind. It is easy to understand why as the perfectly imperfect limestone lumps lining the valley are spectacular.
The valley has special significance to local Maori tribe Ngāi Tahu, since it was claimed by Ngāi Tahu ancestor Tane Tiki. The iwi gave the area its name, Kura Tāwhiti, which means ‘the treasure from a distant land’, referring to the kūmara that was once cultivated here.
Kura Tāwhiti has tōpuni status, which is the legal recognition of its importance to Ngāi Tahu. Tōpuni is a concept derived from the traditional customs of Ngāi Tahu chiefs extending power over people or places by placing a cloak over them.
Hidden among the limestone formations of Kura Tāwhiti are traces of 500-year-old charcoal drawings believed to date to the Waitaha people, the first to shelter among the limestones on their journeys through this land.
Adding another layer to the history of the reserve is its extraordinary plant life. Kura Tāwhiti is home to some of the rarest plants in the province. In the 1950s, Kura Tāwhiti became the first reserve in New Zealand to be specifically dedicated to the protection of a plant - in this case, the Castle Hill buttercup.
Thanks to the work of conservationist and lecturer Dr Lance McCaskill, the flower now grows in a fenced section of the reserve, which is also home to the Castle Hill forget-me-not. Kura Tāwhiti is located 40 minutes south of Arthur’s Pass on SH73, and is only 2.5km from the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve.
In 2007, Springfield was gifted a giant bright-pink doughnut sculpture by film studio 20th Century Fox to celebrate the release of The Simpsons movie and acknowledge the sharing of names between the cartoon Springfield (the main town in the TV series) and the real-life Springfield.
The six-tonne landmark, a depiction of one of main character Homer Simpson’s favourite foods, was damaged by fire in 2009 in a suspected arson attack but was replaced with a new fireproof doughnut in 2012 much to the delight of some locals who feel the pink iced delight puts their town on the map. West Coast Road, Springfield.
Enjoy a walk
Extending from the Waimakariri River to the Wilberforce River, Craigieburn Forest Park is a place of wonder. Home to braided rivers, tussock grasslands, beech tree valleys and striking rugged mountains, the area has a number of walking tracks and huts.
Further adding to the charm of the Craigieburn is its variety and accessibility - whether you’re an expert hiker, an enthusiastic day walker or a ‘just-10-minutes-please’ type, there’s an ideal path. Here are three forest walks to try while you’re there.
Hut Creek Walk
This pretty walk passes through an area that was used by the Forest Research Institute for trial planting from the mid-1950s to mid-1970s. The walk takes about one-hour return. Walking shoes or light tramping boots are recommended. Start from Craigieburn Environmental Education Centre, Craigieburn Forest Park.
Bridge Hill Walk
This 10-minute walk leads to the panoramic views of Castle Hill Basin and the Torlesse Range - huge reward for minimal effort. Start from the lookout car park by the Craigieburn Environmental Education Centre, Craigieburn Forest Park.
Lyndon Saddle & Helicopter Hill
The track (3 to 4 hours return) crosses the Cave Stream and grassy terraces before creeping steeply through beech forest to Lyndon Saddle. From here, head back or continue up and along a steep ridge to the top of Helicopter Hill, which provides breathtaking views of Castle Hill Basin and the Torlesse and Craigieburn ranges.
The track passes through patches of felled pine trees - the pine seed often blows from here to Castle Hill basin so trampers are encouraged to help avoid this by pulling out pine seedlings along the way. Start from the Craigieburn picnic area.
Cruisy Days Diner
Stepping into the Cruisy Days Diner is like stepping straight into a 1950s American diner - the only difference being that, as its based in Oxford, there’s usually a pair or two of gumboots outside. From the black and white checked floors, red leather booths and retro jukebox to the pancake stacks and bottomless filter coffee arriving on tables, Cruisy Days isn’t just taking inspiration from its theme, it’s bringing it to life for everyone who walks in the door.
And the fun created is infectious. Husband-and-wife duo Kimm and Bruce Moore and their staff are always dressed top to toe in 1950s clothes - think little retro diner hats, perfect hair, red lippy and defined waists all round. Cruisy Days Diner is truly memorable. Note, Cruisy Days is closed on Mondays. cruisydays.co.nz, 55 Main Street, Oxford, 03 312 1479
Ashley Holiday Park
Forget tiny tent sites and noisy neighbours, the Ashley Gorge Holiday Park offers camping as it ought to be. Beneath the foothills of the Mount Thomas Forest Conservation area, the site consists of almost 5ha of campgrounds next to the Ashley Gorge River - a great spot for swimming, fishing or walking.
Playgrounds, biking tracks and fantastic facilities, including generously proportioned sites, make this the perfect spot for an action-packed family trip or a relaxing weekend getaway. With nearly 5ha of camping area, there’s plenty of room. The campsite even has four powered sites, all dog-friendly. agkhp.co.nz, 697 Ashley Gorge Road, Oxford, 03 312 4099
Jackson’s Retreat Alpine Holiday Park
Just a little further on from Arthur’s Pass (around 30 minutes’ drive), Jackson’s Retreat is a fabulous spot to stay. Set on more than 6ha within the beautiful Arthur’s Pass region on Otira Highway 73, Jackson’s Retreat campground regularly receives highly rated reviews on sites such as Trip Advisor and Rankers.
And little wonder, as it is surrounded by views of the Taramakau River, the snow-capped Southern Alps, and lush native rainforest. A great spot for cycling, bird watching, boating, walking, skiing, and stargazing. jacksonsretreat.co.nz, 4464 Otira Highway 73, Arthurs Pass, Jacksons, Greymouth, 03 738 0474
Riverlands Holiday Park
This beautiful park is a five-minute drive from Kaiapoi. Enjoy the quiet rural outlook and beautiful gardens, full amenities, and a 4ha pitch and putt golf course. The park is a short walk to the banks of the Waimakariri River and has access to great walking tracks, and is handy for fishing, cycling and boating. The park has 12 powered and 28 non-powered sites. riverlandspark.co.nz, 45 Doubledays Road, RD1 Kaiapoi, 03 327 5511.
Extracted from the 2019 issue of The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand.
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