Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson must have been quite a guy as a national park, local village and mountain road pass are all named after him. As chief surveyor, Arthur was tasked in 1864 with finding an available pass across the Southern Alps from a particular part of Canterbury in the centre of the South Island. He found a route, originally used by Maori hunting parties, and returned to Christchurch some months later with a sketch of his proposed pass. As is usually the case, after further exploration it turned out that ‘Arthur’s route’ was indeed the best option, and the rest is history!
In 1929, Arthur’s Pass National Park was created as New Zealand’s third national park. Today, the village probably isn’t very different than it was 100 years ago with a post office, Department of Conservation (DOC) office, petrol station, tea rooms, restaurant and a few accommodation providers. On an interesting side note, the apostrophe in Arthur’s Pass has been the subject of much controversy between the Geographic board and the local population, but to make a long story short, the apostrophe was re-instated in keeping with historic chic (typically place names no longer have apostrophes these days).
Arthur’s Pass National Park straddles the main divide, the ‘backbone’ of the South Island, between Canterbury in the east and the West Coast. It’s a park of contrasts with dry beech forest in the east and lush rainforest in the west. The kea (alpine parrot) is commonly seen in the area and a bit of a nuisance to hikers or backcountry skiers who leave their cars for the day only to come back and find that the rubber has been playfully chewed and pulled at by the cheeky birds. The highly endangered great spotted kiwi is also found in the park and is known as being the ‘mountaineer’ of the kiwi family.
Our Active Adventures New Zealand guides are very familiar with Arthur’s Pass as a number of our trips travel this way on their journey around the South Island, including the Manuka, Tui, Winter Rimu and Kea Family tours.
Another option is the TranzAlpine railway, which starts in Christchurch and threads through patchwork farmland on the Canterbury plains, climbs to Arthur’s Pass, goes through the long Otira tunnel and then chugs down through sub tropical forest, past Lake Brunner and on to Greymouth on the West Coast. It’s possible to do the return journey in a day or take a one-way trip in either direction as part of a longer tour.
One feature that makes this journey quite an eye-opener, other than the rugged wilderness, is the Otira Viaduct that straddles the Otira Gorge. Now considered a major engineering feat, it was built in 1998, is 440 metres (1443 feet) long and graciously curved to fit in with the surroundings. As the region is prone to earthquakes, the design of the viaduct features state-of-the-art resistance to damage from ground shaking. This also makes it one of the most expensive sections of road in New Zealand!
Arthur’s Pass National Park is also home to Temple Basin, one of several club ski areas in the Canterbury region. If you’re driving towards the national park from Christchurch you’ll also pass through the Broken Hill and Craigieburn Ranges where other club ski areas are located. It’s an area that provides plenty of opportunity for adventure holidays, all year-round.
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