Winter has arrived in the South Island and the snow peaked mountains make this one of the most spectacular times of the year to travel through the Southern Alps.
State Highway 73 runs from Christchurch across the middle of the South Island through to State Highway 6 on the West Coast where it ends (or starts depending on which way you are travelling) at Kumara Junction just south of Greymouth.
Without stopping, the journey can be completed in about 3 hours, however there is so much to see and do on the way that it is easy to spend a whole day enjoying the journey.
Less than an hour out of Christchurch is the famous Sheffield Pie Shop. You will know you have arrived in Sheffield because of the number of cars parked outside of the pie shop. They have a great selection of pies and a huge following by Cantabrians. Another 10 minutes down the road is Springfield. The last place to get fuel before Arthurs Pass – 85 kilometres away. Springfield is known for its ‘Simpsons Donut’ gifted to the town to celebrate the launch of The Simpsons Movie.
The Springfield Donut
After leaving Springfield and the rural scenery of the Canterbury Plains with their Dairy and Sheep farms the road starts gaining altitude and the first of 2 passes through the Alps. The first – Porters Pass is the 4th highest point on New Zealand’s State Highway network. There is plenty of space to pull over and park at the top of the pass with stunning views in all directions. For those keen for a bit of exercise there is a rough path up the side of Foggy Peak. You will need a reasonable level of fitness to tackle this and being an alpine environment you will also need to be fully prepared for all weather conditions. But if you want to head up maybe just 20 – 30 minutes to get near the top of the bush line, the views are well worth the effort. You will be able to look down onto the Highway across Lake Lyndon to the West and the mountains beyond.
State Highway 73 and Lake Lyndon from the Foggy Peak walk
Lake Lyndon is the first of several lakes that border the road. When it snows, families from all over Christchurch will head there with their sleds for children to tackle the slopes on the lower hillsides near the lake. Saturday mornings after a cold southerly has blown through can be a very busy time here.
A short distance from Lake Lyndon is the access road to the Porters Pass Skifield. The first of many small ski fields along the Highway including Mount Cheeseman, Broken River and Craigieburn Valley Ski areas. For non-skiers, a short distance from Porters Ski Area is the Castle Hill Kura Tahiti Conservation Area. There are vast collections of large rocks in the area – a popular stop for walking and exploring these limestone, mudstone and sandstone formations, known as a karst landscape.
Castle Hill / Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area
Especially for travellers from the North Island there is the possibility of seeing some unusual cloud formations in central parts of the South Island – especially as you travel further from the Coast towards the mountain regions. Lenticular clouds occasionally seen on the road to the West Coast and when these tower above snow-capped mountains they add to the already stunning landscapes.
Heading further into the Alps alongside large high country farms such as the Castle Hill Station and Flockhill Station the Waimakariri River eventually comes into view. The Waimakariri flows 150 kilometres from the inner Alps to the Canterbury coast just north of Christchurch. The river is beautifully framed by snow capped peaks and crossed by both rail and road bridges.
Once crossing the river it is a short distance to the Arthurs Pass settlement. This is also the gateway to the Arthurs Pass National Park and the highway travels right through the middle of it offering a range of scenery from braided rivers, to mountain screes, native bush and kilometres of walking and hiking tracks.
This is a high country mountainous environment and any walking or hiking requires serious preparation and the adequate clothing and supplies for tackling the tracks. It is also important to let someone know about your plans and when you expect to return. The local Department of Conservation office will be able to provide up to date information on their tracks throughout the park.
One of the shorter and easier walks worth visiting can be found on the western side of the town. A one hour return trip will take you to the Devils Punchbowl Falls.
Devils Punchbowl Falls
Leaving Arthurs Pass town the road travels over the Arthurs Pass itself 739 m above sea level. Considerable lower than Porters Pass a 939 m, but still the 5th highest point on the State Highway network. The road then winds downhill. There are a number of places to stop and explore with short or long walks and plenty of simply breath-taking viewing platforms. It is possible to come across New Zealand’s mountain parrot – the cheeky kea at a number of places along this stretch of the road.
One of the highlights on the road from an engineering point of view is the Otira Viaduct. Opened in 1999 and crossing an unstable area prone to slips and avalanches – the viaduct spans 440 metres. It made crossing the South Island a much safer journey – especially for towing vehicles and also created a considerable time saving compared with the old road.
Past the viaduct is the small settlement of Otira – a perfect place to stop for a cuppa and then the road descends quite quickly to the rural surroundings of the West Coast. There is the option to turn right at Jacksons and travel through the Lakeside village of Moana next to Lake Brunner or continue onto to Kumara Junction and join State Highway 6 to start a proper exploration of the West Coast.
Take the hassle out of driving over the South Island roads in winter and talk to Inspired New Zealand Tours about arranging a customised coach for your wider family group or club travel group. Visit their website for some touring itinerary ideas www.inspirednztours.co.nz and get in touch with their team for more ideas on how they arrange a small group coach tour specifically for you. You may be surprised at how cost effective a private coach tour is.
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