ARTHUR'S PASS - A VISITOR'S IMPRESSION
Mark Brownlow - February 7, 2007
Given the size of New Zealand, it might comes as a shock to realize that only three roads cross the range of mountains that dominate vast portions of the South Island.
One of these is State Highway 73, a road that winds its way from Christchurch on the east coast through to Greymouth and Hokitika in the west. The passage is only possible thanks to the "discovery" of Arthur's Pass, a gap in the mountains which also gives its name to a small roadside hamlet and the surrounding National Park.
The pass did not lend itself easily to cross-country travel, requiring considerable construction work to become usable by normal traffic. It was only the importance of West Coast gold that encouraged the opening up of the route in the 1860s. Even today, work continues to help the road evade damage from avalanches and landslips.
Not that you should be concerned. Provided the season or weather is good, Highway 73 is just like any other well-kept modern two-lane road. But if you are travelling in winter, be sure to get appropriate advice before heading along to the pass. You may need to seek an alternative route or take appropriate precautions (such as carrying emergency supplies if you get stuck in a snowdrift).
Arthur's Pass itself is about two and a half hours driving time from Christchurch and an hour from the west coast. It's geared up to providing facilities for those travelling into the park. So you'll find a visitor centre, store, cafes and restaurant. And a smattering of accommodation, mostly for those catering for themselves (campers, backpackers etc.), but including motels and a lodge.
While most people discover the hamlet through the drive along Highway 73, it does have its own train station. The Tranzalpine rail route makes a stop here, as does the occasional bus shuttling to and forth between coasts.
The visitor centre is the most important location for those seeking to explore the surrounding hiking trails and mountains. This is where you can get your guides and pick up advice on the local weather and trail conditions.
Before leaving for the mountains, visit the small store for groceries and basic travel supplies: everything from vaseline to sunscreen and snow chains. The store also shares premises with a cafe/bar serving particularly good pies, as well as other snacks and drinks.
Be warned though. If you eat out on the terrace, expect an uninvited feathery guest. The local Keas are neither shy nor easily ruffled by human presence, and they may hop onto your table. Feeding these ground parrots is frowned upon as it encourages them to become dependent on humans.
Even if you have no plans to stay in the region, Arthur's Pass makes a nice point to break up your journey on the 73, particularly if the winding nature of the road is beginning to grind you down a bit. Once you're refreshed, make a second stop just to the west of the town where there is a nice scenic lookout viewpoint.