Heading due west from Christchurch is an immediately rewarding experience. Firstly, on the way out of the wide Canterbury plains farmland you travel through a tiny town named Sheffield, revered among pie-eaters (one of many bizarre pan-hemisphere parallel universes to be found in New Zealand). Secondly you are very soon winding up, down, r
ound and across the Southern Alps mountain range: Arthur’s Pass.
Arthur’s Pass is a town and a road. The town is notable for the signs outside a popular café firmly reminding patrons that food stolen by keas will be neither replaced nor refunded. The kea, also known as the world’s only extremely pesky alpine parrot, is perfectly evolved to wrest from unwitting tourists both food and small car parts with hitherto unappreciated but vital functions. It is also very beautiful, with a beak curved like a sharpened sickle and velvety, murky lime green feathers that in a flap are eclipsed by the bright red plumage hiding on the underside of its wings. Although tits species is rare, the kea loves to lurk near human beings and the moving feast their lifestyles mean for scavengers. Don’t be surprised to see a kea lurching improbably across a gravelled car park like a hooked bag of elbows.
Arthur’s Pass the road is fabled among campervan travellers, a stunning hilly but not overly challenging drive from start (the East) to finish (the West coast). Setting out to Christchurch, this is a great direction in which to begin a South Island roadtrip. If the weather is grim, consider first heading south through the Canterbury plains towards Otago or Mackenzie district instead because grim weather in Christchurch means all you will see in Arthur’s Pass is the inside of a cloud. Fine weather will kickstart your introduction to the Southern Alps with attractive valleys, wide and pebbly river beds, distant snowy spikes and New Zealand’s clear light on rocky slopes.
Paying attention to a map as you go you will come across such gems as Mt. Misery and Mt. Horrible – both actually rather lovely, and very close to one of many excellent Department Of Conservation (DOC) free campsites. DOC campsites dot NZ and are not a bad criteria to plan a journey by, zigzagging between them. They are rarely directly on main routes, but it is almost always worth the slight detour to find an extra nugget of scenery you wouldn’t have seen from State Highway 1. This particular DOC site, near to Cass, was a slow 3km drive from the main road, but we had it to ourselves. All that was there was two toilets and a stone shelter with benches and a big hearth we set a fire in, all in a little grassy scoop between hills. It was free and it was all we needed.
In fine weather, Arthur’s Pass is a beautiful and enjoyable road to drive. In less fine weather it may be closed, or chains may be needed – check. It’s 100 miles from Christchurch to Hokitika, on the West Coast. You could make the crossing in a few hours if you had to, but one very leisurely day is fully worth it to soak up the scenery and the emptyness after Christchuch. In Arthur’s Pass, you’d better get used to the lack of people, because the West coast will make it seem like the Khaosan Road by comparison.