Where east meets west: Arthur’s Pass

24 / 25 November 2019

At around 920 metres (3,000 feet) above sea level the Arthur’s Pass Road is reckoned to be the most spectacular highway to cross the rugged Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island. It was known to the Maori, who used it as a west-east trade route for pounamu (jade), but it was the goldrush of the 1860s that first drew it to the attention of European colonists.

Arthur’s Pass cuts through the Southern Alps

At the time when gold was discovered to the west of the Southern Alps most of South Island’s population was to their east. A practical way of transporting the gold to market was needed, and in 1865 a committee of businessmen offered £200 (equivalent to $NZ 22,000 in 2016) to the discoverer of the best route. The track that was later to become Arthur’s Pass was recognised to be the most suitable for a direct crossing. Construction soon began in earnest, and the road opened to coach traffic in July 1866.

The Arthur’s Pass Road opened in 1866, and although much upgraded it remains a significant engineering feat

Over 50 years later, 1923 saw the completion of a railway that followed the line of the Arthur’s Pass road. The railway and road through Arthur’s Pass were considered to be major accomplishments in opening up the west coast of New Zealand to settlement, and were also a catalyst for the creation of Arthur’s Pass National Park in 1929.

Wide, braided rivers are features of the eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park

The eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park is typically drier and consists of beech forest and wide riverbeds, while the western side contains dense rainforest. We’ve had our fill of rain on this road trip, so we stick to the east and on a day like this, when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue, it’s easy to see why the Park is a major tourist attraction.

Arthur’s Pass National Park

The Park is popular with what the New Zealanders like to call ‘trampers’ (hikers or walkers to you and me), and I’m sure it’s great to get off the beaten track and into the bush. But Mrs P and I have neither the time nor the knees for such exertions, so our sightseeing is limited to what can be done from a few scattered pull-ins off the highway.

Devil’s Punchbowl Falls

Unfortunately, therefore, we can only enjoy the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls from a distance. Water crashes 131 metres to the base of the falls, sending clouds of spray swirling and billowing into the air. Even from where we’re standing, looking pretty much directly into the sun, we can see and hear why this is regarded as one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.

Bealy Chasm falls

Above all, it seems to me, New Zealand is a land of water. Spectacular coastlines, magnificent waterfalls, powerful rivers and tumbling cascades. And rain, more rain than we ever believed possible. But not here and not now. Today we are blessed by the sun, and we lap it up while we can because it’s time to bid farewell to the mountains and head back to the coast once more.

Broom and gorse (“noxious weeds” to some) add a splash of extra colour

Akaroa is our destination, and on the way we stop off at the Sheffield Pie Shop. Although Sheffield is just a tiny village, the place is rammed. All the tables are occupied with people like us eating-in, while truckers, campervan travellers and sundry motorists drop in for a pie-to-go. There’s plenty of pies to choose from, including traditional favourites like Steak Pie and more experimental fare such as Mexican Nachos Pie.

The Famous Sheffield Pie Shop: You couldn’t make it up

I’m tempted to say you couldn’t make it up, but plainly someone has and Mexican Nachos Pie appears to be selling well. As for me, I wrap myself around a Moroccan Beef and Mango Chutney Pie. I can safely say I’ve never eaten anything like it before, and am pretty sure I’ll never have the pleasure again. But it is a pleasure, a pleasure to eat and a pleasure also to see this innovative small business defying culinary convention and building a massive reputation simply by making people happy.

I love this country.

6 thoughts on “Where east meets west: Arthur’s Pass

  1. Janet Gregson January 7, 2020 / 4:59 pm

    Oh to see Arthurs Pass in the sunshine! We were there about the 7th December, in torrential rain. Even with our experience of the Lake District and the French Alps, I don’t think we have seen rain like that.The Devil’s Punchbowl falls were spectacular, far too wet to even photograph! We had to cut short our visit as we thought that we may get stuck – it was the day that the landslide happened on the West coast road cutting that off, and the river flooded on East coast cutting off the 2 roads south of Christchurch. No road access to Southern half of South Island for 3 days! We stopped for a coffee in Sheffield (too early in the morning for a pie), and as we were pulling off our thermals and wet weather gear, people travelling in the opposite direction were arriving in strappy tops and shorts! Little did they know what they were heading for!
    Akaroa, was next for us too, where the sun shone, I’ll look forward to tomorrow’s diary!
    You were absolutely right about the jet lag when you replied to me a couple of weeks ago, just on 2 weeks I was fine again, but still wishing I was still in the warmth, of temperature and hospitality, of NZ.
    Best wishes for 2020

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man January 8, 2020 / 7:50 am

      Hi Janet
      Isn’t it sad how one’s views of a particular place visited are coloured (literally as well as metaphorically) by the weather at the time of the visit. About 25 years ago we spent a couple of weeks in Shetland; the sun shone throughout, the wind was moderate and temperatures were balmy. We loved it. Last year we made a return trip, the weather was lousy and we were thoroughly miserable. If 2019 had been our first visit we’d have dismissed the place out of hand, but as it was we simply shook our heads ruefully and cursed our poor timing. Arthur’s Pass is great when the sun shines but I can imagine it must be a very different story when one of those big storms comes in.
      Three sun-drenched posts on Akaroa to follow over the next week or so!
      Happy New Year!


  2. Jane Dougherty January 7, 2020 / 9:15 pm

    Sometimes it’s enough to look at something from afar. You don’t have to touch it or go and swim in it. Looks lovely anyway. I can see why you’re drawn to this place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man January 8, 2020 / 7:33 am

      Your wise words are heartily applauded by this possessor of a bothersome back and knackered knees – ‘afar’ works for me! 🙂


      • Jane Dougherty January 8, 2020 / 8:06 pm

        I’ve seen so many troops of German tourists picking up fish on the market, touching flower petals and caressing cabbages. Weird idea—if you haven’t touched it, it isn”t real.

        Liked by 1 person

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