It often doesn’t really matter where you drive in New Zealand. Most of the time the roads and the scenery are stunning anyway. But there are a few roads around the country that are absolutely mind-blowing when you drive them. One of those roads is the Great Alpine Highway through Arthur’s Pass National Park on the South Island.
On a sunny Saturday morning we woke up in the sleepy and industrial town of Greymouth. It had been raining for days and therefore the mountains were nowhere to be seen as well. They were all covered up in clouds. We thought it would be such a shame to drive Arthur’s Pass, the highest mountain pass through the Southern Alps, without seeing anything. But the weather looked finally brilliant this day.
Until we found out it had been snowing that night and that the road was closed around Arthur’s Pass. Bummer! We decided to have a lazy morning instead and we checked the traffic information about the pass regularly. After two hours we were lucky. The road was open again and we could go on our adventure.
The Great Alpine Highway from Greymouth
From Greymouth we drove a short distance to the south along the coastline, before we turned left to the Great Alpine Highway (State Highway 73 / Otira Highway) at Kumara Junction. Right at the moment we started our road trip by driving up the main road in Greymouth, we saw the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps in the distance. But after Kumara Junction they suddenly disappeared, and instead we were surrounded by green and grayish hills with just a little bit of snow on top.
At the bottom of the hills sheep and cows were dominating the meadows. The further we got, the steeper the hills and they slowly turned into real mountains with streams of water falling down for dozens of meters. Next to the road we saw a river with crystal clear glacier water flowing rapidly towards the ocean.
Climbing with 16%
State Highway 73 across Arthur’s Pass has officially a length of 231 kilometers and runs from Kumara Junction to Upper Riccarton, a suburb of Christchurch. The construction of the pass is quite an interesting and impressive story. When people found gold on the west coast back in the 19th century, they tried to get the precious metal as soon as possible to Christchurch. Within a year (in 1865) over a thousand people constructed the highway across Arthur’s Pass, even though it was a stone cold winter. They used tools like pickaxes and dynamite to make their way through the mountains, surrounded by dangers like avalanches, falling rocks and land slides.
The road is getting steeper and curvier and the mountains are getting an orange glow. We do see some small piles of snow beside the road that escaped the burning sun. When we pass a sign that says we are going to climb for 16%, we know we are almost there. We almost made it to the top. But first we make a stop at a view point. At the moment we get out of our van, we hear some ticking noise on the road. Two hungry parrots are running in our direction and they straight away try to destroy our car tires. Alpine parrots. Kea’s. Rare birds that only live on the South Island of New Zealand. Lovely birds. They just destroy your car.
After two kilometers we stop again. This time at the Otira Viaduct Lookout. And shortly after that again. The landscape is changing every minute and is getting more and more beautiful. It was already beautiful, but now it’s literally breathtaking. A part of the road has been built next to a train track. It’s the train track of one of the most famous trains in New Zealand: the TranzAlpine. It really is an amazing alternative if you want to experience the Arthur’s Pass yourself, but don’t have the opportunity to drive it.
The impressive Devils Punchbowl
We arrive at the village of Arthur’s Pass, where you can find signs with the text ‘Don’t feed the kea’ literally everywhere. Of course tourists are not paying attention to any of those signs. The birds love it. Here we make a stop for a real New Zealand pie, although I have to say that my vegetable korma pie probably don’t qualify for that name.
Our next stop in the village is the Devils Punchbowl. The Devils Punchbowl is an impressive 131 meter high waterfall. You can actually see the water falling down from the road, but it’s also possible to get closer by following a short track. It for sure is a pretty powerful waterfall when you get closer. It is also not that far of a walk, just a kilometer of two back and forth. Although you have to take some stairs to get there.
A moon landscape between the mountains
After Arthur’s Pass we continue our road trip on the Great Alpine Highway. And just at the moment you think you’ve already seen it all, it just gets more exciting. Suddenly we drive into an open landscape surrounded by massive snow-capped mountains. It doesn’t matter which direction you’re looking at. I suddenly feel so small in this landscape.
We are surprised that the grayish looking river with crystal clear water is almost dried out. But we do hear a local saying that this is a quite unusual thing. It probably has something to do with the spring snow storms that hit the area just a couple of days ago. You can still feel a freezing cold wind going around. I would love to camp here for the night, but with a weather forecast for the area with temperatures around – 7 degrees, I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t want to freeze in our van during the night.
The ever-changing landscape of Arthur’s Pass
How fast can a lanscape suddenly change in just one roadtrip? A lot of times. Especially when you drive such an impressive pass as Arthur’s Pass. The dry landscape suddenly changes again and before we know we passed the steepest part of Arthur’s Pass and the smallest roads. Grey is turning into green. Sharp mountains into round hills. And every minute I ask Daniel to stop the car to take pictures. I just can’t get enough of the landscape.
At Lake Pearson we take another break before we get into trouble. Some tame ducks decided our car is an amazing place to walk around and under. We throw some bread the other direction and quickly make our way to the Great Alpine Highway again without hitting on of them.
Our last stop of the day is at Castle Hill, where we walk the Kura Tawhiti Track to some massive stones. And shortly after this stop, the mountains suddenly disappear. We’re driving on a flat road again without sharp curves, and the mountains are only to be seen in the mirrors from now on. We drive towards Christchurch, towards the ocean. But we keep on seeing the snowy mountains in our mirrors until we reach our final destination. You can even see them from the coastline. Honestly, Arthur’s Pass is a road you simply can’t miss on your road trip on the South Island of New Zealand. You won’t regret driving it.