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The trip from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass takes in the best of the Canterbury high country - Castle Hill, Arthur’s Pass Hiking and the Great Alpine Highway. This part of the country is one that I know really well and have spent many happy days here with guests on our New Zealand hiking tours. The Canterbury High Country is a truly stunning part of the country any time of the year and the perfect place to start your New Zealand trail. Departing from Christchurch the amazing high country is only an hour away and that’s where we’ll head today.
The road from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass is one of New Zealand’s great roads, there are so many highlights on the journey but we would like to focus on three of our favourites - the Bealey valley, Castle Hill and the Otira lookout.
Arthurs Pass Hiking - the Bealey Valley
The name ‘Bealey’ is synonomous with the Arthur’s Pass region and comes from an early superintendent of Canterbury province, Samuel Bealey. In this area there is Mount Bealey, the Bealey Spur, the Bealey river, the Bealey hotel and even the original name for Arthur’s Pass township was Bealey Flats. Somewhat confusingly, all of these places are in different locations, but just follow your guide and you’ll end up at the right place! The Bealey valley is just five minutes pass Arthur’s Pass village, accessed from a small carpark on the left hand side on the road to Greymouth. There are a lot of Arthurs Pass day walks but in all my years as a walking guide I’ve not seen another day walk that is so accessible and offers so much on a relatively short walk.
We start our hiking in beautiful lush native beech forest, real Lord of the RIngs country! As the altitude is much higher here (750m / 2500ft) than on other forest walks in our tour we are walking in mountain beech forest, with trees in exposed places stunted and contorted by the alpine elements. You can feel the natural energy in this real world of green so soak it in and start to unwind.
As we cross the Bealey river bridge, stop and marvel at the crystal clear mountain waters cascading through the mini-gorge below - quite a sight when the river is in flood too. After a short climb from the bridge we find an alpine wetland, a natural clearing in the forest with a thick peat soil, take a close look and sometimes we’ll see Kiwi footprints - there is a mating pair of Kiwi living in the Bealey Valley permanently and the local conservation volunteers are regular visitors. From the clearing we’ll also get our first view of the permanent glaciers of Mount Rolleston, the highest mountain in Arthur’s Pass National Park at 2300m (7500ft). Once through the wetland we’re back in the forest for our gentle hike along the trail to our lunchspot, take in the mountain views enjoying a hot cuppa served by your guide.
After our break we’ll continue on up the trail for the real variety, after only 20 minutes or so we’ll leave the forest and enter the sub alpine zone, a stark contrast in views and environment, as we’ve left the lush green world of the beech forest and are now walking through the sub alpine flora like native daisies, buttercups (the Mount Cook Lily is actually a giant buttercup) and even the rare New Zealand edelweis. The mountains are all around and above us now, this is one of the beauties of this walk, we’re in the heart of the Southern Alps but only a 2 hour drive and a little honest hiking from New Zealand’s second largest city.
Depending on how much snow we’ve had through the winter, the Bealey glacier often extends right down the valley to where we’re hiking and it’s a real treat when we can actually walk up to the end of the glacier - not bad considering where we started the day. The top of the Bealey Valley looks very alpine, but in reality it’s a short 2.5 hour hike with breaks from our trailhead - that’s what makes this hikes one of my favourite in all New Zealand.
Bealey Valley Hiking highlights - Pristine mountain beech forest, crystal clear alpine stream, alpine wetland environment, alpine flowers, glacier views and even more at the right time of year. All this combined with real easy access from the main road and Christchurch make it one of the best New Zealand day hikes anywhere.
The spiritual centre of the universe’ Castle Hill / Kura Tawhiti
A popular stop along the Great Alpine Highway and the perfect contrast to the lush beech forest of Arthur’s Pass, this part of the Canterbury high country was once home to forest life too but over centuries the bush has been cleared by both Maori and European settlers. The huge limestone boulders provided shelter for Maori food gathering and greenstone parties and has the name Kura Tawhiti, which means ‘the treasure from a distant land” in reference to the precious food source, the kumara (sweet potato) which was cultivated here. European history here goes back 150 years, as the first Canterbury settlers spread out from the plains into the high country in search of land to graze their stock and the history to neighbouring Castle Hill station is a whole encyclodedia in itself.
This is the back story to Castle Hill, but what will take your breath away is the awesome presence of the limestone rock formations - you’ll see them from a long way away from the high points on the highway and they keep getting bigger and bigger the closer you get. There’s an easy flat walking track up to the boulders, then follow your guide through the maze and in to the centre of the rocks and it’s easy to imagine groups of early travellers resting under the rock overhangs and preparing food around cooking fires. There’s an energy here that is almost tangible, this was recognized in 2002 by the Dalai Lama when he christened Castle Hill as a “Spiritual Centre of the Universe”.
Ten minutes past Arthur’s Pass village is the Otira viaduct lookout, perched on a edge of the bluff just on the Western side of the main divide. This is a compulsory stop on our tours for a number of reasons - The true pass is actually on the western side of the village, so a visit to Otira lookout takes us over the high point of the road and the main divide of the Southern Alps - one pretty impressive road especially when you take a look at the original route high to your right which was in use until relatively recently (1999). It’s right about now we realize how tough the early settlers had it, they would make the ardous journey to the West Coast in all weather, perched high on their stagecoach and traversing the rocky road in a generation that didn’t pay too much heed to health and safety.
The view from the viaduct itself is of a very impressive feat of engineering, the Otira viaduct, but another real drawcard here is that this is one of the best places anywhwere in New Zealand to see our unique and very cheeky alpine parrot, the kea (Nestor Notablis). The world’s only alpine parrot and only found in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, this ‘clown of the mountains’ will bring a smile to your face for sure. If you haven’t seen any kea antics, do a quick YouTube search to be amazed. The Kea is highly intelligent and now very rare, with only around 5000 remaining in the wild and while you can never guarantee seeing wildlife anywhere, a visit and overnight stay in Arthur’s Pass as part of our tour will give you the best chance to see Kea anywhere in NZ.
Other recommended stops on the Great Alpine Highway
There are so many amazing spots on the Great Highway but after years and literally hundreds of journeys on this road here are my favourites: Porters Pass, Cave Stream, Lake Pearson, Waimakariri Valley views.
These are the highlights of day one of our 13 or 11 day New Zealand Hiking Tour - a fully guided small group tour starting in Christchurch and finishing in either Queenstown or Christchurch. We have carefully planned this itinerary to include some of the best walks in New Zealand, iconic activities you’ll never forget and accommodation offering all the comforts of home. Hiking highlights are day walks on the Milford, Routeburn and Hollyford Tracks plus in Mount Cook and Arthur’s Pass National Parks. Your tour includes bucket list activities such as the TranzAlpine, Nile River glowworm caves, Fox Glacier hiking, Okarito Lagoon kayak, Lake Wanaka cruise, Queenstown winery walk, helicopter flight from Milford Sound to Martins Bay and Mt John observatory in Tekapo. There is no camping or staying in huts on this tour, accommodation is at a four star standard to ensure you ahve all the comforts of home. For more information please contact us now or download our New Zealand Trails Walking Tour 2013 2014 Season Brochure.
by Andrew Wells - New Zealand Trails
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