It’s been only a month that I’m in New Zealand of which I’ve spent a good amount in Christchurch but I’ve already managed to drive to the West Coast twice. So I figured I’d share my experience with you and give you some advice on which places are worth stopping at on the way. In order to go from coast to coast you will need to somehow get across the Southern Alps (or drive all the way around them).
So here’s a couple of options to choose from:
a) via Arthur’s Pass: This is probably the most popular and well-known way due to it being the shortest one. But don’t be fooled: the shortest way is not always the fastest! There are some really steep and winding parts where you’ll have to slow down quite a bit. Another plus though is definitely the scenery here, you’ll want to stop every other minute to take a picture (which might slow you down as well..). But yeah it’s beautiful and there’s also plenty of hikes and activities to do around.
b) via Lewis Pass: This road is crosses the Southern Alps further north than Arthur’s pass so it is not the most direct way but it is just as beautiful and a lot easier on your vehicle. There is a ton of places to stop along the way and I personally find this route a bit more varied and interesting but that is really just a matter of personal preference.
c) the workaround: Now be aware that it does snow in New Zealand and the two options above are closed occasionally or only open for vehicles with snow chains. So you’ll either have to wait or do what we did: drive aaaall the way around the Southern Alps up to Nelson and then south along the east coast. This will be a 700 km drive instead of the 250 km through Arthur’s Pass. I would only recommend going this way if you really have to or you want to go somewhere along the way (Kaikoura, Nelson, Blenheim..) But now you know that there is an alternative and are not stuck on either side of the mountains.
But today we will be talking about..
… a) Arthur’s Pass
This was just a short roadtrip I went on with someone I met in a hostel in Christchurch so we only had limited time because he had to be back in a few days. That’s why we rushed through it pass a bit and did by far not do everything. But even just by looking out of the car window you can see plenty of breathtaking scenery and I personally don’t think there is that much to DO anyways, its more about seeing an being places. But I have had the time, I would have loved to do some hiking!
After leaving Christchurch you get on this highway (the 73) that is just going straight, no ups and downs, no curves, very unlike most of New Zealands roads, which is quite boring and you’ll stay on it for what feels like an eternity before you finally reach the mountains. You’ll go higher and higher and the road will get more winding with every kilometer.
Our first stop was Castle Hill. Here you can see some really cool limestone rock formations and climb around a little bit. We saw many people bouldering and doing professional rock climbing here, so that’s something you can DO if you wish. But it’s just nice to walk around and enjoy the view on the Torlesse and Craigieburn mountain ranges.
Rivers and Lakes
As you keep driving you pass some rivers and lakes, one of them being the picturesque Lake Pearson which is definitely worth stopping at. I’ve been told that there is a very beautiful DOC Campsite as well but I can’t tell you much about that since we weren’t camping this time. (Check out their website though, even if you’re not camping, there’s tons of information on hikes etc.)
There is also a river called Waimakariri. It’s so wide that you’ll have to cross it several times. At least when we were there, it was rather empty and there were only a few little streams but I think that looked really cool. By now you’re already in the middle of the mountains and the view is amazing. With every corner you drive around it gets even more stunning and all I could say was ‘wow’. A hundred times at least.
Arthur’s Pass Village, Store & National Park
Eventually you’ll reach Arthur’s Pass Village, which barely deserves to be called a Village with its 30 houses and the Arthur’s Pass Store. Go in there, even if it’s just to have a look!. I thought it was quite amusing how you can find anything from tires and tire chains to eggs and instant noodles basically on the same shelf. They also serve coffee and warm lunch so take that chance because you won’t be getting another one for quite a while. The same goes for petrol (yes, the store is a gas station as well).
You’ll reach the actual Arthur’s Pass after another 4km. I noticed how it was particularly foggy around here and I wondered if that was just that day but later I learned that this phenomena is due it being located between the west coast with its rather damp climate (it rains a LOT there) and the east which is a lot more dry. The pass itself is 920m high, amazing views guaranteed. If the view from the car is not enough for you, there are plenty of short hikes around Arthur’s Pass Village, as well as longer ones in the surrounding National Park. It is not as easily accessible as other National Parks, so maybe not the best idea for amateur hikers. We personally didn’t do any of those because again, we were on a tight schedule and also I was already exhausted by now. You have to be 100% concentrated at the road at all times because it’s so winding and narrow and steep and there’s cars coming the other way. Maybe it’s just me and I should probably mention that this was my second day driving on the left side.
And that’s pretty much it, from now on you’ll just drive down , you’ll notice how the vegetation is changing and before you know it, you’re on the West Coast! You’ll end up between Greymouth and Hokitika, two of the three ‘larger cities’ on the west coast. We went to Greymouth and then up to Punakaiki but I’ll talk about all of that in a separate post about the West Coast as soon I made it all the way down.
See ya, Lara