Snow, speed and hot springs: Road tripping New Zealand’s south island in style

Jul 31, 2019
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Boarded up houses sit on stilts on an expansive vacant lot somewhere deep in Christchurch’s outer reaches. It looks like a used car yard, but with houses. You can buy an entire house off the lot, have it delivered to your block of land, and set up home. While it sounds practical, the lot actually serves as a stark reminder of Christchurch’s recent cataclysmic past, the twin earthquakes that rocked the small city on the South Island of New Zealand in 2010-11.

Those earthquakes devastated Christchurch, claiming 185 lives and leaving swathes of the city uninhabitable by decree, forcing residents to leave their homes, forcing those same homes to end up on a vacant lot somewhere on the outskirts of the city.

Elsewhere, I drive past one of the Residential Red Zones. Where whole suburbs once stood, nature is doing its thing and slowly and inexorably taking over the vast tracts of uninhabited – uninhabitable – land. Debate continues to rage over just how these areas should be treated, with public green space the most popular option. While the bureaucrats debate, Mother Nature’s stranglehold grows.

On a different stretch of road, a ‘Love Wins Over All’ sign is taped to a streetlight, another stark reminder of this resilient city’s recent nightmare of a different kind.

It’s under the shadows of these nightmares, these unimaginable horrors endured by this city and its people, I now find myself about to embark on a 700km road trip through some of the most stunning scenery I have ever encountered.

The breathtaking scope of New Zealand’s South Island hits you even before you set foot on land. From the air, the coastline rises majestically into snow-capped peaks which – from 30,000 feet – resemble a never-ending expanse of your grandma’s best meringues. In between, nestle gorges and canyons, carved by a relentless cascade of water whose lifeline runs into millions of years. Water is a powerful erodent, but it is also a painstakingly slow one.

It’s into those same mountains I’ll be heading, an epic road trip that will see me watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean from a mountain top above Christchurch and then, on the same day, watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea from the coastline at Punakaiki on the island’s west coast. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can drive a car to watch sunrise and sunset over the ocean on the same day. But, New Zealand is one of them.

This road trip was originally going to take place on March 20, which is the Autumn Equinox, that time of the year when the plane of the Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun and the world for one brief day, is blanketed in equal parts day and night. After the Equinox, days become shorter as darkness spreads its lazy tentacles to conquer light. We take time to reflect, to take stock, before bracing ourselves for the onslaught of winter.

Chasing the Equinox in a Holden Equinox seemed like an apt adventure to undertake. But the tragic events unfolding in Christchurch that same week saw the event postponed, justifiably. The idea of gallivanting around a city, a country, in the depths of an unimaginable grief was, well, unimaginable.

Instead as a strong counterpoint to the Autumn Equinox, I am now faced with a new challenge: chasing the sun from coast to coast on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. Instead of 12 hours of daylight, there’s just nine hours, seven minutes to traverse the country, a distance of 389km. Now, while that might sound reasonable, bear in mind the route will see me traverse huge mountain ranges, ranges covered in snow with often icy roads requiring a measured circumspection with the right foot.

8:02am

Sunrise is at 8:02am and while that means a nice leisurely start to the day, it’s also a cold start. With temperatures hovering around the 1-degree Celsius mark, never have I been happier to find the Holden Equinox LTZ-V, my ride for the next two days, equipped with seat heating. And a heated steering wheel; creature comforts sometimes taken for granted in Australia’s – relatively – temperate winter but here, in New Zealand’s South Island, they’re a boon.

A short drive of just 6.8km, through a hillside enclave sparsely populated by houses perched, precariously sometimes, above Christchurch ends at Cattlestop Crag. Below, the city spreads its wings, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, as mountains watch over it on three sides.

The Southern Alps cover over 60 per cent of New Zealand’s South Island, providing a grandeur and majesty that is hard to fathom from relatively flat Australia. Snow-capped peaks tower into the sky, a ragged and rough-edged backdrop to the adventure ahead.

Sitting at the lookout, watching the sun rise over the Pacific, you can feel the ominous presence of those mountains. They hulk over you in the distance like craggy sentinels.

Christchurch to Culverden

The drive out of Christchurch is a leisurely one, taking in perfectly groomed patches of farmland lined by rigidly straight rows of naked poplars. But those manicured tracts are soon consigned to memory as a wilder landscape takes over, scrubland and trees that hunker down against the wind and the cold.

The Holden Equinox proves more than capable along the single-lane-each-way black top, its 2.0-litre turbo petrol delivering ample punch, thanks to its generous for the segment outputs of 188kW and 353Nm, at cruising speeds. When married to Holden’s nine-speed auto sending drive to all four wheels, the Equinox offers a smooth and generous driving experience.

That AWD mode can be switched off, if you like, the Equinox instead channelling all of its power and torque to the front wheels. But, leaving AWD engaged (via a button on the console) provides a nicer overall experience, not to mention, better grip, important in these conditions in this part of the world, particularly as the road ahead, State Highway 7 (SH7) begins to snake its way through the foothills of the Southern Alps.

It’s a gentle ascent, though, a relaxing drive towards Culverden – 110km from Christchurch – a frontier town with a permanent population of 426. The Culverden Bakery serves a range of delicious pies, perfect fodder for the cold climate, the Mercury hovering at a balmy 3-degrees Celsius.

Once out of Culverden, the road snakes west and the real climb begins, the road clinging to the Waiau Uwha River that snakes its way from the Spenser Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The highest point of the Spenser Mountains is Mt Una, towering in at 2300m. It’s by no means the highest point on the South Island, Aoraki (Mt Cook) at 3724m holding that honour. And Aoraki is just one of 23 peaks in the Southern Alps over 3000m. For perspective, Australia’s highest point on the mainland (look up Mawson Peak to learn something you were never taught in school), Mt Kosciuszko, measures in at a relatively tiny 2228m.

Lewis Pass to Maruia Springs

Before the colonisation of New Zealand, the Ngāi Tahu Māori of Canterbury used what is now known as Lewis Pass to travel coast to coast. It’s the second-highest (or third-, depending on who you believe) pass on the South Island (Arthur’s Pass is higher at 920m) and cuts a swathe through wild and untamed forest, predominantly beech while in the distance to the left, Mount Longfellow (1921m) presents a snow-capped backdrop. To the right, the deliciously named Mons Sex Millia (1835m) looms as you continue to traverse the saddle between the valleys of the Maruia and Lewis Rivers.

It’s icy at this time of the year, and while the sun is well on the way to completing its arc from east to west, those omnipresent mountains cast vast areas of shadows on to the tarmac. And those shadows gleam in places, a crystalline patchwork quilt of ice waiting to catch the unaware.

Highlighting just how slippery the conditions are, a quick stop by the side of the road for a photo opp, resulted in a lot of slipping underfoot. I didn’t end up on my butt, but it was a close-run thing. Unlike my ill-equipped feet, the Holden Equinox with its AWD underpinnings handled the slippery conditions with aplomb.

Stopping at Maruia Hot Springs offers an opportunity to relax in front of an open fire over lunch. Outside, the valley bathed on both sides by mountains, remains in shadow and covered in ice. Steam from the hot springs rises like mist and floats lazily into the landscape. It’s a breathtaking sight, at once eerie and beautiful, colours muted by a blanket of white, like the light cast by a bedside lamp draped in a silk scarf.

Maruia Hot Springs to Punakaiki

Somewhere above the mist and over the mountains, the sun continues its relentless march westward. We have a deadline with the sun so after a short stop for lunch, it’s onwards and downwards towards the spectacular west coast.

SH7 continues through Victoria Forest Park, watched over by Ivess Peak, the tallest mountain in the Victoria Ranges at 1749m. In the valleys, moss-covered trees bend and groan over the Rahu and Inangahua Rivers.

Reefton, a historic gold mining town with a permanent population of about 1000, styles itself as ‘the town of light’ for the simple, and quite astounding reason, that it was the first town or city in the southern hemisphere to have electricity, the flick being switched back in 1888. It’s a quaint town, and like so many goldrush towns of its era, its streets are framed with historic Victorian era buildings and houses, a charming streetscape.

Reefton is also the junction with State Highway 69 which is the beginning of the slow descent to the west coast and our date with sunset. SH69 follows the Inangahua River until it meets the Buller, a wide and fast-flowing body of water, and one of New Zealand’s longest rivers. With its source at Lake Rotoiti in the St Arnaud Ranges, the Buller flows for 170km to the town of Westport where it empties into the Tasman Sea.

Now flanked by State Highway 6, it’s a majestic river, and at its peak, boasts a flood flow of 14,000 cubic metres per second. Little wonder then, it is home to many outdoor adventure activities such as jet boat rides and whitewater kayaking. A quick stop at Kilkenny Lookout, around 54km out of Reefton, offers a mesmerising moment to take in its power.

SH6 follows the river closely, affording views that take your breath away at every turn.

That breathlessness continues as the road snakes down the mountains towards the coast. You can sense the Tasman Sea before you see it, its presence felt in the air, thicker now and carrying a distinct briny tang.

At Charleston, SH6 drops to sea level, hugging the untamed coastline. One on side of the road, the Tasman Sea pummels the shoreline, slowly and inexorably reshaping the land. On the other, the sheer cliffs and mountains of the Paparoa National Park loom over the road, a stunning backdrop.

As beautiful as it is, nothing prepares you for the coastline at Punakaiki, around 30km south of Charleston. The sleepy community (it’s not big enough to be considered a town) is home to the Pancake Rocks, a striking geological formation of layered limestone and blowholes.

Formed around 30 million years ago, The Pancake Rocks are the result of dead marine life and plants drifting down to the seabed where they were then compressed into layers of limestone, alternated with layers of good old-fashioned mud.

With New Zealand’s volatile geological construction, seismic events gradually brought the layered rock to the surface where the sea, rain and wind took over, an artistic collaboration of nature resulting in the layered rock sculptures that frame this part of the coastline today.

Blowholes, including the ominously named Devil’s Cauldron, send vast volumes of water into the air, with a boom and a rush that is as magnificent as it is frightening, a visual and aural reminder of the power of the sea.

5:09pm

The beach at Punakaiki is other-worldly. With coarse sand the colour of night, the beach is liberally strewn with perfectly smooth pebbles, in a monochrome palette of black, white and grey. It resembles a lunar scape, an expanse of tranquillity where the only sound is the sound of water crashing to the shore in a never-ending symphony of nature.

A lone Westland petrel struts the coarse surface, poking its angled beak into small rock pools in the hunt for its evening meal, likely crustaceans. On the horizon, the sun slowly sinks into the sea, its flame slowly extinguished for another night. The air becomes colder, as the sky turns from blue, to ink, to black, signalling the end of the shortest day on Earth, this part of the Earth anyway.

The moon, unseen behind South Island’s towering mountains, begins its arc across the sky from the east. It will be hours before it casts its luminous light, throwing eerie fingers the colour of silver onto the blackened beach.

We’ve covered 389km, from one coast to the other, chasing sunrise to sunset through some of the most spectacular scenery you’re ever likely to see. Or so I thought.

Day Two – Arthur’s Pass

It seemed anti-climactic, a 279km sprint back to Christchurch to catch an afternoon flight back to Australia. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After a gentle meander along the coastline to Greymouth and beyond to Kumara Junction, the road turns sharp left for the climb up the mountains via Arthur’s Pass, at 920 metres, the highest (or second-highest depending on who you believe) road across the Southern Alps.

Dense rainforest lines the road, State Highway 73, as the Taramakau River meanders alongside. The rainforests eventually give way to an altogether starker landscape, broad plains devoid of vegetation and filled with scree and rocky outcrops. It’s other-worldly, a seemingly alien landscape that is at once harsh and foreboding.

In the distance, mountains, always the mountains, their snow-capped peaks and vast rocky walls that hang precariously, waiting to tumble onto the road below. It’s a big landscape, leaving you feeling insignificant, vulnerable even.

“It is sterile, bleak and savage enough to be the haunt of the Kuhleborn himself, with attendant gnomes and sprites, for it’s flanked by majestic precipices of rock scored with channels, down which the watergod comes in great cascades.”

So wrote the Bishop of Canterbury, Henry Harper, in 1866. Not much has changed in the intervening 150 years or so, with the road dotted by signs warning of landslides and avalanches, an ominous reminder this is a dangerous landscape. So too the ever-present warning of icy roads, roads peppered with grit that plays a distinct soundtrack on the Holden Equinox’s underbody.

Around 15km out of Arthur’s Pass township, the Otira Viaduct snakes its way some 35 metres above the valley floor. It’s an impressive structure, 440 metres long, flanked by crumbling cliff faces. A stop at the Otira lookout at the ominously named Deaths Corner is a must, presenting a view of the viaduct snaking its way through the valley floor. It’s eerily quiet, only the wind whipping around your ears with noise like a spectre haunting your dreams.

It would be easy to take in the view for a minute and then resume your journey, But such is the grandeur of the view, where engineering nous meets mother nature’s angry forces, time becomes meaningless and you can easily while away 15 minutes or half-an-hour lost in thought. It’s that kind of place.

Arthur’s Pass itself beckons and quick stop for lunch adds some much-needed personal fuel for the final stretch to Christchurch.

Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch

The final run home is an easy lope along Waimakairi River, a broad and sweeping body of water flowing from its source high in the Southern Alps for 151km before emptying into the Pacific Ocean north of Christchurch. In Māori, Waimakairi means ‘cold rushing water’, and never is this more evident where the encroaching mountains forces the river through the narrow confines of the Waimakairi Gorge.

Long, single-lane bridges ford the river as it continues its winding snake through the mountains. The landscape grows ever harsher, the evidence of rockfalls a reminder this is dangerous land. In the shadows Mount Binser (1860m) Lake Pearson stuns with its calm waters, the colour of deepest ink, reflecting the snow-capped peaks surrounding it.

It’s a popular fishing and camping spot, although with temperatures near zero, there were no hardy souls braving the bracing conditions. A roadside stop beckoned, however, and the few minutes spent looking over the lake’s glassy surface and surrounding mountains, underlined how tranquil and vast the reserves of nature New Zealand offers. It’s stunning, in ways beyond imagination.

Once through the last of the mountains, the road begins to drop markedly, hugging the valleys and cliff faces, a steep descent with switchbacks and corners and twisting stretches of highway that make you want for a hot hatch or sports car on a summer’s day.

The Equinox, while not exactly a corner-carver, proved surprisingly adept at handling the tricky conditions. Thanks to its AWD platform, Holden’s mid-sizer remained sure under wheel, despite the oft icy conditions, even if the gritty soundtrack remained a constant companion.

Where the Equinox came into its own was on the final run to the airport. With the Southern Alps now but a distant reminder in the rear-view mirror (and even that is a sight to take your breath away), the Canterbury Plains ahead feature long straight stretches of highway threading a grey capillary through farmland. Myriad small towns appear on the horizon and disappear in the mirrors – Springfield, Sheffield, Waddington, Darfield, West Melton – are but a blur. On any other day, I might have stopped to explore these charming towns, but a departure time beckons and it’s onward to Christchurch and the flight back home to Australia.

In all, I’ve covered 683.3km (using 8.1L/100km against Holden’s official claim of 8.4L/100km) over two days, traversed the Southern Alps twice, watched the sun rise and set over oceans on the same day, and bore witness to some of the most stunning natural beauty imaginable.

It’s possibly best summed up by Martin Freeman, the actor who played Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy who said of New Zealand’s Southern Alps: “The beauty of it was not lost on us and the fact that it looked like CGI … kind of looked more perfect than nature. It was just funny because we were just looking at mountains thinking no one is going to believe this is real.”

Have you ever road tripped around New Zealand? Have you visited the south island?

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