The Great Alpine Highway 73 - Part 1

SH73 at Porters Pass on the Great Alpine Highway

Let the adventures begin heading west on ' The Great Alpine Highway No. 73 ' - the main route from Christchurch through the Southern Alps to the West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand.

Cave Stream photo from Flock Hill Remote Wilderness Retreat

I'll never forget my first real introduction to the small town of Kirwee, heading west on ' The Great Alpine Highway No. 73 ' (the main route from Christchurch through the Southern Alps to the West Coast ) and how I was so excited. It was in the late 1960's and I'd just begun my teenage freedom years. The Christchurch Star newspaper held an annual event, ' The Star Trek '' which involved hundreds being bused to Kirwee early of a chilly morning and then walking back to the Star building in the city.
'"Trim your toenails, have good walking shoes, drink plenty of water, meet new people and the 41 ks will fly by."  - Easy right? or so I thought. 

Any notion of meeting others and the time breezing by, was quickly dispelled, as a scorching sun and blistered feet took its toll well before hitting city limits. I still remember being picked up at the finish by Dad and heading home and looking at others who'd possibly headed out that morning with similar impressions of a day of discovery - limping along the inner city streets like Zombies from another planet.

The Star Trek is no more, though Kirwee is doing well. Named after Karwi in India by a retired British Army Colonel, its a significant satellite town to Christchurch with a population of more than 3,000. It's home to the biennial South Island Agricultural Field Days (a great occasion when town meets country), has a large domain and is getting a new pub after fire destroyed the long standing previous establishment. 


Not far further west is Darfield, home to arguably Canterbury's best ice cream in a cone, at the local dairy. A few years ago, to the relief of many around me, I sold that dairy owner my bagpipes. I've heard it said occasionally the ' skirl of the pipes ' has emanated from said premises, though clearly not to the detriment of business.
Being on the road to the region's ski areas, Darfield boasts a top class Snow Sports business. 'Gnomes' is run by Leith and Ally who live and ski locally and like many rural businesses are big supporters of the community, Darfield is big on community. There's a busy medical center and hospital, a population around 3,000 and sports teams of all codes.

A significant farming town, it has a couple of compulsory stops on the main street, The Fat Beagle Cafe and The Bakery. Someone I know remarkably well, swears coffee and two of the Bakerey's cream and cinnamon buns, are a must.


The culinary experience only gets better as the mountains draw closer. The world famous Sheffield Pie Shop, right on the main road, is exactly that, world famous, at least in Canterbury. Pies of every filling, plus slices, biscuits and coffees.

 Springfield - 65km west of Christchurch

For what's billed as an `alpine route way' the road remains remarkably straight, though - and by the time you hit Springfield, you're already at 350 meters plus (about 1200 ft ) above sea level.
The last place to get fuel if heading west for a while, it's also home to the Springfield Doughnut and that in itself is a fascinating story. The television phenomenon, that is the ' Simpsons ', had been running 20 years and to celebrate, was releasing The Simpsons, the Movie. The producers decided to pick a few places around the globe named Springfield, the home of  ' The Simpsons ' show, to help with the marketing of the movie and donate those towns a doughnut, which is a fast food synonymous with the show's star, Homer Simpson. Springfield, New Zealand, was one of those towns..and the rest as they say, is history. That said, you can get a ' Simpson's cinnamon doughnut ' in the town and for most anything else, head to Taste of Kiwi.

It's also claimed that when young ski instructors gain their certificate locally, they're required to roll naked through the middle of the doughnut, though I couldn't possibly comment.

Springfield Donut

Porters Pass

The seemingly flat road changes soon after Springfield as 'westward ho, you go'. Lush farmland gives way to sub alpine vegetation and soon enough you're climbing one of our major alpine passes, Porters Pass. One of the country's highest public alpine roads, it tops out at 939 meters above sea level, or 3,080 feet. Incredible to think that if you stop on the top of the pass and look back east to the Port Hills and Peninsula, beyond Christchurch on a clear day, you're around 60 meters higher than their highest point, Mt Herbert. 
The area is susceptible to snow, so carry snow chains from June-September and hope the road managers are on point exercising common sense and allowing travel.

Castle Hill  - 100km to Christchurch

Rocker Bruce Springsteen sings in Darlington County "I've seen the glory of the coming of the Lord .." entre nous (between ourselves) dropping from Porters Pass, past Lake Lyndon and into the Castle Hill Basin, is exactly that, a most wonderful revelation. Surrounded, as if in a huge bowl by the Craigieburn and Torlesse Ranges, is one of Canterbury's, if not New Zealand's finest natural playgrounds. So named Castle Hill because low lying hills in the basin have turret like rocks on their crests. Iconic sheep runs, Castle Hill, Avoca and Flock Hill, have a presence in the area and there's an alpine village here of the same name, where I'm lucky to live permanently. 
Sitting in my grandfather's chair of an evening with a cold beer and an air rifle handy for rabbit control, while an anathema to some, seems almost normal. Though as actor Jack Nicholson is famously depicted, with a cigarette hanging from his lips, as saying, the people that give a '#@&?' are over there. Because it is a simple, honest, rugged, unforgiving and yet peaceful landscape.

It's powerful and spiritual and a visit to the limestone rock formations at Kura Tawhiti, will soon put you in your place. You can take a guided tours to these rocks from Christchurch, or just take a few hours wandering about the place under your own steam. 

What to do along SH73?

Visit the Castle Hill Boulders

These limestone pillars and huge boulders are awe inspiring. Popular with artists, photographers, boulderers and picnickers, the formations are millions of years old. Dragged up from the oceans when Gondwanaland broke up and New Zealand was eventually formed, Maori also claim a ' story ' important to them. Similarly, the Dalai Lama claimed it one of the 'centers of the universe', though I've a funny feeling there've been a few of those.

Castle Hill also has and EV charger, though no petrol station, go figure?

Castle Hill

Cave Stream

Again, a little further west, is Cave Stream. As the name suggests, it's a river that runs through a cave. Like 'the rocks' and Castle Hill Village, there's parking and clean public toilet facilities.
The info board tells you, you can walk through the cave, which of course you can. The actual time to do so is quicker than advertised though the warnings regarding the venture are totally on point. I did it first, in the early 1970's with a group from St Bede's College in Christchurch, under the guidance of Fr. Mike Mahoney SM, to this day still a legendary alpinist, living on the West Coast.
That you need torches as you go through, is an under statement..the place is black as and you can't see your hand in front of your face. Depending on the flow, the water can get up above your waist, plus it can be cold. Generally you travel south to north, with a ladder of sorts, out. All of which is manageable enough and the buzz of doing so is enormous. Simple message is, use your brains, choose the weather and not in the winter.


The Craigieburn Range offers the closest skiing to Christchurch City at the largest field Porters Ski Field. There are also six club fields being Broken River Cheeseman Craigieburn Hanmer Springs Mt Olympus Temple Basin. Whilst these lack the infrastructure of the larger Queenstown and Wanaka fields (think rope tows and t-bars) they more than make up for it in wide open spaces with no queues and plenty of off-piste runs for the more experienced. With lodgings available at these fields this could definitely be an adventure worth having. 

The season can be unpredictable but expect to be on the slopes late July through to early September.

Skiing at Porters Ski Field

Film Locations

If you're a film buff, you'll be interested to know that the horizon beyond the Cave Stream Area, was the base for much of the movie, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the adventures of Narnia and a brief scene in the Lord of the Rings movies, was also shot locally.
Cave Stream empties into Broken River, which is popular with the locals in the warm summer weather. Though these rivers and streams are truly alpine and generally cold, they can warm dramatically in summer. For instance, I've recorded temperatures mid winter at home in Castle Village just a few kms away, at minus 10 and colder, yet in high summer have also reckoned upon 40. Hence the rivers and water holes can be also be very warm, inviting and popular.

Ready to start your own adventure along SH73? Click here and we can work together to plan your trip. For some ideas of how your trip could look check out our South Island itineraries!


John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 12 Dec 2022 (Last updated: 12 Dec 2022)

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