The Great Alpine Highway 73: Part 2


Some would call Arthurs Pass the main event on the Great Alpine Highway No.73. Read on to discover the history and some of the characters who have made this area famous - and how to make the most of your Tranz-Alpine crossing by road.

Waimakariri Bridge

Arthur's Pass National Park

The Park's physical area is huge, though not the biggest of New Zealand's National Parks, it is the first one to be established in the South Island. It covers more than 1180 square kms of rugged mountains, bush, rivers, lakes, tarns and glaciers. The wildlife is abundant, the weather extremely varied and the rainfall significant. Tracks and route ways abound, giving access to well appointed huts and mountain tops, with more extreme alpine destinations also possible, though not for the inexperienced or faint hearted. 

Arthurs Pass Village

The visitor center provides good information and lays out strict guidelines.  It behoves you to take notice! 
There's a busy cafe, with a fuel option and sometimes, some Kea to entertain you. The inimitable South Island mountain parrot is not at all timid, though please don't feed them.

The 'Pass' only boasts a permanent population of around 30, similar to Castle Hill, though both places swell dramatically in numbers according to seasonal pursuits and long weekends.

Nearby Walks

The iconic Punchbowl Falls are a popular walk from the Arthur's Pass Village and provides brilliant photo opportunities, though it's not appropriate for disabled access.

Kea at Arthurs Pass

Jacks Hutt

The road climbs further west beyond the 'Pass', reaching the summit soon enough after passing the historic 'Jack's Hut'. There's a parking area over the road from the hut and it's worth the stop. An information board gives you its history. It represents one of the classic roadman's huts that existed in the back in the day, before the Otira rail tunnel and when the road 'over the top' was barely a track for horse and carriage. 

Built in 1879 and restored in 2004, Jack's Hut was occupied by a few chaps, called Jack, one of whom lived here for more than 20 years and like the other roadmen, old Pegleg and Candy, were charged with keeping the road open for hardy travellers. 

Conditions were primitive, though in its heyday when men were digging the Otira Rail tunnel (Arthur's Pass is also one of the portals for the Otira Rail tunnel, that carries the Midland line through to the West Coast), Arthur's Pass had a bunch of pubs, a brothel and not surprisingly, a jail. Little wonder the roadman likely enjoyed a night out on the town in Arthur's Pass..

Jacks Hutt

Arthurs Pass

The actual Arthur's Pass is a little lower than Porters Pass, 920 metres or 3,020 above sea level. Though you'll still need to carry chains especially in winter. It's the second major mountain pass on this highway and was famously discovered by Arthur Dudley Dobson in 1864. There's a memorial pillar on the top of the 'Pass' to commemorate the event. 

The road used to be a mixture of switchbacks and steeps, until the turn of the 21st century, when a large viaduct bypassed much of this, making it finally possible for heavy vehicles to traverse.

There's a viewing platform here, where Kea often visit, that shows the dramatic nature of the Otira Gorge and country beyond that the road plunges into with the descent far less gradual then the ascent.


Next stop is Otira, an old railway village, lying about 15kms north of Arthur's Pass and for a long time has been owned by one man, Lester Rowntree. If it can rain in Arthur's Pass, then Otira can beat that ten fold..or so it seems.

Otira has a pub with no beer. Last time I was there, Rosie made the most amazingly good coffee and the lounge bar was the most captivating and surprising museum piece I've seen in a long while. This place is a seriously must stop.

The trinkets, artifacts and literature here is truly stunning. My grandfather on my Mum's side was an old All Black who played only a handful of games in the early 1920's, yet there he was, imprinted on the pages of some old almanack of sorts, in Otira. Otira too, is synonymous with the construction of the Otira Rail Tunnel which was completed in 1923. Next August, 2023, there's a centenary for this.

Otira pub

Where do I get a decent coffee on this road?

'The Great Alpine Highway No. 73 is not littered with coffee shops., in fact they're near as rare as hen's teeth. Occasionally in winter you'll get one from a mobile van at an eclectic property by Lake Lyndon and you'll likely need cash,  though more reliably, Georgie's well stocked and purpose built trailer at the entrance to Castle Hill Village, delivers the goods. She has more than just coffee and has eftpos.

Clean public loos and and an EV charger are also handy. There're clean well maintained toilets at Cave Stream too which is where we left you last.

Am I allowed to camp along the road?

The short answer to this is no. There are however free camper van and powered sites at the Porters Lodge, which is a 6km drive up a reasonable shingle road that leaves the highway just past Lake Lyndon. The Lodge is generally open Thursday to Sunday, offering additional bunk room accommodation and a basic menu. It's also licensed. Porters Lodge is a good base for mountain biking along the range, though that's a much bigger story for another day.

Given it has a small bar, that is the only one in the area at this stage, there's very good chance I could see you there..

A similar distance up the Cheeseman Ski Area road, is Sam's Forest Lodge. She's been running a cracker ship here for some years. It operates on a BYO basis, is relatively inexpensive, has all the mod cons and is the hub for mountain biking in the wider area. If you fancy yourself as 'Torvill and Dean', there's a great ice rink here that's popular in frosty winter months, with a limited skate hire.

Other popular spots if you're in a self contained camper, are Mistletoe Flat, a stone's throw off the highway and well signposted on the Broken River Ski field road and the far end of the figure eight shaped, Lake Pearson. Both places have toilets.

Is there anywhere else to stay?

If you've more money than Croesus, a famed ruler of vast wealth in Asia Minor, in the sixth century, BC, you might enquire the rumoured nightly tariff at the newly refurbished Flock Hill Lodge. Do so, to give yourself a shock and have a giggle anyway, though there's also the Wilderness Lodge near Arthurs. 

Another establishment on the boundary of the famed Arthur's Pass National Park and on the southern bank of one of New Zealand's greatest braided rivers, the Waimakariri, is the Bealey Hotel.

The original Bealey was burnt down and the latest version is on a slightly different site, with a great view up and down the vast valley and the mountains surrounding it.

Arthurs Pass Wilderness Lodge

Paddy Freaney & the Moa

This version of the pub was built by the late Paddy Freaney, who passed away only a handful of years ago. We all knew Paddy. As his name suggests, he was Irish and he was as entertaining, as the greatest of folk from the Emerald Isle, with bucketfuls of wit, cheek and knowledge thrown in for fair mix. Though he was no slouch - ex-SAS, a mountaineer and an adventurer too, it came as no surprise that Paddy could tell a story.

I suspect his best yarn, was his claim he'd seen the Moa bird near the area in the early 1990's, despite it being extinct for some 600 years, or so. The large flightless bird was hunted to extinction largely by Maori, yet the notion of its sudden reappearance in inland Canterbury, had all sorts running in all directions and global headlines agog.

It was no secret that Paddy had his work cut out with building the Bealey. Bureaucracy, consents, objections, mounting costs, likely added to all manner of frustrations..and before he'd even pulled his first pint!

The Moa sighting was a coup of monumental proportions and Paddy pulled it off with aplomb. The publicity, the reasoning from experts, the opinions, the worldwide exposure, was incredible. Paddy's partners in crime that day, Rochelle who later became his wife, who still lives handy and Sam, remained stoic. I seem to recall, Paddy won some formal recognition for 'Tourism and Marketing', or some such, subsequently.

Now under new management, the Bealey is a full restaurant and bar, with private cabins for rent. You'll need to check operating hours as these can vary. 

Paddy Freaney photo of Moa

Are there any special activities along the way?

The little settlement of Cass, which is well signposted after passing Lake Pearson, features a mini golf course, built by longtime resident, Barrie Drummond. Nick named 'Rambo', cos it's rumoured he could bend a railway iron with his bare hands, the old 'ganger' is the sole resident of the place. The railway shed also features in a famous Rita Angus painting.

Meanwhile Lake Pearson, is the venue for the 'Pearson Flask' regatta. A smaller, though just as complicated version the America's Cup, the 'Flask' is sailed out of the Castle Hill Yacht Squadron.  I've been lucky enough to hold the 'Flask' since it's inception and will no doubt continue to do so, as I set race dates, oversee the rules and measurement committees and hear and adjudicate all protests.

The races are usually held before any locals have any knowledge..

Pearson Cup

Where does 'The Great Alpine Highway finish?

The road continues its steep descent down past Otira into lush West Coast farmland. Substantial rivers like the Taramakau and the Taipo pass by. These areas were popular with Maori travellers and greenstone hunters and are favourite hiking, or tramping destinations, as we call them in New Zealand still today. 

You'll notice a spot called Jacksons. It used to be a thriving pub and used to market themselves with T shirts sold in Christchurch, urging us to 'Go West young Man'..a call to action I followed on many an occasion. The unofficial final point on the highway, is probably the Theatre Royal Hotel in Kumara.
Fully licensed, with a range of good accommodation and an extensive menu, this place is a gem. For some time now, a great mate of mine, Craig has been a chef here. He lives not so far away in the bush near Lake Poerua (with German Shepherds Hemi & Tahana), and has been in the cheffing game, since Adam was in pre school.

Only a smidgen further west, is the Kumara Race Course. They've one meeting a year in January and have also been known to have the odd wild foods festival. Mountain oysters* anyone?
* Google these.

Hemi & Tahana at Lake Poerua

At this point you may choose to head south to Glacier Country or in fact northwards towards the recently established Paparoa National Park which has recently achieved Great Walk status, or further north to Punakaiki's Pancake Rocks. Or if you loved the TranzAlpine journey you may like a different perspective - head to Greymouth and return by the Tranz-Alpine Rail Journey back to Christchurch!

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 13 Dec 2022 (Last updated: 14 Dec 2022)

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