Day 2 – Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill Rocks

Arthur’s Pass is what the Southern Alps is all about. Not many people visiting South Island have Arthur’s Pass on their agenda. Those that do often go for the TranzAlpine rail journey. TranzAlpine is billed as one of the great rail journeys in the world. But in my opinion, the rail option is good in winter time (NZ winter that is). For summer time (NZ summer), it is better to do a road trip from Christchurch instead. Reason being that there is hardly any (if at all) snow on the mountains, and the rail journey is not as spectacular as it can be in the winters. So, we decided to spend an entire day exploring the Arthur Pass National Park by car. Our plan was to drive to Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch and then return back the same evening, since we were not going to the west coast during our South Island trip. If you are going to the west coast, then you might head to Hokitika instead of coming back to Christchurch.

In the morning, we had already picked up our rental car. Starting from central Christchurch, we headed out west along a 2 lane highway (73 or old west coast road), a common trend across the entire South Island. It would take us about 2 to 2.5 hours to reach Arthur’s Pass village. Along the way on highway 73 was another attraction, the Castle Hill Rocks. These rocks are well known for their unique shape, and have been the location of the filming of several Hollywood fantasy/mythology movies such as Chronicles of Narnia. We planned to make a stop at Castle Hill Rocks on our way back to Christchurch, as we wanted to make sure we maximize our time at Arthur’s Pass. Within few minutes of leaving Christchurch, we were in the countryside, with lush green plains and sheep. We were starting to see why the rural charm of South Island is so tempting.

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          (Canterbury countryside on highway 73)

Our first stop was Sheffield, a town home to the famous Sheffield Pie Shop. New Zealand is famous for it’s pies, and we had heard a lot about this particular pie shop in Sheffield. They have a large variety of pies from which you can select. They even have vegetarian options and fruit pies. The shop is on the highway itself, and there is seating inside the shop and outside, right besides the zooming cars (but there are hardly any cars as South Island is so sparsely populated). We ordered a vegetarian pie and a cherry pie. Both were delicious and quite filling; it almost felt as if we had our lunch!

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                                     (Cherry pie)

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                                  (vegetable pie)

After enjoying the delicious pies, we continued west. As we were approaching Castle Hill, we came across Lake Lyndon, with beautiful blue water and brown hills in the background. Canterbury is perhaps the most beautiful among all the regions of South Island. Next, we saw Castle Hill Rocks as we were driving. Though we had initially planned to stop and have a look on our way back, we changed our minds and decided to visit it right then and there. I think we just got too excited by all the lovely scenery. The rocks are a good 10-15 minute walk from the parking lot. The terrain is somewhat hilly, but not too steep or rocky. The rocks itself are incredible, it almost feels as if you are on some distant planet! They are made of limestone, and some of them look like human faces. We took a bunch of pictures, but there was no time to climb the rocks (some people were climbing on top of the rocks). After about 40 minutes, we decided to head back to the car and onward to Arthur’s Pass.

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                (approaching the mountains towards the west)

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                                           (Lake Lyndon)

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        (walking from the parking lot towards castle hill rocks)

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                      (view from the top of castle hill)

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                          (the limestone rocks of Castle Hill)

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                           (interesting shapes of the rocks)

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                           (stunning low hanging clouds)

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                      (some rocks looked like human skulls)

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         (view from castle hill, looking towards the parking lot)

Next, we drove past Bealy Spur, a vast flat and open space with blue glacial waters of the Waimakariri river cutting through. The sun was shinning, and the majestic blue colour of the water, along with snow capped mountains in the background compelled us to get out of the car and walk by the flowing water. The scenery was absolutely stunning, especially with a one-lane bridge in the background.

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              (driving towards Arthur’s Pass national park)

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                         (Bealy Spur with Waimakariri river)

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                 (Waimakiriri river with one lane bridge)

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              (stunning Bealy Spur with glacial waters)

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                    (gorgeous Southern Alpine scenery)

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                   (looking west towards Arthur’s Pass)

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                   (amazing landscape along highway 73)

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                       (clear glacial water, it was cold!!)

After hanging around for a few minutes (my socks and shoes were completely wet because I had the intelligent idea of trying to jump across a broad stream of running water without removing them), we crossed a few one-lane bridges that are common across the South Island. They are quite unique, and you need to know what the road signs at the start of the bridge mean, as it tells who has the right of way and when to proceed. We drove on and reached Arthur’s Pass village in the afternoon. The village has an i-site where you can avail information about nearby walks and hikes. After exploring a few options with the helpful Department of Conservation (DOC) expert, we decided to do the Devil’s Punchbowl walk. This walk happens to be the most well known and popular walk in Arthur’s Pass. Besides, it only takes 1 hour to complete the walk and return. This was important, as we still wanted to explore the area and then return to Christchurch before it got dark. The walk itself can be a little tiring, as there are many steps that you have to climb. But the path of the walk is excellently maintained with clear signs at regular intervals. Devil’s Punchbowl is a waterfall, and the end of the walk is a viewing point close to the falls. The water spray from the falls is quite dense; it can be felt at the viewing point and you might get wet too. So be careful with electronics and cameras.

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                       (at the Arthur’s Pass village I-Site)

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          (start of Devil’s Punchbowl walking track)

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                                (punchbowl walk)

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                                (crossing the footbridge)

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                             (view from the footbridge)

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                       (Devil’s Punchbowl falls)

We were quite lucky with the weather because it was fantastic all afternoon, after some rain in the morning. After finishing the Punchbowl walk, we drove further towards Otira to a place called the Death’s Corner Lookout. This lookout has a place to stop and get a view of the amazing Otira valley highway, an engineering marvel of NZ. It is basically an elevated winding road cutting through the lush green hills of Arthur’s Pass. And while you are taking pictures, your rental car might be picked apart by a local kiwi bird called the Kea. Keas look harmless, and have a beautiful orange colour along the underside of their wings. But, do not be deceived by their looks, as these birds are mischievous. They are so curious that they will grab any loose item with their beaks. They will take apart fittings on the outside of your car, they will take your cap away, they will untie your shoe laces and even wrest a map that you are holding in your hand! But they are cute and innocent, and will not hurt you physically in any way. It is fun just watching them do their antics!

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                    (view from Death’s Corner lookout)

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   (a Kea having taken care of a cap, is now looking for more trouble)

As we were watching the kea’s, it was almost 5 pm and time to head back to Christchurch. We wanted to drive upto the Otira viaduct, a duct for glacial water to pass above the Otira valley highway. But there was no time, and we were tired from an entire day of exploring Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill rocks. So we drove back east to Christchurch with wonderful memories.

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