Aotearoa: Across Arthur's Pass
After about four weeks in the North Island, it was time to head southward. Everyone had told me that the South Island was the more scenic of the two, but after the spectacular scenery we'd seen in the North Island, I was having some serious trouble believing that assertion.
Still, the flight to Christchurch already began to convince me. The flight path took us directly over the Southern Alps, an impressive mountain range that runs right down the center of the South Island. Craggy, crinkled mountains with snow-covered peaks stretched below the airplane as far as the eye could see. We saw hardly any roads or other signs of human habitation, just a desolate and impressive array of mountains. The reason we didn't see roads, of course, is that there are hardly any; there are three roads across the mountains, so if you want to get from the east to the west coast, your options are pretty limited.
We arrived in Christchurch in the early afternoon, but by the time we'd gotten the rental car and found the hostel, it was around 5:30, which in New Zealand in July means the sun was about to go down (it was usually night by 6 pm) and all the stores were about to close. A quick jaunt to the local Pak'n'Save took care of our dinner for the next few evenings. We cooked for ourselves not merely to save money, but because many restaurants didn't stay open past 8 pm, and cooking gave us more flexibility. Also, Arthur's Pass, the village we were heading to next, had only one restaurant, and whether the food was worth eating was anybody's guess.
The next morning, I went to visit someone I'd contacted at Ngai Tahu, the major iwi in the South Island, who had Native American ancestry - one of her ancestors was a Pequot man who'd settled in New Zealand around the 1830s. The meeting was incredibly interesting, and once again I was struck by how helpful people were; she and her sister took time out to sit and chat with me about their family, she'd gotten all kinds of information together, and just let me browse through everything. It was fantastic, and incredibly useful for my dissertation!
After the meeting, we decided to get lunch at one of the many Korean restaurants - New Zealand has a sizeable Korean immigrant population - and head for the hills. Er, mountains. We got a fairly late start, but we'd called ahead to the hostel at Arthur's Pass, where we were spending the night.
The Southern Alps are fairly young mountains, which means that they, like the Andes in South America, are still rough, steep, and jagged, not smoothed out by time like the older North American Rockies or European Alps. (OK, so the Rockies and Alps don't look all that smooth, but there really is a difference.)
Arthur's Pass is named after Arthur Dudley Dobson, a 19th-century explorer who located this route through the Southern Alps. Arthur's Pass connects the East and West Coasts of the South Island, and isn't exactly the easiest route to traverse when you're in a low-powered rental car. We were the ones who kept puttering along at 60 kph while not just SUVs but Volkswagens and Volvos whizzed past. Still, that way, we got to see a lot of the scenery - and it is quite a drive, with the mountains rising suddenly out of the plains at what looks like the end of the road.
We arrived at Arthur's Pass when it was already pretty dark out, which is no great trick as Aotearoa in winter gets dark - I mean completely night-dark - around 6 pm. When we got out of the car, we were overwhelmed by the stars. Up in the mountains, in a town so small that Frommer's lists its population as "minuscule," the stars were everywhere. And the night sky looked so different - no dippers, no Casseiopeia (which for some reason is the only constellation besides Orion and the dippers that I can still pick out easily) - and instead, the Southern Cross, which consistently surprises me by being much smaller than I think it ought to be. We stood there in front of the hostel and just stared up at the sky for a good few minutes before getting around to checking in.
Our hostel was fabulous. The BBH-affiliated Mountain House was perhaps the most luxurious hostel we stayed at. It featured small cabins (the main dorm building is closed in winter) with a fireplace, kitchen, small library, no television, and thoroughly friendly hosts who are themselves seasoned travelers and hikers, as well as founts of information about the area. Plus, the rooms had heaters. I couldn't recommend the place more highly!
The next morning, we headed out for the mountains, to do a bit of hiking. We hiked the Temple Basin Ski Field, and then tried to see the Bridal Veil and Devil's Punchbowl Falls, but the paths were closed for maintenance about halfway in. That's one of the drawbacks to the winter - fewer tourists means it's the season for maintenance and upkeep - but on the other hand, fewer tourists, by and large, is a big plus.
The snow atop the mountains made the hiking a bit challenging, especially as a spate of warmer daytime temperatures had melted some of it, which had then frozen to ice at night. Other, more prepared hikers had ski poles to help them walk their way through the snow, but we slipped and slid merrily along (as you can see above). However, we did decide to do the second hike of the day on (mostly) level ground - and photos of that will follow next week!
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