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Travel in New Zealand's South Island: Christchurch, Arthur's Pass, the West Coast; Pancake Rocks, Karamea, Heaphy Track

Updated on September 15, 2018
annart profile image

Ann loves to travel at home and abroad. The British Isles have so much to offer from South to North, from East to West.


Australia and New Zealand - how many of us long to go there! If we’ve been, how we wonder at its beauty and long to see more! Both countries offer so much to see; the vast open areas of Australia and the beautiful blues and greens of the rivers, mountains and trees of New Zealand.

I had listened to my partner’s tales of travel in the 70s and 80s, overland via Europe and Asia to the antipodes, tales of adventure and exploration in beautiful places under the sun. At last I was able to see some of these places.

New Zealand

Both countries lived up to my expectations but I begin with New Zealand. I love the land of the Kiwi for its rich colours, the striking, breath-taking contrast of deep blue sky, lush green vegetation and aquamarine rivers. Christchurch was our base for a few weeks.

The Colours of New Zealand

Wide river beds & Aquamarine waters
Wide river beds & Aquamarine waters | Source


Christchurch was then a city intact, before the earthquakes of 2011 took everyone by surprise, destroyed the city and changed lives for ever. There stood original, stylish buildings with a backdrop of beautiful surrounding hills and plains. I have memories and photos of many areas which will never be the same again.

The city had an open square in front of the cathedral, a pretty building of grey and cream stone. We spent New Year’s Eve 2002/03 in that square, listening to live music, absorbing the festive atmosphere and enjoying the company of family and friends.

The River Avon runs through Christchurch, willows and shrubs on its banks, winding its way through suburbs, walkways alongside it providing peaceful strolls. The Port Hills provide a backdrop and Littleton Harbour is reached by a tunnel through the hill.

It was a city with beautiful historical buildings but is even now a scene of rubble and devastation, its inhabitants trying to reassemble their lives. Streets and pavements are contorted, riverbanks are re-shaped, hillsides redefined. Many buildings have not yet been rebuilt (2013) due to insurance and planning issues. Soil liquefaction takes place ('the process by which water-saturated, unconsolidated sediments are transformed into a substance that acts like a liquid' -en.wikiepediacom), so undermining foundations and bases of infrastructure, causing serious damage with consequential safety issues . The sense of loss is palpable.

Though mostly unreported abroad, the quakes continue...

Christchurch before the Quake.....

Christchurch Cathedral
Christchurch Cathedral | Source
New Year's Eve 2002/03 in the centre of Christchurch
New Year's Eve 2002/03 in the centre of Christchurch | Source

...and After

A ruined tower & just the facade intact
A ruined tower & just the facade intact | Source

Arthur's Pass

Traveling to the west coast takes one through areas of outstanding beauty. North-west from Christchurch is the pass which links the east and west coasts of the South Island; Arthur’s Pass. It is named after a surveyor, Arthur Dobson, who was searching for a way through from coast to coast and found his path in 1864; his father decided to use it as the main route and referred to it as ‘Arthur’s Pass’.

As the highest pass over the Southern Alps, it reveals grey rugged mountains with scree slopes, wide sweeping plains and deep gorges. On the eastern side are wide shingle riverbeds and beech forests; on the wetter western side rivers flow through deep gorges and dense rainforest. The mountains themselves have peaks shrouded in snow and glaciers.

You can travel Arthur’s Pass by road or by rail. A rail tunnel had to be hewn through 8.5 kilometres of rock at Otira Gorge to enable trains to pass, an amazing engineering feat in itself. The road has been improved too; instead of an incredibly steep descent through the gorge with unparalleled hairpin bends, there is now a bridge going straight across the deepest part. On his exploratory journey Arthur Dobson found the Otira Gorge almost impossible to negotiate and had to leave his horse at the top and lower his dog on a rope so you can imagine how steep and perilous it must have been. Even on the new road, our car’s brakes became overheated after the steep descent. We had to stop to let them cool down!

Arthur's Pass

Bleak, shale mountains & plains
Bleak, shale mountains & plains | Source
Road over Otira Gorge
Road over Otira Gorge | Source
Thicker vegetation through the Pass
Thicker vegetation through the Pass | Source

The Long and Winding Road

The road winds through wide plains and between craggy rocks, over scary descents and under shelters which protect you from rock falls, all offering spectacular scenery. You can imagine how hostile the landscape must have seemed to the pioneer explorers; indeed it can still be inhospitable, cold and dangerous for those who hike and explore.

Walks within the Pass take you to intriguingly named places like The Devil's Punchbowl Falls, Bridal Veil Track, Temple Basin and along the Dobson Nature Walk. Longer hikes can be taken to Avalanche Peak, Mount Aicken and Mount Bealey. Birdlife includes keas and alpine parrots, the latter having an extremely inquisitive nature. Winter sports include skiing and snowboarding. There are many climbing routes for mountaineers plus more challenging suggestions for ice and rock climbers!

From Wild Wilderness to Lush Leaves

A contrast between the brown/grey colourless landscape on the first part of the route and the lush vegetation to the west side makes you feel as though you’ve entered a completely different land. The descent to Greymouth, winding through yet more vibrant green trees and shrubs, leads you down onto the narrow coastal strip which defines the West Coast. Looking back at the mountains all you can see is deep rainforest, often shrouded in mist. The journey’s driving time is about three hours.

Down towards Greymouth



The coastal town of Greymouth is aptly named. There is frequently a mist enveloping the coast, drifting down from the mountains or in from the sea; it gives the region an air of mystery and isolation. Indeed, this area is isolated. The Southern Alps are to the south of you, Arthur’s Pass to the east and a road northwards that eventually runs out! It is not an area teeming with tourists but it is well worth visiting.

The West Coast

Up to the End of the Road!
Up to the End of the Road! | Source

Pancake Rocks and Penguins

Punakaiki - what a great name! It’s the Maori name for Pancake Rocks and, yes, they do look like big stacks of pancakes. The many stacks which amaze and intrigue have been weathered by pounding seas, eroded to form blow holes which boom and forcibly eject impressively high jets of spray. Walkways take you around, above and between the best viewpoints.

It’s worth stopping for a picnic lunch or just a stroll to take in the unrivaled views of cliffs and sea. A little further north, you’ll see the best road sign ever, to protect the local penguins. The road drops down to a narrow part between sea and rockface; this is where the penguins have their own chosen crossing to access their shelters and nests, so you have to take care to avoid any which might be waddling across. It’s their road, not yours!

As you journey further north, the landscape becomes more and more remote, the rocks closer to the sea, the mists rolling from sea to shore and from mountain to coast; an atmosphere of ancient times and a land much older and wiser than any being.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
The pounding seaStacks of rocksRock FormationPancakes!View northwards along the West Coast
The pounding sea
The pounding sea | Source
Stacks of rocks
Stacks of rocks | Source
Rock Formation
Rock Formation | Source
Pancakes! | Source
View northwards along the West Coast
View northwards along the West Coast | Source

Beware of Penguins!

LOOK OUT! | Source


Follow the road to Karamea, a small habitation which serves a long, narrow area of flat land giving up to mist-shrouded mountains to the east and grey-misted seas to the west. Walk across a broad expanse of grassland where tufted mounds make quad-riding fun, to reach a long, wide beach; from there you walk across soft sand to meet the sea before it stretches out into empty infinity.

Serious shopping has to be done in Westport or Greymouth; stocking up is essential if you want to avoid several long journeys, though the local stores will get things in for you.

Occasionally a few locals might set out fishing lines here - just long metal pegs hammered into the sand with ropes attached carrying vertical nets and stretched out to sea as far as one can manage. Come back the next morning and you’ll find small (about 3 feet long), toothless sharks called Rig Shark, Lemonfish or sometimes Gummyfish! They make delicious steaks, barbecued or steamed. You need the quad-bike to take them home!

Karamea and the Gummyfish

The long, long Beach by Karamea
The long, long Beach by Karamea | Source
The morning catch of Rig Shark (Gummyfish)
The morning catch of Rig Shark (Gummyfish) | Source
Oooh - Breakfast!
Oooh - Breakfast! | Source

The Heaphy Track

The road continues a while, the rocks come close to the shore, then a little further and you’ve reached the end of the road! Here you’ll find the Kohaihai River across which is an entrance to Kahurangi National Park where the Heaphy Track begins; a hikers’ track which meanders through the mountains, across the Tasman peninsular, eventually reaching Golden Bay. It’s a treck that takes up to 3 days or more; there are simple shacks along the way for intrepid explorers to use at night for taking food and shelter or just for a rest if you’re not tackling the whole length. Where the track begins, a beautiful inlet joining tropical vegetation with the rocks and the sea provides a peaceful, shady area to sit, relax, picnic or just take in the stunning scenery.

The track, 80 km long, has connected Karamea on the west coast with Golden Bay in the North since 1893, due to the Gold Rush. Its name comes from Charles Heaphy, an explorer, artist and soldier, who was one of the first to explore this coastline and the forest inland.

There is a diversity and number of plant species here and there are strict rules for users: no dogs are allowed as the area shelters many kiwis, the notoriously shy and elusive emblem of New Zealand, and you are expected to take out any litter you might generate.

The Heaphy Track

The road ends and the Heaphy Track begins
The road ends and the Heaphy Track begins | Source
Heaphy Track from just north of Karamea to Collingwood
Heaphy Track from just north of Karamea to Collingwood | Source
River Kohaihai meets Sea below the Heaphy Track
River Kohaihai meets Sea below the Heaphy Track | Source

Oparara Basin

If you take an eastward turn just north of Karamea, up a winding lane into the forest, you can look down into a huge bowl; impossible to see the bottom through the thick vegetation but its size is all-enveloping, offering, almost threatening, to swallow you up. You are looking down onto the Oparara Basin, an ancient area of forest, drained by the Oparara River.

Oparara Basin

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Way down into the Deep!The Perfect Mirror, Eerily Still  (see the crocodile jaws?)
Way down into the Deep!
Way down into the Deep! | Source
The Perfect Mirror, Eerily Still  (see the crocodile jaws?)
The Perfect Mirror, Eerily Still (see the crocodile jaws?) | Source

Oparara River

Carry on until you reach a parking area, then follow the path through the trees; it meanders by the Oparara River. The river water is a clear, strong orange, coloured by naturally occurring tannins. The winding path takes you further into the forest, abruptly turns, dips and rises. At the side of the path are strange earth formations looking like mini-high-rise cities.

Even in the car park, you are likely to encounter the weka, a bird which is flightless like the kiwi but bigger and without the long beak. It's not nearly as shy; in fact they're out looking for any biscuits or sandwiches you have to offer! They're regarded locally as a pest but nonetheless are intriguing little creatures.

Oparara River

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tannins in the Oparara RiverA mini-city in the forestWeka cadging a biscuit!Weka scrounging in the garden
Tannins in the Oparara River
Tannins in the Oparara River | Source
A mini-city in the forest
A mini-city in the forest | Source
Weka cadging a biscuit!
Weka cadging a biscuit! | Source
Weka scrounging in the garden
Weka scrounging in the garden | Source

Moria Gate Arch

After about half an hour of easy walking look for the narrow entrance to the Moria Gate Arch, a limestone formation over the river. Blink and you’ll miss the low portway amidst the rocks but there’s a small sign informing you of the route down through slippery rocks, to the river cave. It’s passable with comparative ease (there are railings and a chain to hold onto) but you need to be agile. The broad, level cave floor gives out onto the narrow river, the roof and arch above you. The beauty of this hidden treasure is... well, I defy you not so say ‘Wow!’ over and over and over.

Moria Gate Arch

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Narrow Entrancefrom the floor of the caveStalactitesGood example of limestoneOut from the ShadowsStrange formationsOutside the cave, overhead frondsThe effects were never-ending!Still reflectionsIndoor beach!Climbing back outBack up to the forest!
The Narrow Entrance
The Narrow Entrance | Source
from the floor of the cave
from the floor of the cave | Source
Stalactites | Source
Good example of limestone
Good example of limestone | Source
Out from the Shadows
Out from the Shadows | Source
Strange formations
Strange formations | Source
Outside the cave, overhead fronds
Outside the cave, overhead fronds | Source
The effects were never-ending!
The effects were never-ending! | Source
Still reflections
Still reflections | Source
Indoor beach!
Indoor beach! | Source
Climbing back out
Climbing back out | Source
Back up to the forest!
Back up to the forest! | Source

A Country of Beauty and Surprises round every Corner

All of New Zealand offers wonderful areas of outstanding beauty in both South and North islands. It has rivers and mountains, forests and lakes, wonderful coastlines and inland thermal valleys. You can ski or snorkel, walk or sail, visit vineyards or watch seals, bathe in thermal waters or sunbathe on clean, sandy beaches. There are no snakes but an array of indigenous wildlife.

If you get a chance to visit, snatch it and make the most of this amazing country and its friendly people.

Have you been to New Zealand?

Where have you visited in New Zealand?

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© 2013 Ann Carr


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    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      5 years ago from SW England

      Thank you Theresa. I'm glad you enjoyed this. Karamea is a wonderful mysterious place! I love NZ too. Ann

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Ann, what a wonderful Hub. Your descriptions are so clear and interesting. And the photographs are just fabulous. What a great read. :)

      My brother and his family have done a lot of summer traveling over the years and all five of them agree, the most fascinating and beautiful place they ever saw was New Zealand. Thanks for sharing your experiences and travels with us. Theresa Sharing.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      pstraubie48 : Thank you so much for visiting and for commenting. Yes, they're in the process of building but it's going to take years of course. I'm sure they'll build a lovely new city centre to sympathetically mirror the old. Optimism is the key as you teach us so often. I wish you a good week. Ann

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      6 years ago from North Central Florida

      What an awesome journey...the photos made me feel like I was there. O sad that buildings were destroyed but maybe they will build some that will become a part of the new history. thanks for sharing Pinned

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      tobusiness: Glad you liked this; thanks for reading and for your kind comments. It's certainly worth the visit if you get the chance - be sure to put aside at least a month for this beautiful country!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      6 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Ann, what a wonderful adventure! I've never been to new Zealand, but it is certainly on my bucket list. Excellent hub, great photos, thank you for sharing. I'll be back to read the next installment.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      Glad you enjoyed it, bill. You'll be there soon then! This is the one I'm going to use for the back roads idea, using the more remote places. Then I'll concentrate on the back roads closer to home.

      Wishes for a great weekend to you and yours too! Ann

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great pictures, Ann, and wonderful information to go with them. I've never been there; it belongs on my bucket list for when I am rich and famous. Sigh!

      Thanks for the tour and have a wonderful weekend my friend.


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