Kea sitting in Southern rata
There is a striking difference between the habitats on either side of the main divide. Mountain beech/tawhai dominates eastern slopes. To the west is mixed podocarp rainforest and red-flowering rātā, with a luxuriant understorey of shrubs, ferns and mosses. Above the bushline, snow tussock and alpine meadows can be seen quite easily on a short walk off the road, at the summit of Arthur’s Pass.
Look out for the kea – alpine parrots famous for their inquisitive nature. The endangered great spotted kiwi/roroa – the ‘mountaineer’ of kiwi – are also found in the park along with more common forest birds like bellbirds/korimako and fantails/pīwakawaka. The open braided rivers of the Waimakariri and Poulter provide nesting grounds for birds such as wrybill/ngutu parore and black-fronted tern/tarapirohe.
Culture and history
The passes through the Southern Alps were used by Māori to trade pounamu/greenstone from Westland to Canterbury. Māori told explorers of the location of Arthur’s Pass.
Arthur Dudley Dobson surveyed the pass in February 1864. When gold was discovered on the West Coast, the rush to link Christchurch with the West Coast gold fields saw the road built in less than a year, a remarkable feat of pioneer road building. But it was never an easy crossing through rugged terrain and unpredictable weather; even today the road is often closed because of rock fall, slips or snow.
The Otira rail tunnel took a little longer, and was completed in 1923. The viaduct, built in the Otira Gorge over 1998–99 to minimise the hazards of road travel, is a major engineering feat.
Did you know?
The road across Arthur’s Pass was built in less than a year (1865), during a bitterly cold winter. A thousand men with axes, picks, shovels, crowbars and wheelbarrows, rock drills and explosives worked in the rugged terrain. They would often spent a whole day clearing snow, only to find the next morning they had to do it over again. Over 100 years later, the Otira viaduct was built to replace this section of road, and workers again suffered through wind, rain and snow to get the job done. Started in January 1998 it was completed two years later in November 1999; one worker died during the project.
Arthur's Pass National Park Management Plan