This field trip explores Temple Basin, where students can learn about life forms within an Alpine Region and the history and current plans of Temple Basin and Arthur’s Pass National Park.


Published 2003, reviewed 2007

Learning outcomes for this teaching resource

Temple Basin sits on the main divide of the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, in Arthur's Pass National Park.

This field trip explores Temple Basin, where students can learn about life forms within an Alpine Region, and the history and current plans of Temple Basin and Arthur’s Pass National Park.

Rohe – Iwi links

Ngāi Tahu holds manawhenua over the park.

Mt Murchison and the area around it were known to the ancient Māori as Kaimatua.

The catchments of the Waimakariri and Taramakau rivers were used extensively in pre-European times by Māori in their seasonal round of food gathering activities and east-west travel to the pounamu lands of the Tai Poutini.

Waimakariri means cold waters and Taramakau may mean curved flow.

Key features and current issues

Aspects peculiar to the park include:

  • The east-west regional utility corridors for road, rail, power and communications which pass through or are adjacent to the park.
  • High degree of accessibility to the park, particularly from State Highway 73, and the degree of visitor development which has resulted from this.
  • Its proximity to urban concentrations – Christchurch, Greymouth and Hokitika – more than 540,000 people within a 125 km radius.

Current issues include the Ngāi Tahu wish to see a Māori dimension interpreted in the park that reflects their relationship with their ancestral land. In the Māori view of the natural world all life forms, land, water and sky are related by whakapapa (genealogy) and therefore land and people are inseparable.

Temple Basin is an important area of the park for a number of reasons. It is a fragile environment that is subjected to reasonably intensive year-round use. Activities include skiing, snow and rock climbing, scenic appreciation and studying alpine fauna and flora.

There is a club-operated ski-field in the park. It is important that high quality protection and management systems are followed to ensure the preservation of the natural environment.

Attractions and facilities

  • Flora, fauna and natural landscapes.
  • Cultural sites.
  • Walking/tramping.
  • Toilets available.

Prior to visiting Temple Basin, school groups should contact the Arthur's Pass National Park Visitor Centre. 

Transport and accommodation

A regular rail service runs between Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass and there are also bus and shuttle services. Accommodation is available in Arthur’s Pass and also by contacting the Temple Basin Ski Club.


Specific Environmental Education at Temple Basin

Education involves the integration of three key dimensions:

  • Education IN the environment
  • Education ABOUT the environment
  • Education FOR the environment

A balanced environmental education programme should address all three dimensions.

Education in the environment

Suggested activities:

  • The walk up the access track to the Temple Basin Ski Field provides great views of surrounding mountains and landscape. Take topographic maps and work out the names of some of the features. The walk leaves from a car park near the summit of Arthur’s Pass, 5 km from Arthur’s Pass township.
  • The first 45 minutes walking is up a zigzagging track to the base of a line of bluffs. From there it is another 45 minutes up to the ski huts.
  • Before or after going up the Temple Basin access track, walk the Dobson Nature Walk, just across the road from the Temple Basin car park. Make a note of the mosaic of different textures, colours and forms you see. Later research how they may be adapted to the climate.
  • Make précis sketches of the landscape. Remember to teach this skill before you go and set the parameters in the field.
  • Using all the senses, write a poem or haiku about Temple Basin.
  • Examine waste disposal facilities. Survey and record evidence of damage to the environment. Design a poster telling people how to look after the area.
  • Explore transects of plant studies. Sketch the plants to research further in the classroom.
  • View the goods lift. Describe the positive and negative effects this technology has had on the Temple Basin environment and on the ski club operations.

Education about the environment

This dimension encompasses knowledge about and understanding of the natural and cultural heritage of Temple Basin's environment.

Cultural awareness, economic activities, political decisions, ecological understanding and health and safety issues are all factors that influence education about the environment.

It may be useful, prior to your visit, to use the factors as areas of focus for study, using the information provided in the resource as well as the activities listed below.

Suggested activities

Cultural awareness

Ngāi Tahu wishes to see a Māori dimension interpreted in the park that reflects their relationship with their ancestral land.

  • Listen to a member of Ngāi Tahu who has ideas on what they would like to see happen.
  • Create a series of drawings that reflect the Māori stories related to Arthur’s Pass.
Economic activities
  • If you want to run a commercial activity in an area managed by DOC, you need to apply for a concession. It may be in the form of a lease, licence, permit or easement. Find out about concessions, how they work and why they are necessary. Design a mock application for a commercial activity in Temple Basin.
  • Have a classroom debate over the economics of running a ski field at Temple Basin compared with other skifield sites and taking into account future climate changes and lack of snow.
Ecological understandings
  • Using topographical map NZMS 260 K33 Otira, draw a précis map of Temple Basin locating natural and cultural features. Provide a scale and key. You may want to enlarge the area.
  • Draw a climograph for Arthur’s Pass.
    Design a fact sheet on the plant life to be found at Temple Basin.
  • Using topographical map NZMS 26 K33 Otira, draw a cross section of Temple Basin ski field.
  • Research the kea. Observe the risk to kea during human/kea interactions at the ski field. Design a ‘do not disturb kea’ poster.
  • Make two profiles of groups with differing views on Temple Basin. Inside the profile explain their viewpoint and values systems.
Political understandings
  • Find out how an area becomes a national park. On a map of New Zealand, locate New Zealand’s national parks. Who pays for their upkeep?  Who looks after them?  Why do we need them?
  • Find out about DOC - explore this website
Health and safety issues
  • Design a poster that explains the actions visitors must take to mitigate adverse effects, for example:
    • Keep to the track to prevent erosion, soil instability, scarring and enlarging of track edge
    • Keep to the track to prevent damage to plant life and personal injury
    • Take rubbish out with you
    • Pick up any other rubbish that you find
    • Use toilet facilities
    • Report any observed contamination of landscape
    • Report any sightings of weeds
    • Ensure your boots and equipment are clean and not transporting weeds or exotic seeds into the national park.
  • As a class, agree on an outdoor safety code prior to the trip.
  • List the equipment (suitable for mountainous activities) you will need to include in your personal first aid kits.
  • Write a story outlining how you survived an avalanche or a night in the mountains or a fall.

Education for the environment

Education for the environment is based on students’ knowledge and understanding about the environment and their practical experiences in the environment. All three aspects are interdependent.

Education for the environment encompasses developing a sense of environmental responsibility and a knowledge of how people can minimise their impact on the environment.

Suggested activities:

  • Design a poster outlining the Environmental Care Code in Arthur’s Pass National Park
  • Organise your school to get involved with rubbish removal from Temple Basin. Write a speech as the leader of the Task Force that will make all your classmates want to be involved.
  • Investigate waste disposal options for Temple Basin.
    • Explore feasible strategies to overcome an aspect of waste disposal. Select an appropriate solution through testing, adaptation, refinement and modification.
    • Prepare plans of action identifying the required resources (time, human resources, material, financial). Produce the selected solution to meet agreed criteria.
    • Present and explain designs, plans, strategies and outcomes to interest groups. Use a variety of communications e.g. make up advertisements, design pamphlets.
    • Explain the choices, review strategies and appraise outcomes, taking responses of interest groups into account.
  • Write a letter to the editor explaining your view on the value of Temple Basin as part of Arthur’s Pass National Park.
  • Design a pamphlet for a 5-year-old that explains the uniqueness of Arthur’s Pass National Park as an environment and how it needs careful looking after for future generations.

Flora and fauna

Two major influences control the vegetation patterns you can see as you cross the pass. The prevailing westerly winds create a west-east rain-shadow. As you travel west the scrub and wetland on the exposed pass are replaced by rain forest. As you travel east you descend through beech forest and out onto dry tussock grasslands.

The plants growing in this alpine setting are adapted to high rainfall, winter snow, summer heat and frequent gale-force winds.

The most striking plants in the area are the flowering herbs. Large buttercups and mountain foxgloves flower late in October, followed by the gentians in February and March. In mid summer a variety of mountain daisies/matua-tikimu (Celmisia species) and yellow and white marguerites are flowering along with the giant spaniard/taramea (Aciphylla scott-thomsonii), a member of the carrot family. Māori treasured the sweet smelling gum from this plant, using it in scent sachets.

However, there are many smaller, less conspicuous alpine flowers such as violets and forget-me-nots. Most have white or sometimes yellow flowers, reflecting the fact that flies, moths and beetles, which do not need to be attracted by bright colours as bees and butterflies do, carry out most of the pollination.

Lower down the alpine zone, tussock grasses like the tall Chionochloa or snow tussocks, red tussock, blue tussock, and fescue tussock, dominate. The Mount Cook lily/kōpukupuku (Ranunculus lyallii) – misnamed, as it is the world’s largest buttercup – is found on stream banks and amongst the tussocks. Mountain flax/wharariki can also be found here, as can the turpentine scrub/inaka, named for its inflammability.

Higher in the alpine zone the grasses and herbs become shorter and many form tight-knit cushions or mats. Being close to the ground enables plants to make maximum use of available heat and to get some escape from the winds. Much of the higher region is little more than bare rock or scree, and cushion development also enables plants to catch and retain moisture. However, not all the plants in this zone develop cushions. New Zealand edelweiss grows widely on rocky places and the strange, woolly-grey Haastia sinclairii is common on screes. 

Lichens, algae, liverworts and mosses can be found from the lower alpine zones up to altitudes near the limits for plant growth.

Of interest is that botanist Dr Leonard Cockayne marked out some transects in the Arthur’s Pass area in 1897/98, which he monitored. These transects are still monitored by others today and are amongst the longest-running successive vegetation studies anywhere in the world.

Above the bushline are numerous large wingless grasshoppers, cicadas, moths and butterflies, including three specialist alpine butterflies – the brown tussock butterfly common on the drier parts, the smallish smoky-brown Butler’s ringlet and the larger black mountain ringlet. The alpine cicadas, unlike other high altitude invertebrates, tend to be a dark colour. This enables them to take advantage of limited sunlight and also to gain heat when light is available. Living amongst and under rocks and vegetation, and therefore less obvious, are weta, weevils and green beetles.

The most likely native bird to be seen in this area is the kea, the well-known, often inquisitive alpine parrot. It is found only in the mountainous areas of the South Island. To live in this harsh and unpredictable environment kea must be able to adapt to a wide range of conditions and make the most of any opportunity to find food.  Their natural diet consists of flowers, nectar, berries, leaves, roots and insects. Kea are attracted to human activities and belongings. They use their strong and manipulative beaks and claws to pull apart any object that interests them. To help minimise damage don’t leave belongings where kea can reach them.

It is important not to feed the kea as food handouts turn them into beggars and encourage them to congregate in places where their curiosity can do damage. High-energy human food also disrupts the kea’s natural diet. They are best left to forage naturally.

The other native bird that may be seen here is the tiny alpine rock wren/pīwauwau. It is a rare sight in summer and even rarer in winter, though it is hardy enough to spend its entire life in the tough alpine environment above the bushline.

Resource material

Specific resource material

  • Topographic map NZMS 260 K33 Otira 1:50,000
  • Arthur’s Pass National Park Management Plan (approved 1994), Department of Conservation – suitable for teacher resource
  • An Introduction to Concessions – a pamphlet produced by DOC.
  • The Story of Arthur’s Pass National Park. 4th ed.; A. D. Dennis; Arthur’s Pass National Park, Auckland, 1986.
  • Arthur’s Pass National Park, 1929-1979, The First Fifty Years. A.D Dennis; Arthur’s Pass National Park Board, Christchurch, 1979.
  • Dobson Nature Walk – the natural history of an alpine park. Original text Colin Burrows, Helen Young, Andy Dennis and Lands and Survey staff. Revised 2006.

General resource material

  • Guidelines for Environmental Education in Schools (Ministry of Education Learning Media 1999).
  • Education Outside the Classroom: Guidelines for Best Practice (Ministry of Education 1995)

The cultural environment

Groups of Māori regularly crossed the formidable barrier of the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. Their skills in using natural resources for food, clothing and shelter ensured their survival in this harsh alpine environment.

Māori were familiar with most, if not all, of the passes that cross the mountains from the headwater valleys of the Waimakariri basin. The pass most used by Māori family parties to trade for greenstone or maintain contact with relatives was Harpers Pass (Hurunui Saddle) on the route linking Hurunui and Taramakau valleys. The more difficult passes were used mainly by small groups of fit fighting men. However, the first recorded crossing of Browning Pass was by a woman, Raureka, whom the pass was named after with the name Noti Raureka.

Wharariki or mountain flax was used by Māori travellers to plait the rain capes and sandals they wore on their journeys across the alpine passes. They carried their loads in flax kete or bundles, fastened with broad-plaited flax bands like modern pack straps. Along the way travellers enjoyed the nectar from the flowers in season.

In 1864 a young surveyor, Arthur Dudley Dobson, pushed through the tangled forest, over the summit, and scrambled down the Otira Gorge.

He returned to Christchurch full of excitement but nobody was very interested until whispers of West Coast gold began in 1865. There was some debate as to whether Arthur’s Pass was the best route to the coast but the lure of gold sped up the decision-making process. The winter of 1865 was especially bitter but completion of the road went on relentlessly with over 1000 men working. On 6 February 1866 a man drove the first dray all the way to Hokitika and in March Cobb and Co began a regular coach service for passengers.

In the late 1880s Dr Leonard Cockayne, an eminent botanist based in Christchurch, was concerned that the Arthur’s Pass region, a “fine example of transalpine flora” was suffering considerably from grazing, fires and railway construction works. He led a campaign which resulted in some 65,000 hectares in the upper Waimakariri and 7000 hectares in the Otira Valley being set aside “as a reserve for national park purposes” in 1901. For his pioneering efforts he is known as the ‘father of the Arthur’s Pass National Park’, although its official establishment was to come a bit later.

A railway was built to Arthur’s Pass in 1914 and the 8.5 km Otira tunnel was opened in 1923. The railway into Arthur’s Pass had a huge impact on the area, making it highly accessible for visitor use. Local residents became increasingly alarmed at the thoughtless destruction to local flora – so much so that in 1928 one concerned man wrote a letter to Parliament and other relevant bodies. The eventual upshot was that New Zealand’s third national park was established in August 1929.

A ski club for the basin was formed at that time and in 1933 the first ski field hut was erected at Temple Basin Ski Field with voluntary labour. This was replaced more recently and there is a second hut further down the hill. Temple Basin has three rope tows. A goods lift was built in 1960 and has a vertical lift of 446.5 metres.

Temple Basin has a fragile environment, subjected to fairly intensive year-round use. DOC’s 1994 Management Plan for Temple Basin manages the development of the basin.  Some examples of this are:

  • Snowmaking, if desired, would require an Environmental Impact Assessment, Resource Management Act consent and a concession because of known and potential environmental damage
  • An annual summer works programme (which includes a clean up) needs to be pre-approved by DOC.

The natural environment

The Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana in Arthur’s Pass have been formed by a mountain-building process along the plate boundaries (the Pacific Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate) just west of Arthur’s Pass National Park. These plates continue to interact and over the last two million years have raised rocks about 18,000 metres vertically.

Earthquakes like the ones recorded in 1929 and 1994 in Arthur’s Pass, which registered 6.9 and 6.5 on the Richter scale, are reminders of the power of the earth’s forces.

However, it was glaciers that transformed the Arthur’s Pass area into much of what we see today.

Around 1.5 million years ago, and up until approximately 18,000 years ago, temperatures in the area were some 4 to 6 degrees Celsius cooler. Snow began to accumulate in mountain depressions and did not melt over summer. Over time the ice flowed out of these cirques and huge rivers of ice began to carve out the landscape.

At their maximum the glaciers extended down the Waimakariri to Springfield and in the west to Kumara.

Glaciers produce distinctive landforms as a result of their ability to erode, transport and deposit material. Some features include:

  • Arêtes (a ridge between two cirques)
  • U-shaped valleys
  • High cirque basins
  • Hanging valleys (formed by a smaller tributary glacier)
  • Roche moutonées (hills smoothed over by glaciers)
  • Moraine – material deposited by the glacier
  • Glacial rivers

Some glaciers still remain in the Arthur’s Pass landscape, a fraction of their former size but a sign that the ice age could return if global temperatures fall. The Rolleston Glacier remains New Zealand’s most northern glacier.

The climate of the area is fascinating. The prevailing winds are from the west and northwest and usually bring rain or snow. Easterly and southerly winds bring fine weather.  Snow can fall above 1500 metres at anytime of the year. It rains approximately 180 days per year at Arthur’s Pass township. Sometimes as much as 250 mm can fall in 24 hours.

The heaviest rainfall is at the Divide – 5000 mm per annum – while Arthur’s Pass has 4500 mm, Bealey (15 km east) 1500, and Mount White 1000 mm. (In comparison, Christchurch’s rainfall varies between 600 – 800 mm.) Frosts are severe; temperature variations (both daily and between seasons) are wide.

Arthur's Pass National Park Visitor Centre
Phone:   +64 3 318 9211
Fax:   +64 4 471 1117
Address:   106 Main Westcoast Road
Arthur's Pass
Postal Address:   PO Box 51008
Arthur's Pass 7654
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