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March 2014 Issue
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Arthur’s Pass: The best of a bad lot

Arthur’s Pass_Mark Watson: Arthur’s Pass Village is located on the long flat expanse of the pass founded 150 years ago by Arthur Dobson Photo: Mark Watson

As Arthur’s Pass prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its discovery, John Wilson recalls the history of the area and his own walking experiences there

Every day hundreds of people speed across Arthur’s Pass, tackling the kilometre-long swampy summit in less than a minute on smooth tar seal.

A line of power pylons also strides the pass, giving scale to the spectacular scenery rather than diminishing its grandeur.

We will never know who first crossed the now-familiar summit of the pass, nor when they crossed it, though it was centuries before the days of tar-sealed roads and power pylons. Nor will we know whether the person making the crossing wandered up the easier Bealey Valley looking for a route to Westland and its prized pounamu (greenstone), or toiled up the Otira Gorge carrying the precious stone to Canterbury.

I first began visiting Arthur’s Pass in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a teenager, always by rail. I often walked all the way from Arthur’s Pass village to Otira on a narrow shingle road. We usually returned through the Otira Tunnel, riding in the goods trains to our great excitement.

In those years when we walked as a family to Otira, most freight and travellers passed deep under our feet on trains in the Otira Tunnel. The occasional car, negotiating the rough road at a prudently low speed, was no hazard and did not intrude on our enjoyment of the magnificent scenery.

Today, walking any part of the road over the pass would be hazardous and unpleasant. I live where the highway enters the village and walking even short distances up the road to different trail heads is nerve-racking. Trucks with trailers thunder past. Cars speed impatiently around the road’s many corners.

But that’s all about to change with the opening, this March, of the Arthur’s Pass Walking Track which leads from the village, through beech forest and subalpine scrub to the top of the pass itself.  The track allows visitors to walk from the village to the pass summit with the relaxed enjoyment I experienced walking the road 50 years ago.

The new track does not take walkers all the way to Otira, but as it climbs up from Arthur’s Pass village to the pass, it follows more or less the route taken by Arthur Dudley Dobson when he made the first recorded crossing of the pass in 1864.

But Dobson’s wasn’t the first crossing. Centuries earlier, Maori had discovered the pass. In the mid 19th century, the first Europeans to cross the Southern Alps, Dobson and Leonard Harper, were both told of the existence of the saddle by Maori, though no Maori in living memory had actually crossed it. Dobson was told of the pass he later ‘discovered’ by the Westland chief Tarapuhi. At that time, the usual route for Maori between the Westland rivers, where pounamu was found, and Kaiapoi, the great Ngai Tahu pa near Woodend, was Harper Pass, a longer route than Arthur’s Pass, but easier going for those laden with raw greenstone.

So when Dobson rode up the Bealey Valley in March 1864, camped in the vicinity of today’s Arthur’s Pass village, then cut his way through bush in the steep-sided upper Bealey Valley to emerge on the pass, the country was in effect unknown.

Dobson was looking for a way to take his horses across the Alps to the West Coast, where he had a surveying contract. There was already a bridle track across Harper Pass, which he had used on earlier trips to and from the Coast, but the prospect of a quicker route from Christchurch prompted him to investigate the possibility of a pass from the headwaters of the Waimakariri. Before discovering the pass, he spent the night at the homestead of the Cora Lynn sheep run, taken up in February 1860.

Four years before, another would-be pastoralist, the author Samuel Butler, had ridden up the Waimakariri looking for ‘sheep country’ and noticed, at the end of a valley some miles in length (the Bealey) ‘one saddle low enough to be covered by bush’. This was Arthur’s Pass, which might, had Butler investigated the valley, have become Butler’s Pass. But Butler passed up his chance of discovering it in favour of looking elsewhere for land on which he could run sheep and make his fortune.

Accompanying 22-year-old Dobson on his first foray up the Bealey in March 1864 was his 16-year-old brother Edward. On this first trip the brothers reached the top of the pass and looked down the Otira Gorge. On a second trip a day or two later with the Cora Lynn runholder Francis Goldney, Dobson went right down the gorge. (Goldney was hoping, vainly it turned out, to find new ‘sheep country’.) At one point the explorers had to fashion a rough ladder to get themselves down a 10m drop. Goldney’s dog had to be lowered down the cliff in a sling. The party eventually emerged where the gorge relents at the junction of the Otira with the Rolleston River. Rain kept them confined to camp for a day before they returned to Edward, waiting with the horses in the Bealey Valley. Dobson had seen enough to know that he would not be able to get his horses across the pass he had discovered.

He returned down country and took his horses over Harper Pass. From the Taramakau Valley, he went far enough up the Otira River to identify the spot he had reached with Goldney, confirming that the pass linked the Waimakariri and Taramakau Valleys.

Today Dobson’s crossing of the pass is seen as a significant event in Canterbury’s history. But at the time, the crossing didn’t seem particularly momentous. No-one even approached the pass for another year. But early in 1865, all eyes in Canterbury turned towards it. Gold had been discovered in Westland and Cantabrians, anxious to benefit from the gold rush, began clamouring for a more direct road to the Coast than the bridle track over Harper Pass.

But was there a pass across which a more direct road could be built? In February and March of 1865, Arthur Dobson’s father, Edward senior, and older brother George were sent by the Provincial Government to check all the Waimakariri passes. In early March, George Dobson made the second recorded crossing of Arthur’s Pass. He returned to the Waimakariri over nearby Goat Pass, another first recorded crossing. George and his father also checked out several other passes before coming, reluctantly, to the conclusion that ‘Arthur’s’ was the best of a bad lot. The pass was named by his father and brother as casually as Arthur had discovered it.

All the other passes the Dobsons checked are crossed today only by energetic trampers or, in the case of Goat Pass, competitors in the Coast to Coast race.

The Dobsons recognised that building a road from the top of the pass down the Otira Gorge was going to be a formidable task, including the long-notorious zigzag (which was not superseded until the spectacular Otira Viaduct was opened in 1999) and benching a road on the steep rock walls of the lower gorge. The heroic efforts of the road builders who toiled through the bitter winter of 1865 came almost to naught when a huge Christmas Day flood undid much of their work. The damage was repaired in time for regular coach services between Christchurch and Hokitika to begin in March 1866.

On March 15-16 this year, the Arthur’s Pass community is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Arthur Dobson’s achievement. The opening of the new Arthur’s Pass Walking Track is a major focus of the celebration. The track was built by the Department of Conservation in 2011-2012 and though not officially opened, is already proving popular. Using the track, visitors to Arthur’s Pass can reach the summit of the pass with only one crossing of the now busy and dangerous highway. They can cover in 90-minutes, the ground it took Arthur and Edward Dobson a full day to traverse in 1864, reaching the top of the pass on foot from Arthur’s Pass village without even getting their feet wet – unless heavy rain has swollen Wardens Creek, at the start of the track.

The Punchbowl Waterfall and Bealey Chasm tracks both link up with the walking track, offering additional opportunities to explore impressive features of Arthur’s Pass National Park. The track ends on the summit of the pass, but there are plans to upgrade the existing Lake Misery Track so walkers have a good track all the way to the upper Otira Valley, an area of outstanding alpine grandeur and high botanical interest.

When the exploits of different explorers were being considered for the television series ‘First Crossings’ the story of the discovery of Arthur’s Pass was ruled out because the highway and the line of power pylons would have made it impossible to recreate the impression of an explorer penetrating virgin wilderness. The Arthur’s Pass Walking Track is well-formed and provides easy walking, but it still allows today’s visitors to Arthur’s Pass to feel they are following in Dobson’s footsteps. For part of its length, the new track follows the line taken by Arthur and Edward Dobson when they first climbed to the summit of the pass 150 years ago.

Reaching the summit on foot is an achievement with rich historical overtones.

– Celebrations, including walks, to mark the 150th anniversary of the discovery of Arthur’s Pass will be held in the village from March 13 to 16.