The Central South Island is one of the most varied and visually stunning areas in New Zealand, with expansive pasturelands, dense native forests and a history rich in tales of human endeavour, tinged with the toughness and idiosyncrasies of the area’s settlers. The region’s defining feature is the icy, white sawtooth ridge of the Southern Alps that forms the South Island’s central north–south spine and peaks at New Zealand’s loftiest summit, 3754m Aoraki/Mount Cook. Summers are generally hot and dry with long days that sear the grasslands a tinder-dry yellow-brown. In winter, snow supplies numerous ski-fields. These alpine conditions foster unique plants and wildlife, including the Mount Cook lily, the largest white mountain daisy in the world, and the mischievous kea – the world’s only alpine parrot.
From Christchurch to Westport, the forested Lewis Pass road provides access to the tranquil spa town of Hanmer Springs before passing the more rustic hot pools at Maruia Springs. Further south, both road and rail head through the spectacular Arthur’s Pass National Park, with its abundance of day-walks and longer trails.
South of Christchurch, roads lead across the Canterbury Plains towards the small foothill settlement of Methven, the base for Mount Hutt-bound skiers and summertime walkers exploring Mount Somers– often dry when Arthur’s Pass is wet and enveloped in cloud.
The southern half of the region leaves behind the rolling hills for the sun-scorched grasslands of the Mackenzie Country, an area renowned for massive sheep runs and the unearthly blues of its glacier-fed lakes, Tekapoand Pukaki. The mightiest of the Southern Alps form an imperious backdrop. Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, huddled at the foot of the mountain, is the starting point of numerous walks, glacial lake trips and heli-trekking and heli-skiing. An alternative base for forays to Aoraki/Mount Cook is the former hydro construction town of Twizel, less than an hour’s drive south, surrounded by dams, control gates and water channels.
Yet further south, the road toward Wanaka and Queenstown passes through New Zealand’s gliding capital, Omarama, before heading over the dramatic Lindis Pass.
The most dramatic of the three Southern Alps crossings links Christchurch with Greymouth, via Arthur’s Pass, traversed by a scenic rail line and the equally breathtaking SH73.
The pass is surrounded by the 950-square-kilometre Arthur’s Pass National Park, a remarkable alpine landscape with some superb easy walks and tough tramps. The park centres on diminutive Arthur’s Pass Village, nestled along SH73 at 737m above sea level in a steep-sided, forest-covered U-shaped valley. Because the park spans the transition zone between the soggy West Coast and the much drier east, Otira, just west of the pass, gets around 6m of rain a year, while Bealey, 15km to the east, gets only 2m. Consequently, Arthur’s Pass Village is often shrouded in mist, providing a moody contrast with the rich vegetation of the valley floor and slopes. The village offers a slim range of lodging and even more limited eating: stock up beforehand if you’re planning to spend time in the area. Nights are often chilly and snow occasionally blocks the pass.
Arthur’s Pass itself is 4km west of the village and, at 920m, is almost 200m higher. It’s marked by a large obelisk dedicated to Arthur Dudley Dobson. Naturally, there are great views here and the Dobson Nature Walk.
Immediately west of the pass, the road drops away dramatically across the Otira Viaduct, a huge concrete gash built in 1999 to span the tumbling river below. Side streams carry so much water that one is diverted over the roadway in a kind of artificial waterfall. A small lookout provides the best view.
Arthur’s Pass was named after civil engineer Arthur Dudley Dobson, who heard about the route from local Maori (who had traditionally used it as a highway), and surveyed it in 1864. By 1866 horse-drawn coaches were using it to access the Westland goldfields.
Arthur’s Pass Village sprung up in the early 1900s to provide shelter for tunnel diggers and railway workers. The rail line’s completion in 1923 coincided with the boom in alpine tourism worldwide, and the village ticks by on summer hikers, winter skiers and the daily TranzAlpine train visits.
One of the most enduring memories of a visit to Arthur’s Pass and many other alpine areas of the South Island is the sight of a bright green kea mischievously getting its beak into something, or simply posing for the camera. With their lolloping sideways gait and inexhaustible curiosity, the world’s only alpine parrots are endearing: at backcountry huts you might find kea sliding down the corrugated-iron roofing or pulling at the nails holding the roof on. Be careful where you leave your hiking boots – trampers have been known to wake up to a pile of leather strips and shredded laces.
With these playful scavenging tendencies it’s hardly surprising kea traditionally got the blame for attacking sheep, and for many years were routinely shot by farmers. Recent research seems to indicate kea only attack already-weakened sheep, and shooting has long since stopped as the birds are now fully protected.
These days, however, their greatest threat is human food. These kleptomaniacs can be persistent – you’ll hear the ruffle of feathers, see the flash of red beneath their wings and they’ll be tearing at your lunch just out of reach. But feeding them is forbidden as it reduces their ability to forage for themselves in winter when the summertime walkers have left town, and draws them towards the road where many are run over. As a result, the kea population is estimated to be as low as 1000–5000 birds. For more information visit w keaconservation.co.nz.
The most northerly of the cross-mountain routes, SH7, crosses the Lewis Pass following an ancient Maori and early Pakeha trade route. A side road spurs off to the spa town of Hanmer Springs, which is also a popular base for summer walks and winter sports at the nearby Hanmer Springs Ski Area. Some 60km further west, you cross the Lewis Pass and drop down to the steaming thermal waters of Maruia Springs.
About 140km north of Christchurch, a side road heads 9km north off SH7 to HANMER SPRINGS at the edge of a broad, fertile plain snuggled against the Southern Alps foothills. Rainwater seeping through fractures in the rocks of the Hanmer Mountains absorbs various minerals and is warmed by the earth’s natural heat, before rising to the surface as the springs that made the town famous. Everything centres on oak-lined Amuri Avenue, which runs past the springs, the i-SITE, shops and the shady park that gives the town its quiet, sheltered feel.
West of the Hanmer Springs turn-off, SH7 continues its climb towards the 907m Lewis Pass, 65km to the west, with low-yielding grassland with broom (blazing yellow in the summer), spiky matagouri, manuka and kanuka giving way to red and silver beech forest. To explore the area on foot, pick up DOC’s Lake Sumner/Lewis Pass Recreation leaflet from the Hanmer Springs i-SITE, which outlines almost two dozen day and multi-day walks.
West of Lewis Pass it’s a further 8km to Maruia Springs, a blissful spa grouped around Japanese-style men’s and women’s bathhouses, private bathhouses and natural-rock outdoor hot pools, whose steaming mineral waters range from black to milky white.
The Canterbury Plains and the central South Island’s snow-capped peaks frame the Mackenzie Country, a dramatic region of open sheep-grazed grasslands that shimmer green in spring but dry off through summer to a golden brown. It is all beautifully set off (in Nov and Dec) by stands of purple, pink and white lupins – regarded as weeds but much loved nonetheless.
Light reflected from microscopic rock particles suspended in glacial meltwater lends an ethereal opaque hue to the region’s mesmerizingly blue, glacier-fed lakes, notably Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau, which all form part of the Waitaki hydro scheme. At 700m above sea level, the region has some of the cleanest air in the southern hemisphere, and on a good day the sharp edges and vibrant colours make this one of the best places to photograph the Southern Alps, particularly around Tekapo.
The region encompasses New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook, accessed from Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, a perfect spot for alpine hiking and glacier skiing.
Sadly, this iconic and beautiful landscape is under threat as high international milk prices are driving the conversion of sheep stations into dairy farms, the necessary lush grass being grown on fields moistened using massive irrigation arms that create kilometre-wide green circles of grass amid the otherwise brown landscape. They’re particularly intrusive around Twizel and Omarama.
New Zealand’s highest mountain, the spectacular 3754m Mount Cook is increasingly known by its Maori name, Aoraki, meaning “cloud piercer” – and the two names are often run together as Aoraki/Mount Cook. It commands the 700-square-kilometre Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. With 22 peaks over 3000m, the park contains the lion’s share of New Zealand’s highest mountains, mostly made of greywacke (a type of rock common in New Zealand) laid in an ocean trench 250–300 million years ago.
Aoraki/Mount Cook is at the heart of a unique mountain area whose rock is easily shattered in the cold, leaving huge amounts of gravel in the valley floors. The tussock-cloaked foothills, where Mount Cook lilies, summer daisies and snow gentians thrive, contrast with the inhospitable ice fields of the upper slopes.
All this is easily accessible on walks to great viewpoints and even to the base of the 27km-long Tasman Glacier, fed by icefalls tumbling from the heavily glaciated surrounding peaks. The weather here is highly changeable, often with a pall of low-lying cloud liable to turn to rain, and the mountain air is lung-searingly fresh. On windy days, an atmospheric white dust rises from the plain at the base of the mountain.
The only habitation in the national park is at the tiny AORAKI/MOUNT COOK VILLAGE, set at 760m and encircled by a horseshoe of mountains topped by Aoraki/Mount Cook itself. Almost everything is run either by The Hermitage hotel (which operates the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre) or DOC (who have a fascinating visitor centre). Mostly, though, you’ll be wanting to get outdoors.
Maori tell how Aoraki came to be. Both the sky father (Raki) and the earth mother (Papa-tua-nuku) already had children by previous unions. After their marriage, some of the sky father’s children came to inspect their father’s new wife. Four brothers, Ao-raki, Raki-roa, Raki-rua and Raraki-roa, circled around her in a canoe called Te Waka-a-Aoraki, but once they left her shores disaster befell them. Running aground on a reef, the canoe was turned to stone. The four occupants climbed to the higher western side of the petrified canoe, where they too were transformed: Ao-raki became Aoraki/Mount Cook, and his three younger brothers formed flanking peaks – Mount Dampier, Mount Teichelmann and Mount Tasman.
Geologists claim that about two million years ago the Alpine Fault began to lift, progressively pushing the rock upwards and creating the Southern Alps. These days the process continues at about the same rate as erosion, ensuring that the mountains are at least holding their own – if not getting bigger.
Mount Cook was named in honour of the English sea captain in 1851. Its summit was first reached in 1894 but, because of the peak’s sacredness to Maori, climbers are asked not to step on the summit itself.
As long as the weather plays ball, it would be hard to be bored around Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. As well as cruising or paddling a glacier lake you can hike to places you never thought you’d go, ride horses and off-road vehicles in spectacular scenery or spend an hour gazing at the night sky.
Scenic flights offer glimpses of areas you could never dream of reaching on foot. book a few days ahead, but be prepared to be flexible as flights are cancelled in high winds or poor visibility. The peak season is November–March, but in winter (June & July) the weather’s often clearer and the views more dramatic.
There are no developed ski-fields in the Aoraki/Mount Cook area, but choppers open up the tasman Glacier and surrounding mountains for guided heli-skiing and heli-snowboarding. during the season (July–Sept or Oct), steep, untouched runs cater for those with strong intermediate skills or better.
A Kiwi folk hero, James McKenzie lends his name (well, close enough anyway) to the Mackenzie Country, a 180km crescent of rolling dry grassland between Fairlie and Kurow (to the south on SH83). A Gaelic-speaking Scottish immigrant of uncertain background, McKenzie is believed to have spent only a couple of years in New Zealand but his legend lives on. He was arrested in 1855 for stealing over 1,000 sheep, most of them from the Rhodes brothers’ Levels Run station near Timaru, and grazing them in the basin of rich high-country pastureland, with the assistance of a single dog, Friday. McKenzie escaped from prison three times during the first year of his five-year sentence, and when holding him became too much trouble, he was given a free pardon, after which he quietly disappeared, some say to America, others to Australia.
A poem commemorates the man and his dog in the visitor shelter at Lake Pukaki near the turn-off to Aoraki/Mount Cook.
From Tekapo, SH8 heads to the southern shores of the 30km-long Lake Pukaki, another intensely opaque blue glacial lake backed by the glistening peaks of the Southern Alps. A roadside parking area is the spot to pull over and admire fabulous views across the lake to Aoraki/Mount Cook and its icy attendants.
SH8 traverses tussock and sheep country 30km south from Twizel to the junction settlement of OMARAMA (Maori for “place of light”), best known for the Clay Cliffs just outside town and its wonderful conditions for gliding.
Prevailing westerly winds rising over the Southern Alps create a unique air-wave across the Mackenzie Country’s flatlands, making Omarama New Zealand’s gliding capital. Its airfield was the one-time playground of dick Georgeson, pioneer of New Zealand aviation and the South island’s first glider pilot, back in 1950. You can follow his lead with Southern Soaring (soaring.co.nz) who let you take the front seat on spectacular two-seater glider flights, with a chance to take the controls and get great views of Aoraki/Mount Cook on a good day. Most trips run October and March.
Sir Edmund Hillary has long been the most famous and admired New Zealander, and his death in 2008, aged 88, has probably raised his profile further. His ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 with Tenzing Norgay was undoubtedly an impressive achievement, and his humanitarian work in the villages of Nepal was widely lauded, but above all, Hillary embodied the qualities Kiwis hold most dear: hard-working, straight-talking, honest and, most of all, modest. As he famously said on his return from the successful summit attempt, “Well George, we knocked the bastard off”. That’s what gets your face on every $5 note in the country.
Though he grew up near Auckland, Sir Ed did much of his early climbing around Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, where a bronze statue of a youthful Hillary stands outside Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre.
The Godley and Cass rivers feed into the 83-square-kilometre Lake Tekapo which spills into the Tekapo River then wends its way across the Mackenzie Basin.
On Lake Tekapo’s southern shore, the burgeoning village of TEKAPO revolves around a roadside ribbon of cafés and gift shops surrounded by new housing developments. Its name derives from the Maori taka (“sleeping mat”) and po (“night”), suggesting that this place has long been used as a stopover. It still is, with visitors keen to spend a sunny afternoon picnicking on the lakeshore, enjoying the sunset from a hot pool then stargazing after dark.
Minimal light pollution presents perfect conditions for observing the night skies, and the 1000m summit of Mount John, 9km northwest of Tekapo, has sprouted telescope domes operated by the University of Canterbury and astronomical institutions around the world. There’s an excellent hike up here and great reward in the form of Astro Café, though the star attraction is the range of observatory and night sky tours.
TWIZEL (rhymes with bridle), 70km south of Aoraki/Mount Cook and 9km south of the junction of SH8 and SH80, began life in 1966 as a construction village for people working on the Waitaki hydro scheme. The town was due to be bulldozed flat after the project finished in 1985. Some think this would have been a kinder fate, but enough residents wanted to stay that their wishes were granted, and it’s now a low-key summertime base for forays to Aoraki/Mount Cook (a 45min drive away), scenic Lake Ohau and gliding at Omarama.
Both the TranzAlpine train and the SH73 (promoted as the Great Alpine Highway) from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass and the West Coast thread across the fertile Canterbury Plains beside the braided Waimakariri River before crossing Porter’s Pass and dropping into a beautiful region alongside the Craigieburn Range. The road then passes the otherworldly boulders of Kura Tawhiti (Castle Hill Conservation Area) and the Cave Stream tunnel walk, while side roads wind up to various club-style ski-fields.
The four ski-fields listed below (from east to west along SH73) are easily accessible from the highway. They predominantly offer traditional, inexpensive, Kiwi ski-club-style winter sports with spectacular views, reliable snow and virtually no queues. Most have equipment rental and some offer on-field accommodation. The season generally runs from July to September, although October is often good; for snow conditions check snow.co.nz.
All fields offer their own season tickets, though many go for the multi-mountain Chill6 Pass, which covers all the fields below plus Mount Olympus. The Chill12 Pass additionally covers Hanmer Springs, Mount Lyford, Mt Dobson and three other fields. Smylies in Springfield runs regular shuttles to Porters and other fields; check their website for prices.
The majestic Craigieburn Range runs along the south banks of the Waimakariri River, harbouring four basic ski-fields (generally open July–Sept), easily accessed from SH73 between Springfield and Arthur’s Pass. Porters Ski Area is the closest (33km west of Springfield), with beginner and intermediate facilities as well as advanced runs, café and bar, a lodge and equipment rentals. Broken River Ski Area, 11.5km northwest of Cave Stream, offers steep chutes, off-piste soft-snow skiing, snowboarding and three rustic lodges (with craft beer and cider on tap at Palmer Lodge), attracting more experienced skiers. Some 12.5km northwest from Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, Mount Cheeseman Ski Area is a family-friendly resort primarily targeted at learners and intermediate skiers (with rentals and two lodges). Craigieburn Valley Ski Area, 12.5km north from Cave Stream, also attracts experienced skiers with its longer runs, incredible views, uncrowded slopes (with narrow, steep chutes and wide open powder bowls) and access to backcountry skiing, but you’ll need your own gear. Many of the resort lodges open in summer for hikers and mountain bikers – check the websites for details.
The South Canterbury foothills mark the transition from the flat Canterbury Plains to the rugged and spectacular Southern Alps. The area is primarily known for the winter resort town of Methven, which serves the ski slopes of Mount Hutt. In summer, an array of activities includes skydiving, jetboating and some wonderful walking around Mount Somers.
The main route through the area is SH72, dubbed the “Inland Scenic Route”.
A hundred kilometres west of Christchurch on SH77, METHVEN is Canterbury’s winter-sports capital and the accommodation and refuelling centre for the Mount Hutt ski-field during the busy June to October ski season. Outside those months it can be pretty quiet, though summer visitors often base themselves here to explore the nearby Rakaia Gorge and Washpen Falls to the north, and Mount Somers to the south. It’s not a big place but the small centre has banks, post office and camping supplies.
Mount Hutt is widely regarded as one of the best and most varied ski-fields in the land, with a vertical rise of 683m, a variety of runs (two beginner, eight intermediate and thirty advanced) and, generally, the longest season (roughly June–Oct). All this is served by a triple, a quad and a six chairlift, and plenty of snowmaking. Rentals are available on the mountain, but there’s no accommodation here, so most people stay in Methven, from where there are frequent shuttle buses (all around $18 return; 45min to the ski-field): buy a ticket on board or from the i-SITE, from where most of the shuttles depart.
The 1687m Mount Somers rises from the flatlands above the villages of Mount Somers, 21km southwest of Methven, and Staveley, 8km further south The mountain is encircled by the Mount Somers Track, which is conveniently in the rain shadow of the mountains and is often above the bushline – when it’s raining in Arthur’s Pass and Mount Cook is clagged in, there’s still a chance you’ll be able to get some hiking in here. The terrain, gentle by South Island standards, incorporates patches of regenerating beech forest and open tussock pocked by outcrops of rock. Large areas of low-fertility soil subject to heavy rainfall turn to bog, and as a result you’ll find bog pine, snow totara, toatoa, mountain flax and maybe even the rare whio (blue duck).
If you don’t fancy a long walk, just go as far as Sharlpin Falls (about 1hr return) or go riding with Staveley Horse Treks.
The strenuous but exhilarating Mount Somers Track (25km loop; 2–3 days; 1000m ascent) makes a subalpine loop round the mountain, passing abandoned coal mines, volcanic formations and a deep river canyon.
The entire loop is best tackled anticlockwise from Staveley. However, roads meet the loop in the west at Woolshed Creek (accessed from Mount Somers) and in the east at Sharplins Falls car park (accessed from Staveley), so if you don’t fancy the whole thing you can walk either half and get your vehicle shuttled.
There is no booking system. Buy DOC hut tickets ($15.30 for each hut) before you start at the stores in Staveley or Mount Somers, or from i-SITEs or DOC offices. You’ll need to carry a cooking stove, pots and all your food; water at the huts should be treated. Marker poles point the way adequately in most conditions but the rolling country on top of the hills is subject to disorientating fog, so bring a map and compass.
Staveley Horse Treks (
t03 303 0809,
firstname.lastname@example.org) do vehicle shuttles for $35. After dropping you at the Woolshed Creek trailhead, they keep your vehicle safe near Sharplin Falls car park ready for your emergence from the wilds. Methven Travel (
t03 302 8106) operates an on demand shuttle service from Methven to Woolshed Creek car park ($140 for 1–4 people) or Sharplin Falls car park ($80 for 1–4 people).
(5km; 3hr 45min; 470m ascent). The most popular section of the track is the first 2km to Sharplin Falls, a modest cascade in a pretty canyon. There are lots of steps but they’re even and well cared for. The route then climbs steadily through beech forest, reaching the tree line at Pinnacles Hut (19 bunks), nestled below rock monoliths frequently used by climbers.
(6.2km; 3hr; 265m ascent). Climb towards the 1170m saddle, now through treeless tussock with wide views into the mountains and back to the plains. On the descent, take the 5min side trip to the Water Caves, where a stream courses below a rockfall of house-sized boulders. It is then only 10min to the modern Woolshed Creek Hut (26 bunks), a good place to stay a couple of nights, spending the intervening day exploring the little valleys and canyons hereabouts.
(13.5km; 8hr; 400m ascent). The tramp follows the South Face Route around the mountain and feels quite different. There’s a less isolated feel as you gaze across the Canterbury flatlands towards the distant coast. The terrain is a mix of high-country scrub (somewhat exposed at times) and beech forest. Soon after leaving the hut, the Howden Falls side track is worth a quick look. You then climb a ridge before traversing tussock-covered flats, passing a new day-shelter at about the halfway point. After a steep climb up through beech forest you begin the long descent, first on a ridge with great views then down into the bush to Sharplin Falls car park.
The tiny hamlet of PEEL FOREST, 12km west of SH72 and 35km south of Mount Somers, is the hub of Peel Forest Park, one of the eastern South Island’s last remaining patches of original native bush, which is threaded with walking tracks. Come for easy walks, horse trekking and the superb whitewater rafting trips through the Rangitata Gorge.
Go searching for Edoras and you won’t find it. Though the crew of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers spent the best part of a year erecting the Rohan capital city, everything was removed after filming. What you do get is Mount Sunday, a 100m-high glacially levelled outcrop (roche moutonnée) surrounded by open river flats a 48km drive west from the village of Mount Somers. Over half of the journey is on rough gravel but it is a beautiful drive, bounded by big, grassy, round-shouldered hills sheltering a flat valley, with the main icy backbone of the Southern Alps up ahead.
You should put an hour aside to wander across the fields (and cross a couple of streams) to get to Mount Sunday. Once you’re standing on top surveying the grasslands all about, you can imagine the bleats of the sheep are the battle cries of…well, maybe not.
Hassle-free Tours (t 0800 427 753, w hasslefree.co.nz) run fun day-trips here from Christchurch.