The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June 1, 1939)
The Motorist Sits Back — Turning Without Troubles — on the — West Coast
The completion of the Lewis Pass Road over the divide into the West Coast, down to the famous Buller Gorge has opened up a new route to the tourist which the Railway Department's road services have pioneered with great success. It is possible to travel from Christchurch to Westport in a day crammed with an extraordinary variety of scenery at every altitude up to nearly three thousand feet.
The holiday traveller by road objects to duplicating his route, and this has been one of the handicaps of the South Island from the tourist aspect. But the trouble is disappearing, for the Department's road services provide two crossings of the mountain range, and thus make possible attractive and varied round trips. The second of the crossings is up into the high altitudes of Arthur Pass, among the snowfields, which are reached quite comfortably, if thrillingly by the motor, thus giving the traveller close-up views of the vivid grandeur of the Otira Gorge which can only be faintly suggested to those who take advantage of that remarkable engineering achievement, the Otira Tunnel.
The Driver's Fleeting Glance.
Over the Lewis Pass.
There is no doubting the fact that we are on the West Coast once the car commences to descend. The vegetation is tropical in its luxuriance, and trees clothe the steep ranges right up to snow level. Cannibal Gorge—properly named if Maori legend is correct—runs off to the right, its mysterious depths half-hidden in mist. Another discovery when running along the banks of the Maruia River is that there are well-developed hot springs at a temperature of 180 degrees, possessing a curvative reputation which will doubtless make them more popular now that access is sure and comfortable. In due course the Buller Gorge is reached with over thirty miles of its finest scenery to regale the tourist before the 214-mile trip from Christchurch to Westport is completed.
Over the Top at Otira.
After the service car has passed the railway at Otira, we notice the line running up grade into the long tunnel. The road, however, winds up the left side of the gorge. Mountains seem to converge on this tiny man-made ribbon, and the newcomer only has the assurance of a through ticket that he can get much further. The road often hangs above the rushing river by a cutting taken out of the solid rock, and it is comforting to realise how solid are its foundations when its height above the gorge bottom runs into hundreds of feet. “Windy Point,” “Starvation Point” and “Cape Horn,” some prominent features, are the highly appropriate names on the map. The forest runs up to the snowfields, and in due course, the motor is also up to that elevation. Mountaineering is thus made easy, though not altogether free from thrills, because the road gaily tackles a precipice by way of the famous zig-zag, an extra low gear on the specially designed chassis making this experience quite easy, if a little slow. None of the passengers wished to hurry. We were all quite appreciative of the careful driving, and on occasion glad of the reassuring chattiness of the man at the wheel, who, like his contemporaries on other routes, had his special local jokes.page 31
“Poison Point” explained our driver, briefly, as we rounded a real thriller of a precipice—“one drop is enough.”
Over the same route now runs an electric power line, taking energy from the Coleridge station to the West Coast, mainly to meet the greatly increased load demanded through the encouraging development of alluvial dredging. The erection of this line, with its steel towers of eighty feet, perched on rocky elevations, has been a magnificent job of which little has been heard by the general public, because the construction gangs have had few spectators. Often the mountaineer of the party had to put in some clever rock climbing to reach the proposed site of a tower. Then, dragging up tools by a light line, he has made a working platform to which has been secured a block and tackle. Then the rest was comparatively easy, a caterpillar tractor running on the nearest section of the road pulling the steel sections up to the sky-line, where they could be bolted together. The power line itself, eight wires separated about ten feet by steel crossarms, springs from tower to tower at delirious heights, and the traveller looking up, is impressed with the engineering courage which planned this invasion of so magnificent a gorge. But earlier planners had built a road which enabled the wondering traveller in due course to look down on these towers, so high does the route run before it tops the pass at over three thousand feet, to drop down fairly easily into the railway town of Arthur Pass.
From this point the journey into Christchurch is made by rail, through miles of impressive scenery as a reminder that one does not necessarily have to desert the rail to enjoy a good panorama. Which reminds us that in the near future the most spectacular parts of the Buller Gorge will be viewed from a railway carriage, for the new line is making good progress. Its track through the Gorge is the one bare streak in the verdant vegetation, but West Coast rains and a great “growing” climate will soon dispose of any eyesore, and the railway, like the power line over Otira Gorge, will fit comfortably into the scene, providing a contrast between the puny efforts of man and nature on the ground scale.
The Driving Standard.
West Coast roads, including the hundred miles or so of the lovely fernery which stretches almost from Hokitika to the Fox Glacier, are mostly narrow, though of good surface. Crossing other traffic is an affair of patience and decent driving. Service car drivers have developed a code of their own, short toots of the horn signalling “all clear and thank you” when a passing has been safely made.
There is hardly any need to contribute another testimonial to the quality of New Zealand's service car drivers, but it ought to be mentioned that the Railway Department's staff are not only well up in the details of the local scenery, but share with passengers their excellent knowledge of West Coast botany. Each man has also developed, so it seemed, his own set of driver's jokes.
A Scenic Windscreen.
Touring with the other fellow at the steering wheel was a great success. The scenery on the Coast is not only to left and right, but thousands of feet up to the main range of the snowfields of the Southern Alps, so the Department's coaches are provided with a scenic windscreen immediately above the normal one, enabling all passengers to enjoy beauties above the forest line from all the seats in the vehicle.
According to the road guide it is sixteen miles from the Franz Josef Glacier to Weheka, the centre for viewing the Fox Glacier, but sixteen in figures fails miserably to convey what has to be covered in that distance. There are two divides, with the inevitable hundreds of bends, all perfect fern grottoes. Even the bare cuttings have a rich red colouring which is apparently due to lichen. And the trip by service car, driven by someone knowing every inch of it, takes fifty minutes. This is the kind of thing which caused one to lean back luxuriously and reflect upon the advantages of letting the other fellow do the driving. The point was further driven home when, in a fireside chat with fellow tourists who had their own car, one of them remarked that he had once taken the tour as I had done, and was now doing the driving for his family. “And the roads,” he added, “seem three times more dangerous.”page break page break