Cass wins high praise

21:09, Jan 12 2014
Cass TranzAlpine Train
SCENIC WONDER: The TransAlpine train near Cass.

It's isolated and bleak, but Cass remains a favourite spot for Roy Sinclair.

Cass neatly fits my choice of best Canterbury high country settlement. It ably combines my passion for mountains, railways and photography.

The nearby Cass Bank has long been a railway photographer's haunt, offering an impressive alpine backdrop and nearby Lake Sarah.

Lake Sarah
ICY BEAUTY: Nearby Lake Sarah in the grip of winter.

In days long gone, steam locomotives, Springfield-bound, charged through Cass in an effort to get a good start climbing the grade.

The tiny railway settlement is identified by its small rustic red station, the subject for a Rita Angus 1930s painting. A 2006 poll concluded it was New Zealand's most popular painting. The work was pitched against that of several other popular artists.

The daily TranzAlpine stops on request at the station, maintained by the Rail Heritage Trust. Other travellers are typically on their way to nearby Grasmere or Flock Hill lodges.


Cass Golf
SLICE OF HEAVEN: Cass' sole resident, Barrie Drummond, shows a reporter around the golf course he has made.

One day last winter, while enjoying a trip home on the TranzAlpine, I photographed Cass as it receded into a snowy evening. It appeared New Zealand's coldest spot. I was freezing cold as the air rushed through the open observation carriage. Numbed fingers struggled to work the camera.

Cass, surrounded by mountains, is where SH73 briefly meets the railway 24km short of Arthur's Pass. Travelling towards the pass, the settlement is the first sign of habitation heralding the appealing upper Waimakariri.

This back country region was initially brought to fame in the late 19th century by Dr Leonard Cockayne, one of the world's pioneer ecologists. His work is perpetuated by students of Canterbury's universities at the Cass Field Station.

Some local mountains were named after Antarctica explorers: Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Others were named from their appearance: The Pyramid, Dome and Sugar Loaf. Yet others were named by those who clearly detested the place: Misery and Horrible.

My first journeys through Cass were during the 1950s when it was a thriving railway community with post office, railway station, sidings, locomotive water tank and goods shed.

I once chatted to Patience Miller, whose husband Bill was a track maintainer. She loved living at Cass among the mountains with the wonderful railway people. She talked about going to the station and waiting for the express.

The guard would stop the train to deliver mail and any supplies residents had ordered.

On Sundays, when no trains were running, she and her children would join Bill on his rail trolley and head off for a picnic.

"It's different now," she sadly told me . "All those isolated railway communities have gone."

These days only one person resides permanently at Cass. He is Barrie Drummond, who recently retired as a track maintainer.

Having lived at Cass for 26 years, he is occasionally joined by two doctors who have holiday baches at Cass.

The settlement displays a variety of rail curiosities in the form of rusting locomotive boilers once used for river bank protection and the odd track maintainer's trolley.

More recently, Drummond fulfilled a long-time ambition in creating a chip and putt golf course. The project developed when trees were cleared from the site. The timber went to nearby Bealey Hotel.

Despite the small size of the course, it offers some intriguing challenges.

Cass frequently enjoys pleasant sunny days while nearby Arthur's Pass is being pelted with rain.

Children can play golf for the cost of a gold coin. Adults pay $5. Drummond says people can bring a picnic lunch and stay all day.

The Press