Arthurs Pass Walkway to open
Mid Canterbury Selwyn
Arthur Dobson hacked a track through the bush to find the pass that would be named after him.
The new Arthurs Pass Walkway follows Dobson's footsteps.
Historian and author John Wilson predicts it will become "one of the great day walks in New Zealand".
The track, from the village to the summit of the pass, is in use already but will be formally opened in March, on the 150th anniversary of Dobson's discovery.
It is an easy and safe walk yet offers a semi-wilderness experience. The landscape where the path breaks out of the bush and onto the swampy plateau around the summit is almost unchanged since Dobson's time - except for the highway and electricity pylons.
Wilson moved from Christchurch to Arthurs Pass village after the earthquakes. He joined the community group planning the new walkway and anniversary celebrations for March 13 to 16. Others include DOC senior ranger Chris Stewart and village resident of 50 years John Charles.
Dobson took up a surveying contract on the West Coast in 1863. He found the journey over Harper Pass, up the Hurunui River and down the Taramakau too long and sought an alternative route suitable for horses.
Wilson says local Maori knew of the pass, which warrior parties raiding the West Coast had used. They told Dobson about it and, in March, 1864, he and younger brother Edward set out to find it. They reached the summit and looked down the Otira side.
They thought the pass looked "useful" but too steep for horses. The brothers turned back and reached Francis Goldney's station, near Cass.
Goldney was keen to know if good sheep-grazing country lay beyond the pass. So, two days later, Goldney and a shepherd named Marshall joined Arthur Dobson (Edward having left) in another attempt. Leaving their horses near the present Arthurs Pass village, they hacked their way to the summit. Then, letting their dog down by sling, they descended the precipitous rocks and screes to the Otira River and battled through the gorge to the valley below.
The men camped overnight. Next morning the river was too high to climb back so they explored the valley. They found only thick bush and no prospect of sheep-grazing.
As floodwaters receded they climbed back up the gorge. They found the scaling ladder they had made to descend still in place and reached the summit. They arrived back at Goldney's homestead within a week of having started their first expedition.
Gold was discovered in Westland four months later. A clamour went up for a dray road between Christchurch and Hokitika.
A committee of Christchurch businessmen offered a cash prize to anyone finding a suitable route. Dobson's older brother George was sent into the alpine river valleys to check the known passes.
In his report, he wrote "Arthur's pass" was the only practical route.
Wilson says this was why the pass was named Arthurs, and not Dobsons.
A track over the pass was quickly made. It was upgraded to a road within a year. Julius Haast drove the first wheeled vehicle, a horse-drawn dogcart, over Arthurs Pass in late-1865. Six months later, drays and coaches were journeying from Christchurch to Hokitika.
The speed of these developments might have owed something to Dobson's father being Canterbury provincial engineer.
When John Charles settled at Arthurs Pass village in 1963, the road from Springfield to Kumara was still gravel. He says tar sealing boosted traffic volumes from the 1970s, though many motorists still preferred the longer Lewis Pass route to the infamous Otira zig- zag.
Charles remembers dozens of hikers arriving in the village on the Friday night railcar from Christchurch. They packed into huts over night, hiked all weekend, then caught the Sunday night railcar back to town.
Increased mobility and continued improvements to the highway changed that, he says. Now people speed up from town, take a hike and speed back the same day.
Completion of the viaduct, which by-passes the zig-zag, has had even greater impact, Charles says. He notes the dramatic increase in large truck and trailer units.
"It has been phenomenal. The amount of traffic is unbelievable."
Stewart says 1.2 million vehicle movements were recorded over the pass in the last year. Arthurs Pass village, as the "recognised stopping point" between Christchurch and The Coast seethes with people.
But most do not stay long. Stewart is concerned the village has become "just a stopping place".
He hopes the new walkway over the pass, with the access it offers to other tracks, will keep people in the village longer. The facilities are there - motels, lodges, cafes and stores.
No statue of Dobson but a prominent artist is casting a sculpture of that other emblem of Arthurs Pass, the kea.
- © Fairfax NZ News