Just a Dot

In and around Arthur’s Pass

We left Christchurch early on a frosty morning, the shuttle bus rattling along empty streets as the sun was rising. Hours later, it was still morning, still cold but bright now and we came to a stop in the mountains. The driver slid the door open, and my friend and I carried our packs out. ‘Enjoy Cass,’ said one of the passengers. ‘There’s nothing there.’ He laughed as the door slid shut. The van drove away and we were alone.

It was my first tramping trip into these mountains and it would be a total disaster, and somehow a complete success. We walked in iced-up snow that cut my legs. We arrived at the hut as it was growing dark, with only a couple of feeble hand torches to light our way. At one point my friend slipped and slid down a slope on his back only to thud into a tree. That evening, sitting on the verandah of the hut and watching the river valley grow dark, I couldn’t believe how ruthless the place was. We wouldn’t have survived the night – a couple of clueless amateurs with ragtag gear – had we needed to stay outside. It was a terrifying place, and I couldn’t look away, staying long after I couldn’t see anything more than the shape of the mountains as shadows in the moonlight.

Strictly speaking, that trip was Craigieburn Forest Park not Arthurs Pass National Park, but it was my first taste of the region and its grey peaks. So grey that in his A Tramper’s Journey, Mark Pickering said the Canterbury landscape could sometimes be considered ‘grey unlimited.’ It’s not inaccurate, but I never got sick of it. I went back again and again, and to me those peaks were like giant waves, beautiful, terrible and on a scale like nothing else I was used to. The Deception River seemed endless the day a friend and I walked out along it, all that greywacke meaning each bend was just like the last. The road will be around the next one we said, believing our map said so too. But on it went, another bend, more trudging along the rock. The night before we had stayed at unheated Goat Pass Hut. Snow fell on the roof, and I discovered I hadn’t packed any extra socks. I tore a polypropylene top into strips and wrapped it around my feet, hobbling about the hut like a medieval beggar. It was late afternoon when we got out of that riverbed and we cheered when we spotted a tanker truck off in the distance, finally proof the road was near. Yet there was something about it. It was another one of those landscapes that doesn’t let you forget how insignificant you are, just a Gore-Tex dot in a damp valley, impossible to spot.

Full of tiny chalets decorated with ice axes and Tibetan Prayer flags, the village of Arthur’s Pass is in thrall to the mountains. For evidence of this, visit its concrete block chapel designed by modernist architect Paul Pascoe, brother of mountaineer John Pascoe, and himself an avid climber. There behind the altar, where stained glass would usually be, is instead clear window glass framing a view of a mountain waterfall. The town has always been a stop along the road, for the pounamu seekers first, and then the goldminers. But as a place of shelter in the cold and in the trees, it encourages you to linger, and my last visit was as a tourist from the North Island. We rented one of those chalets. We stoked the log burner and toasted the New Year in. It rained constantly, and we stayed inside. I had dry socks this time. I did venture out for one walk though, when the rain eased - just a short hike in the Bealey Valley. And as we headed out, the mountains looming on either side, I had that same feeling as I did back in Cass, back on the Deception River. I realised I’d always come back.