Coast to coast

In New Zealand one of the great endurance races is the ‘Coast to Coast’ where triathletes run, cycle and kayak from the West side of the South Island, to the east, starting and finishing on a beach. This is my

Coast to Coast in photos.

It’s only a little over 250 kilometres – not such a great distance as journeys go – yet there is no doubt that one of New Zealand’s great road trips is the drive from Christchurch on the east Coast of the South Island, to Hokitika on the West Coast.

It is a journey that encompasses more than five major climactic zones and traverses scenery as diverse as flat alluvial plain, labyrinthine karst, high altitude river valleys, mountainscapes, temperate rainforest and ocean-pounded surf beach.

In three-and-a-half hours (not counting photo stops!) it goes from the man-sculpted architecture of one of our largest cities, through extensive pastoral lands shaped by generations of agricultural practice, and into the truly wild, where people can only ever be temporary visitors. It takes us from the genteel civility of punting on the Avon to a wild west town with a history as dynamic and dangerous and just plain muddy as any cowboy town depicted in a Hollywood western.

In this blog I document that Coast to Coast journey in a series of images that illustrate why so many visitors to New Zealand are simply amazed by the fact that a few miles down the road, around a bend, over a hill or through a valley a whole new world can unfold.

It starts on a beach – From Kaitorete Spit on the east coast near Christchurch you look west to the first line of barrier mountains covered in snow

Kaitorete Spit is a wild windy place, steeped in ancient Maori history and home to numerous birds. The steep shingled beach is pounded by surf and the journey from here faces its first challenge, skirting the vast swampy landscape of Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere).

Te Waihora marshes lead the eye to the distance and the journey ahead

From here the drive begins in earnest, a winding wander, skirting the boundary between the volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula and the wind-swept alluvial plains until Christchurch city hoves into site.


After Halswell you enter the city proper. This was once a vast swamp trapped between the rise of the Banks Peninsula Hills to the east and the long slope of the plains down from the mountains. The heritage of this flat topography is still evident in the meandering course that Otautahi (the river Avon) follows through the city.

The genteel civility of Christchurch’s Avon River recalls its English heritage

You simply can’t drive through Christchurch without driving alongside, or even through, a park. Even in winter they have a manufactured beauty that, yet, gives a sense of the peace, and solitude, of the wild, where old houses blend into the landscape as if they’ve grown there.

Abberley Park, near my house, is a great place to start or pause a journey

If Hagley Park is the landscaped heart of the city, Travis Wetland must be up there as its wild heart. While invaded by introduced plants it is, nevertheless, still a great oasis of the once dominant wetland ecosystem. A wander through here produces some great bird shots and a sense of ancientness within the surrounds of the city.

Travis – a wild place

Out of the city now and heading west, the pace picks up. Long, straight roads carve westward and, ever so gently, upward as well. This is pastoral country, manicured by the plough. But always in the distance the mountains forming a white-walled backdrop to the stretched-out plains.

A farmer’s eye view with the mountains beyond

Beyond the above shot near Springfield the road suddenly changes, around a bend, over a bridge, another bend and you’re in the foothills, climbing, the plains behind you. Within minutes you hit the Porter’s Pass zig-zag and crest the pass into the alpine basin and river valleys that stretch from the western edge of Porters to the easter foot of the Main Divide. From Porters the landscape is instantly bigger, more dramatic and as varied as there are bends in the road.

drop down the west side of Porter’s Pass and a handy rest stop (and great bird spot) is Lake Lyndon

The dramatic landscape changes around every bend – Here the Porter’s Pass hills are bathed in an early morning glow.

bathed in morning light

Just past Porters the unique Castle Hill landscape appears. This is karst (limestone) landscape where ancient stones born in the sediments of the ocean have been carved by millennia of wind, rain, sun and frost into a labyrinth of shapes sublime to grotesque woven through with gullies and caves.

Castle Hill

Another vista opens up just beyond the Bealey pub. A sweeping bend, a winding drop around a bluff and the upper Waimakariri opens up to the traveller’s eye. Now the final barrier mountains are no longer distant peaks, but looming giants with permanent snow and ice fields that look impassable and you wonder where the road must go to pass among these leaning guardians.

from here the Canterbury Plains are built

Across the long narrow bridge that frames the above view another swift change. We dive into eastern beech forest and follow the winding river through to Arthurs Pass township nested at the very foot of the dividing mountains . . .  kea country! Watch out, they’ll steal your lunch!

Arthur’s Pass kea (I had to work a bird into this blog somewhere!)

A quick drive from the town takes you to the top of the pass and opens up the Otira valley flowing westward.

Otira Valley

You very quickly enter West Coast temperate rain forest, driving past tea-coloured streams with thick forest crowding to the edges, where you’d almost not be surprised if some Jurassic beast emerged from the fern-dominated foliage.

forests crowd to the edge of tea-coloured streams

Beyond the national Park in the mighty Taramakau Valley your pass once again through a pastoral coastal plain, much, much narrower and wilder looking than its eastern counterpart. The mountains hang close here and a step up from the valley floors the forest still clings wild and wet.

The road winds to historic Kumara and hits an infamous piece of straight – a local speed camera trap, before cutting left at Kumara junction and down to the long wild surf beach that leads to Hokitika.

Here the shore is strewn with driftwood, and black streams make the sea in a foaming rush.

A wild beach strewn with driftwood

Here our journey ends, beside the wooden buildings of Hokitika oozing with gold mining history and the days of boom and bust.

But the sun beyond us, dipping west out there toward Australia. We will look for it again on the foaming shores of Kaitorete.

Haere ra (farewell) to the sun from the Hokitika beach




2 thoughts on “Coast to coast

  1. Wow, what a journey! Being a Canterbury lad I have travelled that very same route many a time, your descriptive narrative and visual stimulation brings back many a fond road trip through one of our great overland passes. Simply Awesome Uncle!

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