This is a transcendent, transformational traverse whether travelled by train or by road.
If you drive yourself this is probably the most staggering piece of road you'll ever come across, which includes the amazing Ōtira Viaduct and Waimakariri bridge, feats of local engineering that will take you through the most remarkable scenery.
So keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes off the pies. Just stop often. Seriously: this is stunning.
Start with a genteel roam of eclectic, elegant Christchurch, with its great art places, lively outdoor spaces, cafés and English-inspired boat races. Weave out, gently, follow the rambling river, stick to State Highway 73 and let the rugged, wild beauty of this extraordinary place unfold before you.
First, the Canterbury Plains. They go on for miles and miles and mile and miles. Flat but never dull, they are a calming environment within which to tackle, well, a pie, a custard square and a milky tea – before heading for the foothills.
It’s beautiful whatever the season – rugged, eerie and arresting in the winter months; beautiful, majestic yet strangely isolated in summer. Braided, clear cool rivers, the ever-present mountains, the air getting colder... Ultimately, you’re heading for Arthur's Pass and Arthur clearly had a head for heights, for this is the highest and most spectacular pass in the Southern Alps.
Arthur’s Pass is also the peak, in altitude terms, of the journey. But the thrills don’t stop there. The Ōtira Viaduct winds down out of alpine territory into a sudden rush of lushness: aha! The Other Side. The West Coast: wet, plush, all-encompassing. Magnificent.
The West Coast
On your way down to the coast, the road hugs the Ōtira River before you dog-leg it to shadow the beautiful Tamarakau River the rest of the way. Then the Ōtira Highway drops you out at Kūmara Junction where the hush of the bush and the imposing mountains give way to flatland and the wild, windy coast.
You’ve traversed the island and crossed more microclimates and vegetation states than you would consider even possible in such a relatively short drive.
Breathe in the salty air, then head northwards to the dead famous Pancake Rocks at Punakāiki, or turn the bus round and do the traverse in reverse. Same, but different and well, well worth it.