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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 7 (December 15, 1926)

The Call of the Wild — Record Excursion to Otira

page 34

The Call of the Wild
Record Excursion to Otira

The Railway Department recently inaugurated special excursions to Otira to meet the strong desire of the public for opportunity to make one day visits to the great portal of the Southern Alps.

The following vivid description of one of these trips appeared in the Christchurch “Sun.”

The tops of its serrated crests caught in a fairy cobweb of snow-cloud, and the allurement of its wonderful bush enhanced by a lacework and embroidery spun by frozen crystals, Arthur's Pass over the Alps was a place of entrancing delights yesterday, to the eye. And to complete the charm for the hundreds of excursionists who trudged in a storm over the bush road was the music made by tingling streams and rushing torrents, the pass being a “realm of falling water.”

Never has a railway excursion to Otira proved more popular than yesterday's. Two packed trains, with the record load of 1,144 excursionists, left Christchurch, it being impossible to obtain accommodation an hour before the trains were timed to leave.

Departing in bright sunshine, they encountered a snow storm at Arthur's Pass and met heavy rain at Otira. And yet it was a memorable visit, for if nature was in wintry mood, it was lavish in its picturesque display. For those who braved its rigours and tramped through the heavy snow over its ranges, the experience was exhilarating and invested with a touch of romance.

Setting out for Arthur's Pass

Setting out for Arthur's Pass

Four hundred took the bush road, and most of the rest stayed in their carriages at Otira. For the last, any disappointment over Otira's inhospitality must have been tempered by the pictorial delights of the journey. From the time Springfield was passed, and the train entered the mountain district, exclamations of delight were heard in the carriages.

There was the wild grandeur of the Waima-kariri gorges, and the sense of power and destruction conveyed by the swift-flowing river as it swirled from bank to bank and tossed its spray over jagged blocks of stone. Vista after vista was opened up as the train pursued its serpentine course. Soon the aspect of the sunny mountains changed, for most were snow encrusted. Here the shadows of the crests were green tinted; there they were of delicate mauve.

But now clouds appeared—sombre clouds that told of approaching storms. As they hovered over the snow peaks, occasional glimpses only were permitted through the rifts.

And then, before Arthur's Pass was reached, the train ran through a driving storm of snow and sleet.

Hopes fell, but at Arthur's Pass station, they lifted again, for there the snow fell softly, the flakes drifted down until the scene was like that on an old fashioned Christmas card.

“The snow is soft over the Pass,” warned the stationmaster, but to the enthusiasts, the warning contained no note of dismay.

From the two trains, a full 400 set off. And what a crowd it was. There were young men, and girls, too, with legs bound tight in putties. And there were dainty girls in dainty high heel shoes and with slender, silk-sheathed legs. All manner of attire was represented. Some were muffled in heavy great coats, and some wore no coats at all. There were school children and people of middle age.

When, full of hope and enthusiasm, the band of walkers left the trains and began to pick their way over snow more than ankle-deep, there were people who shook their heads sadly, “Some page 35 will never get there,” they said. “They do not know what is in front of them.”

It is true that few did. But, glowing within, there were embers of excitement, engendered by the novelty of the undertaking that kept the flames of resolution burning. There was the crisp and exhilarating mountain air to fill lungs and impart energy, though limbs ached from unaccustomed conditions over 11 long miles.

They wended their way through the bush and amid the whirring flakes, climbing briskly. It was a long-drawn line, and there was the stimulus of pride in endeavour and competition. Few lagged or fell from their place. The snow fell heavily, and in the distance ghost trees loomed through the white.

At first the snow varied from 4 in. to 6 in. in depth; later it was quite a foot. Every few hundred yards a stream rippled across the track.

The climbers jumped them if they could, or balanced perilously on stepping-stones. Where the width was too great, they splashed straight through. What mattered it if icy cold water ran round the ankles. The feet of the shoe-shod were already wet, anyway.

An offshoot of the Southern Alps, South Island, New Zealand

An offshoot of the Southern Alps, South Island, New Zealand

Several turbulent torrents were crossed on planks. Gingerly the walkers, with soles of their footwear snow-packed, crossed these. Against the storm the climbers walked with bowed heads.

Up, Always Up.

Few stopped to eat the provisions they carried. They puffed and gulped, and orange peel, gleaming brilliantly against the white of the snow, littered the trail. Cameras clicked. Nearly everyone carried a camera, and the containers of spools mingled with the orange peel.

Up in the heights the bush thinned. Now the scene was like some Alaskan waste. The storm drove furiously, whipping against reddened faces.

Mush! mush! went the lifted feet. If one floundered from the path, there were drifts. Sticks, raided from trees, were a wonderful help.

And now rain mingled with the snow. Underfoot, mud oozed up, and white snow turned to slush.

page 36

The snow thinned, and rain pelted down. The walkers were in bush again. The trees dripped moisture, and torrents swirled across the path.

It was a scene of majestic grandeur. As the road sharply descended, mighty mountains seemed to rise and loom overpoweringly. The faces of some seemed perpendicular, and from them, tons of water fell in wide ribbons to a canyon below. The river in the canyon was churned into furious flood, jamming its walls, and flinging great volumes of water against the greyish rocks. The waters below were of jade, except where they were churned to white. Great masses of green, streaked with white, that were flung over the rocks, looked like marble.

Oft-times a waterfall, from many hundreds of feet above, would bound and rebound against the rock wall before with a mighty crash, and, amid a mass of spray, it hit the river. One big waterfall fell against the side of the road, and its spray was shot with arrows of light.

The character of the bush had changed. It was more luxuriant, and from the fronds of ferns water dripped unceasingly. The green of the foliage was broken by reds and purples. Broken rock littered the track. It was hard walking, but no longer was there the laborious tax on the muscles of tramping through the snow.

Scene on “the finest walk in the world,” (Milford Track, between Lake Te Anaul and Milford Sound)

Scene on “the finest walk in the world,” (Milford Track, between Lake Te Anaul and Milford Sound)

And so to Otira, many laden with the red foliage of the pepper tree. Few escaped wet feet and soaked outer garments. But what of that? The experience was memorable.

There were new delights on the journey home as the train wound through the snow-capped hills, and the dying sun turned crests to burnished gold and the shadows merged in mauve hues against bush-clad lower slopes that changed from green to a wondrous blue.

But for those who had felt stinging snow on their cheeks, and had experienced the thrill of tramping alpine heights, there was a recollection that refused to be effaced.

The only cure for timidity is to plunge into some dreaded duty before the chill comes on.

page break
South Australian Railways Mountain Type Locomotive On Adelaide-Melbourne Express Gauge 5ft. 3in; weight of engine and tender in working order, 219 tons; tractive power, 51,000lbs; coupled wheels, 5ft. 3in. diameter, length over buffers, 84ft.

South Australian Railways Mountain Type Locomotive On Adelaide-Melbourne Express
Gauge 5ft. 3in; weight of engine and tender in working order, 219 tons; tractive power, 51,000lbs; coupled wheels, 5ft. 3in. diameter, length over buffers, 84ft.