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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 3 (June 1, 1936)

On The Road To Anywhere

page 32

On The Road To Anywhere

With an Alpenstock at Arthur's Pass.

I Suppose every city in the world has its little disadvantages. With Christchurch, City of the Canterbury Plains, the trouble is not, as some have supposed, too many bicycles, but too much decorum. The very same English gentility which was responsible for its grey Gothic arches, its avenues lined with fatherly chestnut and other trees, has done something repressive to its spirit of adventure. It is a city of charming people who, to my mind, rather lack the elan of young New Zealand. There is too much sitting about in the twilight listening to muted music. Of course, this is in some sense a relief— Christchurch, like Andrew Marvell's garden, is “a green thought in a green shade”—but the quietude and the contemplation are not the things I like best in a New Zealand which is too young and frisky to have developed much genuine poise as yet. Wellington's winds blow fresher, Auckland's merging of subtropical currents is more exciting and varied, Dunedin's fierce old hills are more intrepid….

After which sacriligeous passage, let me hasten to add that the stranger has to feel like this about Christchurch, because otherwise he or she would remain for ever dissatisfied with his own home town. He would go about lamenting that other cities do not, by means of weeping willows, sliding river and occasional bubbling white fountains, contrive to look like a plate out of a Japanese fairy tale.

Christchurch is to me something of a dream city. It grows its own brand of lotus, and the attraction thereof seems to be overpowering. Strong men settle there, full of versatility and ambition, and in a few years you find them cheerfully cycling about from Art Course lectures to their own little rock gardens.

Nevertheless, the Christchurch folk do go a-roving, here and there, and from time to time. Sometimes they merely take to tramping over their backdrop of hills, rifle on shoulder, looking for the highly problematical deer which are supposed to exist within twenty miles or so of the city outskirts, but which one never actually encounters on the dinner table. The real and best way of working off your superfluous energy in Christchurch is, however, not deer-stalking, but hopping into the train that wends its way to the mountains.

For, both summer and winter, the Railway Department people frequently decide to do something in the matter of an excursion. And then, in quiet suburban homes, are heard raging male voices, enquiring, “Lucy, Lucy! … What the deuce have you done with my alpenstock? You've used it to stake the green peas? Well, if women aren't the dizzy limit! …” And more to that effect. The shortest and most popular excursion—to Arthur's Pass—in winter-time provides big game for the world of mountaineers. Just a few hours to the nor'west from plains and City of the Plains, uprises Mount Rolleston—at any time a handsome peak, complete with glacier, but in winter such a grand old daddy among snow-mountains that the number of mountaineers who have scaled it can still be counted on the fingers of two hands. If you're not in the professional or giftedamateur class of mountaineers, there's still good climbing to be had on a small but effective mountain, commonly known as the Blimit. Dissect this word and you'll probably guess that the Blimit's sides offer quite a stiff pull for the young and daring.

On the train everybody sings. I haven't the faintest idea why, unless the possession of alpenstocks and rucsacks gives a pique to the self-confidence of the usually reserved New Zealander. The young of our species, both male and female, look so much alike, and so happy, that it's difficult to tell how anyone will ever be able to make a living, writing problem novels in this country. Flannel slacks: shirts mildly suggestive of a Fascist generalissimo, but more in the flamboyant vein: rolled socks, and either boots (in the case of the wary ones who have met mountain shale before), or else the hardiest of sandals. Worn on top, a beret and a bob. And there you are, the complete Arthur's Pass excursionist, sitting in groups around the sensible youth who has thought to bring his steel guitar, and wails harmoniously that it's a long, long way to his home in old Kentucky.

It's a joy to see the country suddenly forget all about green willow, and go native. First the hillsideflanks, bare but for that leopard-skin robe of tawny grass. Then clefts where native bush is still thick and dark betwen two hills, mountain streams singing into little waterfalls above great boulders, Troll King size, and a general look of mountainy strength and gloom. Farther on lies page 33 the true wilderness of the West Coast —forest, wetness and romance, beginning with the wild beauty of Otira Gorge.

“Piteous visions hobble about groaning and swaying on their high heels.”

“Piteous visions hobble about groaning and swaying on their high heels.”

When you forsake your train, you learn one thing without the slightest delay. Shoes: it pays to be sensible. Piteous visions hobble about, groaning and swaying on their high heels. Even the mildest Arthur's Pass tramp is not the sort of thing you should take on without good, thick shoeleather between yourself and Nature. As for those who actually tackle the mountain-slopes, Rolleston or the Blimit, they become initiated into the mysteries of that painful thing known to mountaineers as shale. It looks innocent but cuts through ordinary shoe-leather, and reduces the ankles to pulp. Moral: hire good boots, which can be done at the little Arthur's Pass store where Oscar reigns supreme.

The real end of the Arthur's Pass world would arrive if Oscar, who is a professional guide and hails from foreign lands afar—Switzerland, if I remember rightly—were to leave off wearing a feather in his beret. Befeathered berets have become one of the old familiar sights of New Zealand in the last few years, but it was Oscar of Arthur's Pass who pioneered the movement. In the store with him reigns his wife, a charming fairhaired young Esthonian whose soft accent adds to the touch of quaintness and “difference” in this rather neglected little resort among the mountains. For Arthur's Pass is, or has been, neglected. It's a Cinderella sister to peerless Mount Cook. Rugged and fine though its own scenery is, and enchanting though many find its alpine gardens, it has never been very fully developed as a tourist resort. Probably it goes down in the curriculum as “Mountain, smallsized.” Its old hands, who have built them summer huts in the valley, love it just the same, and the novices who come for the first time on the excursion trains nearly always decide to save up and build a summer hut of their own. I know one New Zealand authoress who always flies to Arthur's Pass when she wants to write a new book. But it's not a colony of the literati nor, thank Heaven, of the “arty.” Its backbone, from the population point of view, is supplied by hardy middle-aged gentlemen who do nothing very much but wander about in disreputablelooking pants, smoke grimy pipes, and consult with Oscar as to the best ways up and down Rolleston.

The summer huts are the queerest and most picturesque little assortment of shanties. Nearly all are built of red-painted tin, or spare odds and ends of wood … and built how! They seem to have been put together without plans, specifications or the slightest trepidation. They have names like “Sans Souci,” or “The Better ‘Ole,” and although a good percentage of the tin chimneys looked to me as lopsided as something in Alice-in-Wonderland, they work all right when it comes to cooking an honest mountaineering snack of breakfast, so who cares about the rest? There is, however, a first-rate Arthur's Pass Hotel, where not only the excursionists but likewise the local residents, adjourn when they want to dine in state.

One of the first things that happens to you at the Pass is having your photograph taken by a grinning press photographer who wants a good crop of alpenstocks and berets for his pictorial supplement. And it's quite a pretty sight to see the “townies” among us—especially the men—leaning upon their stocks as though they spend their lives careering up and down glaciers. After that the fun begins: rough roads, very up-hill-anddown-dale, leading past juvenile waterfalls and into the woods of manuka and fern, the forerunners of the natural alpine gardens where white daisies and ranunculi glisten in the sun. The Government has preserved and protected these alpine flowers, and there is something so gallant about them—nearly all flourishing their silken caps and tassels from lowgrowing plants, but forming together sheets of soft blossom—that one feels inclined to compliment them on their pluck. I suspect a good deal of mild poaching goes on: at all events, in Christchurch there are a good many rock-gardens where the thymey smell of the Alpine plants bobs up again, a long way from home.

The manuka woods are full of wild bees, and the smell of their dark and heavy honey is on the air. I know one Christchurch bee-farmer who always leaves a row of hives over here in the wilder West, especially to collect the more pungent and darker manuka honey. It isn't accepted for export, but many local gourmets prefer its tang to the smoother clovertaste.

Out of the woods, one sees a lonely and strange world, lost in a majestic dream of its own. High over Mount Rolleston's shale-slopes, the dark green of glacier-ice lies seemingly fixed, yet eternally moving with that slow, resistless movement which is the motion of the time-stream. From the dark sides of the Blimit, naked of snow, mountain cataracts leap down in a white flying mist, so graceful, so swift, that it is easy to see how the old Grecian legends of the oread, the white mountain nymph, arose.

And if one goes so far as to tackle a climb, the rest is mainly breathlessness and barked ankles: and that unreasonable sense of personal triumph, of achievement over the whole world and the Heavens into the bargain, which every mountaineer knows.

When you make the trip to Arthur's Pass you will be farewelled by a chanting of train-excursionists, not only very pleased with themselves because of their day's scrambling among the alpine flowers, but also made comfortable within by a hotel dinner served on a substantial basis which argues a pretty thorough knowledge of the mountaineering appetite.

page 34