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State Highway One from Christchurch to Dunedin

Dorothy - 05/05/06

Part 1 Christchurch to the Waitaki River - the Canterbury section

Travelling between Christchurch and Dunedin is always a special experience for me and I challenge the view that part of the trip is boring. For me it is full of memories of earlier journeys, but with changing seasons and weather the scene is never the same. The Canterbury Plains with views of the mountains to the west, the pleasant town of Ashburton, and the hilly city of Timaru with its beach and port at Caroline Bay give way south of Timaru to downs and hills until you reach the Waitaki River bridge.

Christchurch to Ashburton

Distances in this section are from Christchurch.

The trip begins with easy travelling through the level farmland of the Canterbury Plains. After you leave the suburbs of Christchurch you could look out on your left for the growing satellite town at Rolleston (23 km - 14.5 miles), and on your right Burnham Military Camp (29km - 18 miles). The bridge across the Selwyn River a little further on may seem unnecessary as except in times of flood the river is mainly flowing underground at this point.

Mountain views
Do remember to look to your right and on clear days enjoy the views of the mountains and the changing patterns of light during the day. On some overcast days when there is a north-west wind the mountains are clear and bathed in sunshine and the view of them is enhanced.

Interesting bridges over the Rakaia River
After passing through the small rural centre at Dunsandel the next point of interest is the Rakaia River Bridge. The Rakaia is a braided river and its changing channels are spread over a wide area, necessitating the longest bridge on the state highway network, with a length of 1.8 km - 1.1 miles. In normal flows the braided river channels sweep in winding courses across the gravel beds, which are up to a mile wide. During summer floods, fed by the melting snow, the waters reach from bank to bank, so long multispan structures are needed to bridge such a river.

Because of its climate and topography, New Zealand has more bridges, on a population basis, than any other country in the world. An early solution to the problem of cost was to build a bridge for combined use by rail and road traffic.

I well remember the rather frightening experience of driving across a combined road-rail bridge and hearing the scary loud rattle of the railway sleepers as we crossed. I was not afraid of meeting a train as a crossing keeper at each end closed the gate to road traffic when a train was due to cross the bridge, but I heaved a sigh of relief when my father drove the car off the bridge at the far end. My husband tells me that to a small boy crossing a combined road/rail bridge was really exciting and the best part of the trip.

The present concrete bridge which was opened in 1939 is a replacement for the timber bridge begun in 1869 and modified for road-rail traffic in 1873.

The Rakaia road bridge has been described on an IPENZ Engineering Heritage site as “typical of many standard simply supported reinforced concrete bridges with standard spans, standard parapets and standard appearance." Unfortunately typical bridges of this design were not planned for tourists and the standard parapet gives very little chance of viewing the scenery from a car. The height of a bus would be an advantage here.

The replacement railway bridge, upstream of the road bridge, was opened in 1939 and is the longest railway bridge in New Zealand,1743 metres in length.. It comprises 143 steel plate-girder spans on concrete piers.

Rakaia township - the place with the giant salmon statue
A short distance from the bridge is the Rakaia township, the centre of an area well known for its salmon and trout fishing. The Rakaia River and the Rangitata River further south are two of New Zealand’s best known salmon fishing rivers, and the Rakaia township annually hosts anglers from all over the world wanting to catch the fine river-run salmon and trout. There is a reserve beside the main road where a huge statue of a salmon, 12 metres high, invites people to stay and go fishing. The reserve is a good place for a picnic and a toilet stop.

The giant salmon statue at Rakaia
The giant salmon statue at Rakaia

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Next stop Ashburton (86 km - 53.5 miles)
This pleasant town services the farming community and is home to a number of farmers in retirement. The town has a well kept appearance and this applies to the town’s gardens. SH1 crosses the railway line as you enter the town, so you drive through with the shops on the left across the tracks and the gardens on the right. If you drive in the first gateway through the children’s playground you reach clean toilets, a cold water tap and an entrance to the gardens. It is a good place to stretch your legs and the playground is a good place for the children to get some exercise. If you walk across the playing fields to the west you will find a flying fox - a great favourite with our grandchildren.

The Ashburton Gardens are well worth a visit with colourful flower gardens in summer and tall trees enhancing the views all the year. There is a large pond near the main road which always attracts the ducks, but in the duck shooting season this sanctuary attracts so many birds that at times the water is scarcely visible.

The gardens in autumn
The gardens in autumn
Photo Source: Ron Armstrong

Ashburton to Timaru
Cross the Ashburton River, now well bridged, but in the early years a perilous crossing for travellers who often needed a guide or the ferry service. The suburb of Tinwald stretches for some length of ribbon development and then there is straightforward travelling for 18 km (11 miles).to Hinds.

The road to the right is an alternative road to the inland town of Geraldine and Highway 72.

A short distance further on the road crosses two bridges over the two branches of the Rangitata River, another braided river with a standard design of bridge.

The next road to the right is the most travelled route to Geraldine and Fairlie and Highway 72.

40 km ( 25 miles) from Hinds is the town of Temuka. Its name comes from the Maori word for ‘fierce oven" and Maori earth ovens have been found around the area. The name of Temuka is known to many New Zealanders mainly for the pottery produced in the kilns of the Temuka pottery factories. These were founded by immigrants from the Stoke-on-Trent area in England which is famous for its potteries. It is possible to visit the Temuka Pottery shop.

State Highway One used to run through the main shopping area of this small town, but it now bypasses the shops on a road to the west. From the bypass you can take the road to Waitohi on the right and drive 13 km (8 miles) to the memorial to Richard Pearse, the early aviator who is claimed to have achieved powered flight before the Wright Brothers.

The Richard Pearse Memorial in Waitohi featuring a replica of his aircraft
The Richard Pearse Memorial in Waitohi featuring a replica of his aircraft

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Timaru next important stop
Continuing on SH1 cross the Temuka River, note the turnoff to the Mackenzie Country and Mount Cook at Washdyke, and 18 km (11 miles) from Temuka you will reach the city of Timaru built on gently sloping hills - the main commercial centre for South Canterbury.

Like Temuka Timaru used to have State Highway One running along its main shopping street. Now the main road bypasses the town centre.

As you approach the town you will see on the left a signpost to Caroline Bay. Do take time to view or better still walk along Caroline Bay and walk up the steps to look down on the busy port and see the old Hydro Grand Hotel, opened in 1913, a reminder of the heyday of the Bay. The threat of demolition lies over this landmark building, but the Historic Places Trust will fiercely resist the destruction of the facade of this Category II Historic Place. It was designed in baroque style by architect Herbert Hall who was also involved in the design of the Chateau Tongariro.

The steps from Caroline Bay to the Hydro Grand Hotel
The steps from Caroline Bay to the Hydro Grand Hotel

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The lovely sandy beach at the Bay was developed by the land reclamation which was undertaken in 1877 to create a harbour for the town. A busy port developed after that and today it handles logs, sawn timber, bulk tallow, dairy products and grain. The Canterbury Plains have been an important wheat growing area. This was especially true in the 1920s. It is the only port in New Zealand which has a bulk handling and grain storage facility for exporting grain.

In Edwardian times and right up to World War 2 Caroline Bay was a Mecca for visitors, and excursion trains brought trippers from Dunedin and Christchurch for the day, especially over the Christmas and New Year period. As I walk through the gardens and amenities on the Bay I find myself imagining formally dressed men wearing hats and women with long dresses, hats and parasols gathering at the tea rooms or listening to bands playing in the sound shell or bathing in old-fashioned bathing costumes.

The sound shell on Caroline Bay
The sound shell on Caroline Bay

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The Bay is still a popular holiday place in summer and there are still special celebrations during a ten day carnival on the beach over Christmas and New Year, with concerts and beauty contests. If the Edwardian visitors were to return they would be amazed by the different music and brief swimsuits!

While you are at the Bay you may be wise to go to the toilets as they are easier to find there than in the city.

The Aigantighe Art Gallery
Try to allow time to visit this gallery. It has been built around one of Timaru’s stately homes and has a permanent collection of around nine hundred European and New Zealand paintings, some dating from the seventeenth century. Don’t leave Aigantighe without looking in the garden at the sculptures carved by visiting international sculptors in 1990.

From Timaru south to the Waitaki River Bridge
A 64 km (40 mile) trip of easy driving over undulating country takes you to the Waitaki River bridge. a thirty span bridge 906 metres long and no longer for combined road/rail traffic.

At this point you leave the province of Canterbury and enter Otago. The journey from here to Dunedin will be covered in Part 2 of this article.

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