Ōtira township and village are located at the base of the Ōtira Gorge. According to the 2013 census there is a resident population of 54 people, making this one of the smallest settlements in Westland. The position of this town means it is the first and the last settlement to and from the West Coast on the adventurous and beautiful State Highway 73 that links Christchurch to the coast.
Notable landmarks of this town are the railway, gallery and hotel. The hotel was originally established in the 1860s as a coach stop for travellers from the West to the East Coast. At its peak in the 1920s the township had a population of over 600 people who worked on the rail link that was to connect the West Coast to Christchurch. Many of these people also serviced the road link.
The Ōtira tunnel which runs under the Southern Alps from Ōtira to Arthurs Pass and the building of the viaduct—offically opened in 1999—were major engineering feats at the time.
Construction of the tunnel began in 1907 and it eventually opened in August 1923. At 8.5 kilometres long the tunnel is the third longest in New Zealand and the longest in the South Island. The gradient in the tunnel is mainly 1 in 33 with the Ōtira end over 250 metres lower than the Arthurs Pass end. At the time of its construction, it was the longest tunnel in the world.
Today the rail link primarily transports millions of tonnes of coal each year from West Coast mines to the export port of Lyttelton. It also transports produce from Westland Milk Products in Hokitika to distribution centres based in Christchurch and timber and other produce as required. The very popular Tranz Alpine express runs daily from Christchurch to Greymouth returning to Christchurch in the evening. The scenic route has been voted among the Top 10 rail journeys in the World for a number of years.
In 1998 Hennah Holdings Limited purchased the Ōtira hotel, hall and most of the village houses situated on the east side of the railway line. Their intention was to improve accommodation and rental facilities available to travellers and residents. The hotel and village were sold again in 2016 to a like minded investor. The hotel has been beautifully refurbished and provides food, drink and accommodation.
The old post office, situated on the town side of Ōtira, has, since 2002, been a privately owned contemporary art gallery hosting ‘jab outsider art’. The old post masters house and the school masters house, also privately owned, sit alongside the gallery.
Ōtira, rich in birdlife including kiwi, ruru (morepork), kārearea (native falcon), tūī, kea, kererū, weka, whio (blue duck), ngirungiru (tom tit), kakaruwai (robin), kākā, pīpīwharauroa (shining cuckoo) and pīwakawaka (fantail) also boasts beautiful displays of rata blossoms during the months of January to April. When the seasons are just right, both sides of the Ōtira valley are smothered in the deep red blossoms.
Included in the Ōtira landscape are a range of bush tracks—most on steep hillsides taking into account the mountainous terrain. Ōtira is situated close to superb ski fields and within the town margins there are a range of accommodation venues for those wanting to enjoy the classic atmosphere of a train town in the middle of the dynamic Southern Alps.
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