Prone to a good ol' Kiwi road trip, Peter Dragicevich searches out the best places to break up the journey. In Springfield, he finds connections to the American Civil War, the Chinese Communist Party and, of course, The Simpsons.
If you were compiling a list of the most extraordinary drives of Aotearoa, State Highway 73 (aka the Great Alpine Highway) connecting Christchurch to the West Coast via Arthur's Pass would surely be near the top.
Coming from the east, the highway runs parallel to the broad, braided Waimakariri River through the patchwork farmland of the Canterbury Plains. The Southern Alps start as picturesque tableaux on the horizon before they eventually consume the entire landscape. After crossing Porters Pass, between the Big Ben and Torlesse ranges, the crazy limestone crags of Castle Hill come into view. Then it's the return of the 'mak (Waimakariri) and the spectacular ascent along Arthur's Pass through the Alps proper. On the other side, SH73 shadows the Ōtira and Taramakau rivers before hitting the coast just past the goldrush-era town of Kumara. All up, the journey takes around three hours – with an extra 15 minutes from Kumara Junction to either Greymouth or Hokitika.
Which brings us to Springfield, a small town in the Selwyn District conveniently positioned halfway between Christchurch and Arthur's Pass. I say "small town" because, for reasons unknown, that's the terminology we seem to prefer in New Zealand – inexplicably reserving the word "village" for shopping strips in flashy Auckland suburbs. But let's be clear, calling Springfield a town – even a small one – is a push.
While Mid Canterbury's colonists seem mainly to have been content to regurgitate an English atlas for their place names (Oxford, Lincoln, Sheffield, Darfield, Waddington et al.), Springfield bucked the trend. There are Springfields in England but our wee Springfield is thought to have been named after an American Civil War battle – although no one's really sure.
Naturally, this wasn't the area's first name. Māori knew it as Tawera (which survives in the name of its community hall) and then, until 1880, it was Kowai Pass after the Kowai River which runs to the north of the settlement. There's still a historic Kowai Pass cemetery on the approach to the township, right next to pretty St Peter's Church, which was built in 1884 under the direction of notable architect Cyril Mountfort. He designed at least six other churches around Canterbury, most famously St Luke's in central Christchurch, which was demolished following the 2011 earthquake.
Springfield, however, is the name that stuck. Which takes us straight to the most popular reason for road-trippers to stop here: to get a photo in front of the giant pink-glazed doughnut at the side of the highway. This candy-coated allusion to Springfield's fictional American namesake was first erected in 2007 to promote The Simpsons Movie. After the initial installation was damaged by an arsonist in 2009, local wags spray-painted a truck tyre pink and positioned it as a stopgap until this permanent concrete replacement (complete with candy sprinkles) took its place in 2012.
It's ironic that a gargantuan celebration of American fast food built to promote a cartoon has trumped the memorial to the town's most famous son as Springfield's most prominent monument – but there's no reason you can't visit both. The Rewi Alley Memorial Park sits just back from the highway on the eastern approach to town. Alley was born in Springfield in 1897, the child of a teacher and a leading suffragette who – despite being Pākehā – named their son after the great chief Rewi Maniapoto.
A passion for social justice was to shape Alley's life. After moving to China in 1927, he became a member of the Communist Party and spent much of his life, post-World War II, establishing technical training schools and industrial collectives. His fascinating story is outlined in this memorial, alongside a suitably Socialist Realist–style sculpture depicting Alley crouching between Chinese villagers.
Springfield has all of the essential requirements for a pit stop, including public toilets, a petrol station and a selection of places to eat – although, to be honest, I usually grab a pie at the Famous Sheffield Pie Shop, 9km back along the highway. If, however, the pie-shop queues are too long or you'd prefer a sit-down meal, there are a couple of cafes in the very shadow of the doughnut.
The Taste of Kiwi took over from a notorious establishment once dubbed "the rudest cafe in New Zealand" and re-opened in early 2020 with a breezy reno and a much-needed attitude adjustment. Further along the highway, the Springfield Hotel was originally a stop for horse-drawn coaches and can still be relied on for a cold beverage and a hearty meal.
Suitably refreshed and toileted, you should be able to stave off the are-we-there-yets from Bart and Lisa in the back seat for at least another hour.
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz