South Island dreaming

For a good few years now, I have wanted to drive the Molesworth Station and Rainbow Station Roads and my partner, Paula, has wanted to hike some tracks in the Wanaka area… So, we finally started planning a two week trip south to the mainland.

After a whole lot of planning, the time came to pack the Nissan Patrol and get on the road. We left Taupo, stayed one night in Wellington and had the 8:00am ferry accompanied by a pod of dolphins on the way out of Wellington Harbour. From Picton onto Blenheim and a short stop for supplies and fuel, we were heading for Molesworth Station.

The 100-odd km from Blenheim to Molesworth is almost as nice as Molesworth itself, following the Awatere River and passing through multiple high-country stations. Our first night’s camp was at the Cobb Cottage DOC Camp at the start of Molesworth Station. There is no camping through Molesworth except at the camp sites at either end. They both have full time rangers during the open season and are very well maintained. A short walk up the hill from Cobb Cottage is well worth it to see the Molesworth home base and the surrounding mountains.

Leaving camp on a clear day, we entered Molesworth. We took our time, stopping to take photos and look at the amazing scenery. There are information boards to read along the way and a few short but steep walks. We did one called Mt Augarde which offered up even more amazing views. The Molesworth track is well maintained gravel with 4WD generally not being required. It has to be said how well this place is looked after. DOC and Molesworth Station workers are doing a great job preserving and maintaining this awesome part of NZ.

We took Jollies Pass from the end of Molesworth into Hanmer Springs. This was steep and narrow with a couple of small fords, but in good condition overall. A short stop in Hanmer Springs and we were on our way to Lake Tennyson via Jacks Pass.

We arrived at Lake Tennyson to very windy conditions and immediately got talking to another couple in a 4WD. Ignoring some good advice we had received earlier from the Molesworth DOC ranger “If its windy at Tennyson, keep driving”, we set up camp. As we enjoyed a drink and conversation with our new friends, the wind died right off, and we thought we were in for a perfect calm night. Boy were we wrong! (and the rangers advice was right). At 1:30am we woke to gale force winds battering our camp. Our tent was being blown right over and the awning was taking a fair beating too. Fair to say, we didn’t get any more sleep that night and eventually we had to pack up the awning at 3am and reposition truck to shelter the tent better (which didn’t actually help at all). This all created one of the highlights of the trip as even though it was windy, the sky was clear, and the stars were out shining at their best. It was quite a sight! The Adventure Kings awning held up extremely well to those conditions and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone. If it can hold up to that, it should do years’ worth of normal use. It is a great product.

At first light we packed up the tent and headed out to find a more sheltered place for breakfast. Twenty minutes toward Rainbow Station was Island Gully Hut. A perfect place to cook breakfast and re-pack the truck after throwing everything in the back at Tennyson.

We were onto Rainbow Road. The scenery here is more mountainous than Molesworth. Massive scree slopes and jagged rocky mountains looked spectacular. We counted 18 fords, nothing deep but still fun and could change quickly in heavy rain. A drive off the main road into Connors Creek Hut was worthwhile. After stopping at the house to pay the $40 toll, we came across Lees Creek swing bridge and track. This is easily the scariest swing bridge I have seen, and it took us both a few second thoughts before attempting to cross. It recommends one person at a time and the platform, if you can call it that, is made from wire netting and some pieces of aluminium flat bar.

Not much further up the road we came across the largest ford of the track. The last of three adventure bikes was about to cross, unsuccessfully as we watched. The three men cleared the bike from the river and once on the other side, we checked the men and their bikes were OK. They were, apart from being a bit wet and cold!

We took another excursion and the bikers passed us. As we pulled onto the highway, they were on the side of the road trying to repair one of the bikes. As we had tools on board, we offered some assistance which was greatly accepted and, unnecessarily, payment of the liquid variety was offered should we happen to meet again at an appropriate establishment… not much chance of that one would think.

Well to our surprise, two nights later in Franz Josef, we were about to pull into a pub for dinner when Paula said, “someone is waving at us!” Yep, it was the bikers and before we had even parked the truck, they were at the bar getting a fresh jug of beer for us.

After we helped the bikers on the exit of Rainbow Station, we camped at Kerr Bay DOC Camp at Lake Rotoiti. This camp has full facilities including hot showers, laundry and kitchen.

After driving on sealed roads from Nelson Lakes to Reefton, we arrived at the start of our next track, Big River Goldfields. The track winds its way through dense bush hill country for 15 km. The surface is mostly rocky with lots of small creek crossings and a couple of larger fords near the end of the track. As it had been raining the previous night, parts of the track were flowing with water, but traction was not an issue, even in these conditions. There are mine shafts off the side of the track as well as the remains of an old battery. About two hours in, we reached the settlement of Big River. There is still a lot of intact mining equipment including the steam powered winder. Information boards explain the process that happened at Big River and if you are anything like me, you will spend hours trying to work out how those men did what they did over 100 years ago.

We set up camp for a clear, calm night. The next day we walked to the old sawmill and then headed back out of Big River, passing a convoy of about ten Land Rovers on the way.

The next few days were mostly on sealed roads. After leaving Big River Track, we had quite a distance to cover to reach Central Otago. We covered a few of the major tourist attractions such as Fox Glacier, Thunder Creek Falls and the Blue Pools in Makaroa. In all these carparks, we were about the only vehicle that was not a campervan or a rental car! We arrived in Wanaka to park up the truck for a few days, stretch the legs and tackle a few hikes.

First up was Rob Roy Glacier which began with 30km of gravel road and many fords (this was Paula’s bargaining tool to get me on a 4 hour hike). The last ford had taken a few prisoners in its time which was made clear by the collection of cars the farmer had stored, one of them being a Porche supercar. We were just in time to see the ford take its next victim, a Ford Mondeo… turns out there is a reason for the 2wd carpark 10 meters prior.

Our next hike was Roys Peak, on the outskirts of Wanaka. No gravel roads for this walk… just 3+ hours of continuous uphill walking. The views from the top were breathtaking. 360 degrees from Lake Wanaka and Hawea around to the Crown Range and then Mt Aspiring and Rob Roy Glacier. We were in Wanaka over Easter Weekend which coincided with the Warbirds over Wanaka air show. We had quite the show to watch as we ate our lunch on top of the 1600m Roys Peak.

We had spent 4 days in civilization, it was time to head back into the bush. Skippers Road leaves from Queenstown area and has the title of New Zealand’s most dangerous road. At times, I could see why. With a 100m+ vertical drop from the very narrow track straight into the Shotover River! I must admit that I did have a few butterflies! The track itself is easy driving, just don’t fall off it! We reached Skippers where there is a restored school house that is full of information of the gold mining days of the area. It is a shame that the restored homestead building was recently burnt down losing a lot of history. There is a DOC campsite here, but it is very exposed to the wind. We weren’t keen on another windy night, so we carried on up a road called The Branches. The scenery got even more amazing (and the road even more dangerous, or fun, depending how you look at it). We recall the moment we drove over the brow of a hill as one of our highlights of the trip. A huge panorama of jagged mountains, tussocky hills, green river flats and the Shotover River in braided form. It was spectacular, and none of our photos even come close to doing it justice. We found a place to camp back down stream with the company of the odd sand-fly.

My butterflies reappeared as we drove out the next day as now it was the driver’s side to the massive drops from the side of the track!

That afternoon we drove to Arrowtown and up river to Macetown – another historic gold mining town. I was pretty cautious going into this track, but it turned out to be well used and suitable for a solo truck with the river in normal flow. The water did lap over the bonnet of the Patrol a couple of times, but the riverbed is mostly hard packed rock so wheelspin was not such a problem. The track crosses the Arrow River 23 times. We camped the night at Macetown and explored the area the next morning. We drove to the end of the track where there is a very intact stamper battery.

Next on the itinerary was to get to Mt Cook Village. Upon arrival, the weather was miserable, so we decided to treat ourselves to a night under a proper roof. This turned out to be our biggest mistake of the trip and let’s just say, we won’t be staying at Mt Cook Lodge again any time soon. Our $100 tent and basic camping setup has it all over their chalet!

We woke to a perfect blue sky day. We put the previous night behind us and headed into Hooker Valley to hike to the Hooker Glacier. This is an easy gravel path and a popular one for tourists but offers awesome views of Mt Cook, Tasman and Hooker glaciers and massive surrounding mountains.

That was the last thing ticked off the list, from here we just needed to get back north in a couple of days for our return ferry crossing. We ended up talking to “Mike” the butcher in Geraldine and he recommended we stay at Peel Forest. We took his advice and it was a great DOC camp. That night was another clear South Island sky for some stargazing before bed.

We headed north through Christchurch, calling into another butcher for the night’s dinner, who happened to know “Jonesy” as he put it (Mike Jones), the butcher from Geraldine! Small world in the south!

We got in contact with our friends from back at Lake Tennyson and made a plan to meet back up at Cobb Cottage on the northern side of Molesworth Station, as we were both on our way back to the North Island. We had another clear day to go back through Molesworth. We shared dinner and a few drinks, while exchanging stories from the last 12 days and decided we should plan a few trips together back up north. It was a nice final night in the South Island at the same location that we began our trip.

We had an awesome time in the South Island! Our route took us through very different landscapes, of which, all had their highlights. The accessibility to tracks (4WD and hiking) is so easy compared to the North Island, some 4WD tracks literally begin in the town centre! The place is full of history, and amazing scenery is everywhere you look. The trip was made even better by the people that we met and the stories we gained by meeting them. We think that DOC does a great job of preserving the huge number of historic sites and looking after the campsites that they run. They were all immaculate and great places to stay and the camp fees are very cheap. If you are ever looking for somewhere to stay, don’t hesitate on calling into a DOC camp as they all turned out to be great for us. Our camping setup is fairly basic and inexpensive but our favourite items were the little camp BBQ and the awning off the side of the truck. Thanks to NZ4Wheeling and 4WD Warehouse for supplying the awning.

We are already starting to plan our next South Island adventure and can’t wait to get back down there… there is so much to explore!

Written by and thanks to – Cameron Raupi and Paula Burnett