LAKE COLERIDGE – HYDRO POWER IN THE HIGH COUNTRY
Hydro Power Station In The Canterbury High Country
At Lake Coleridge I find out all about the history of New Zealand's first state owned power station in its centenary year; take a 4WD journey to Mt Olympus; and discover the activities on offer at nearby high country farms.
Smack, bang! I throw a small, sharp-edged rock on top of the cairn at the summit of Peak Hill. The rock settles into its place with a hollow ring, and I pause to take in the splendid view of Lake Coleridge, its length stretching out in roughly equal distances to my right and left. This large high country lake occupies a trough formed by an ancient glacier, smack, bang in the centre of the South Island, halfway between the west and east coasts, and halfway between Picton and Queenstown.
It's been a steep, tough ascent of one-and-a-half hours, and at times my hands have had to act as props to steady myself on the often half-formed track rising in front of me. Now, the view has made all the effort worth it.
Up here, the 47 square kilometres of the lake have been reduced to a quiet blue pond – only the boulders placed around the edge of this pond have pointed tops and are covered with snow in the winter, and the pond itself creates enough electricity to power over 30,000 homes.
On the opposite shore there's a little peninsula in an area of irrigated ground which adds a dash of green to the grey and tussock-coloured uplands, a man-made contrast of which any suburban pond owner would be proud.
My view measures 360 degrees, and, turning my back to the lake, I look down on another impressive sight: the Rakaia River. Its stony bed has a similar width to the lake, but its grey path stretches with a menacing power further than the eye can see.
Down below, the Wilberforce River empties its flow into the bigger river, and it separates the land on which I am standing from Mt Algidus Station, the High Country farm made famous by Mona Anderson's books about her life there with her husband Ron, 1940-1973 (particularly the classic, A River Rules My Life).
Several kilometres further down, the Rakaia receives another injection of water, this time from the tailrace of the Lake Coleridge power station, which has taken the power-producing liquid from Lake Coleridge, three kilometres away, via massive pipes.
With the vast expanses of scrub and tussock land spread between braided rivers and climbing up mountainsides, often in the shape of exponential curves, this area would make the perfect setting for a cowboy movie.
In fact, this is the territory of a real Marlboro man, who can still be seen trekking around these hills, mounted on his horse. In the early 1970s, Noel Stanger, who now runs High Country Horse Adventures, appeared as the Marlboro man in advertisements for the cigarette brand.
He was spotted when he was doing a cattle drive from the Mackenzie Country into Temuka, and for a few years was the Marlboro Man for Australia and New Zealand, flying over to Australia for the filming and photo shoots.
I had earlier dropped in on him at his farm near Glentunnel, 60 kilometres west of Christchurch, and immediately knew I had come to the right place when I saw a letterbox in the shape of a wagon, a horse in the front paddock, and a discreet cowboy-themed “Welcome” sign on the side of the house.
Here, he and his wife, Helen, have a beef farm, and soon after I arrive, Helen leads their horse named Ammo onto the back lawn, Noel mounts it from a garden seat and has it kneeling down to a sitting position on command. Another command and Ammo springs nimbly to its feet as quickly as a trigger released, and Noel's flawless handling indicates to me that this is just one of many of his skills of horsemanship.
He's an experienced rodeo rider, and is still involved in clearing the yards at rodeo events. He has bred the horses himself (one quarter Clydesdale), and 10 of them are used for his High Country rides, which can be from a couple of hours to three or four days.
In fact, this is the territory of a real Marlboro man, who can still be seen trekking around these hills, mounted on his horse.
Noel is also a guide with High Country Journeys, a company that offers a six-day 4WD tour from Glenroy, just down the road, to Naseby, in Central Otago.
While the tour is primarily self-guided between high country farm stays, the first day consists of a guided drive in the Lake Coleridge area to familiarise drivers with the high country gravel roads. This is an ideal way for me to spend my first day in the area, and the evening before, I join a tour at the Glenroy farm house of Mike and Karen Meares, retired high country farmers who began offering 4WD tours about 20 years ago.
In their conservatory with a nice view over their small lake, I meet the three couples who are on the tour: John and Colleen Drury from Opotiki, Colleen’s aunt and uncle, Jocelyn and Roy Herring from Tokoroa, and Norman and Margaret Carr from Mayfield. They are all farmers, so will be no strangers to country roads at least.
We have a classic introduction to the high country when a flock of sheep decides to lead us along the road rather than step aside to let us pass.
We have a drink before a lovely lamb dinner, prepared by Cindy, the Meares’s oldest daughter, while her two children, Abigail (4) and Toby (2) have a great time yanking at their grandfather’s legs with walking sticks, managing to rotate the dining chair on which he is seated.
Cindy’s husband, Simon Driscoll, works with Mike in the family earthmoving contracting business, but right now his injured back is consigning him to “light duties”, namely, driving me in the lead vehicle the following day.
AFTER A SOUND SLEEP, and a breakfast of eggs poached by Belinda, the Meares’s youngest daughter, we are off in convoy up the main road, passing through Windwhistle, on our way to Lake Coleridge.
We could have waved ‘Goodbye’ to the Canterbury Plains out the rear window, but everyone is more intent on looking forward, as the high country closes in on our horizons. The Mount Hutt Range appears as a huge grey wall on our left, and before we get to Lake Coleridge Village, we head north to the south end of the lake.
We have a classic introduction to the high country when a flock of sheep decides to lead us along the road rather than step aside to let us pass, then we have a brief glimpse of the lake across a flat section of Lake Coleridge Station until it is obscured by hills and mountains as we follow the gravel road up its east side.
The road does however pass two pretty fishing spots, Lake Selfe and Lake Evelyn. Later in the week, I return here and walk a small track between the lakes that skirts anticlockwise around Little Mount Ida to Lake Ida, a well used ice-skating spot for past generations of Cantabrians.
It took longer than I had thought, and I kept swearing that if the lake didn't appear around the next slope, I would turn back. It took the best part of an hour – including numerous unsuccessful stops to photograph the little orange butterflies that constantly leapt up from the grass beside the track – and when I eventually got there, I don't think I saw the lake in its best light.
A cold wind was chopping up the surface, and the disused chalet on the lakeside looked rather forlorn. On the return walk I was, however, rewarded with the view of a perfect rainbow in the mountains to the east.
It took longer than I had thought, and I kept swearing that if the lake didn’t appear around the next slope, I would turn back.
But today we continue in the 4WDs, and Simon points out the homestead of Ryton Station where Mike and Karen farmed (new owners have named it Lower Glenthorne).
Fortunately the landowners have allowed Simon the use of keys so that at various points of the journey we can pass through locked gates. Near the north end of Lake Coleridge we look across the Wilberforce River to Mt Algidus Station, the home of Mona Anderson for 33 years. Her ashes are buried here on the hillside above, just as she wanted, looking across the broad river that ruled her life.
Growing up on Peak Hill Station, Karen knew Mona as ‘Auntie’ all her life, and all her books are proudly displayed in the bookcase at the Meares’s home. She told me a touching story about how she was with her when she died in 2004.
She was visiting Mona in Kaikohe where she was staying with her niece, and was sitting with her one day. She went to the phone to organise her trip home, and suddenly there was a gasp from the old lady: Karen turned back to her and found she had passed away. She was 95-years old, and Karen was later part of a small group that went to bury her ashes on that hillside.
The views of the mountains and the foothills of the high country stations are splendid throughout, and Simon guides us expertly across the wide stony beds of the Avoca and Harper Rivers.
WE STOP FOR LUNCH BESIDE the Pinnacles, on the right bank of the Harper River.
This is a complete surprise, to see such unique stalagmite-like formations of sand and gravel existing beside the otherwise typical features of a braided river.
They are accessible up the steep, dry bed of a stream, and are said to have been formed by erosion, but exactly how, and why they have formed just in this place, is beyond me – though Simon does offer the information that in ancient times a lake existed here.
After lunch we travel on a gravel road that Mike Meares constructed when he farmed Ryton Station. It is a family affair again when we stop at a lovely little lake called Lake Mystery.
Here, Simon shows us the promontory where his wedding with Cindy was held, telling us that forty 4WDs transported their guests to the isolated spot.
Soon after, we drive up the steep roads to Mt Olympus ski field, and when I see a stone memorial to Hugh Richards, I am reminded of its famous counterpart on Mont Ventoux in Provence, France which remembers Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who died during the 1967 Tour de France.
But Hugh Richards was not taking alcohol and drugs in pursuit of sporting glory: in 1954 he was accidentally killed in a dynamite explosion while helping to construct this road up to the ski field.
This, the others later tell me, was the one scary part of the drive. I leave them to enjoy another night at the Meares farm house.
Simon is the Club Captain and President of the Mt Olympus Ski Club (historically known as the Windwhistle Winter Sports Club, and created in 1932 when local skiers needed to be members of a club to compete in the New Zealand championships).
He tells me that the community spirit of the club has always been part of its ethos. Numerous volunteers undertake all sorts of construction work, continuously saving the club many thousands of dollars.
The ski area was connected to the national grid in 1986, thanks to the voluntary labour of Mike Meares and other club members.
Roads always require re-grading, and parts of the narrow road from the lower to the upper car park (a gravel road on a gravel hillside) have to be recut before every season.
Two other fatalities at Mt Olympus are remembered by plaques near the lower car park. Club Captain, Chris Chater, was accidentally killed while installing the telephone cable in 1985, and Clif Collister, a ski club member was killed in an avalanche right here, beside the road in 1990.
Karen Meares, who has been a trainer of avalanche search dogs, went to find him in whiteout conditions.
His body was buried in the hollow of the submerged road but the search team tried walking further up the hill.
Karen noticed that Lofty, her golden retriever search dog, was down by the road and refused to budge.
This was one of the very earliest finds by a search dog on a New Zealand ski field.
It is funny to view a bare ski field in summer, but it is not hard to imagine all the slopes covered in thick snow.
The ski area has 450 metres of vertical drop over 150 acres of varied terrain that has something for all levels of skiers. Simon shows us inside the club's hut which is coming to the end of extensive renovations and will soon be able to sleep over 60 visitors.
We all jump back in the vehicles and head back down the ski field's narrow upper road.
This, the others later tell me, was the one scary part of the drive, and Simon says that they will have nothing so difficult in the rest of their journey to Naseby.
After we make the return journey to Glenroy, I leave them to enjoy another night at the Meares farm house, and head back up country to Lake Coleridge Village.
NOW WE COME TO THE BIG PARADOX of this story: Lake Coleridge Village is not on the shores of Lake Coleridge, yet it owes its existence to its water.
It is actually three kilometres to the south of the lake, and, most importantly, 160 metres below it.
It was here that New Zealand's first stateowned power station was built exactly 100 years ago and it still operates today, part of Trust Power.
(It was constructed 1911-14, and its centenary will be celebrated at the end of this year, during which time there will be an open day at the station).
To the bewilderment of some visitors, the sloping land of the settlement actually gives the setting a lakeside feel, but the only water further below is the Rakaia River into which the power station discharges its used water.
Look up the hill from the power station and you cannot miss the huge pipes that bring the water down from the lake.
In between the pipes you may see a few horses grazing: these are owned by none other than our local Marlboro man, and help to keep the grass from growing too quickly.
Up at the lake end of the pipes (accessible by a winding gravel road) there is not much to be seen at all – a couple of groynes sticking out into the lake (one a wellused platform for fishermen), and a lone whirlpool on the surface of the water (this is one of two intakes: the other is not visible, being under water in the wall of the lake).
Set amongst mature trees, the whole place has a peaceful atmosphere and is secluded from the rest of the village. Yet in many ways, the lodge is the centre of the place.
ACROSS THE ROAD from the power station is Lake Coleridge Lodge, a lovely old wooden building with an interesting heritage.
It was once known as the single men’s quarters, providing accommodation for some of the power station workers. Now it provides excellent accommodation for tourists and visitors, as I discovered during my three-day stay there.
I loved it. A conservatory extension acts as the dining room, and has nice views out to a lovely garden with a sweeping lawn that extends up the hill and includes a great little ninehole mini-golf course (no gimmicks: just nine little flags on some quite challenging slopes).
Set amongst mature trees, the whole place has a peaceful atmosphere and is secluded from the rest of the village. Yet in many ways, the lodge is the centre of the place.
Toni Barlow, who owns and runs the lodge with her partner, Dean Norton, is pleased to be part of the Lake Coleridge community.
The two dozen permanent residents have all the skills that are needed around the place, and Toni sends out emails to residents to inform them of local events.
She says the community feel makes her feel less isolated than when they lived in Whitby, Wellington, leaving home to go to work at 6.30 am and returning at 6 pm. She worked for the Police in public relations, and later for the AA, while Dean is an accountant with NZQA, and still commutes to Wellington for a few days every week.
For me, the fact that a piece of the view over the sloping front lawn is backed by the power station only enhances the unique atmosphere.
The power station was, after all, the whole reason for the existence of the village, and this is recognised in the corridors of the lodge, where the walls are lined with interesting old black and white photographs of the station, its construction, and other old views of the village.
IN THE BAR there is a photograph of the residents relaxing one Christmas Eve on the porch of the house.
One of the men is Hugh Burrows, and this bar used to be his bedroom. Hugh was a long-term resident, living here for 36 years (including a brief initial period in one of the single men’s huts) during the time he worked for the power station.
During his retirement he has put together some detailed historical files which are available to lodge visitors. When I return to Christchurch, I visit the 88-year-old at his home in Papanui, where he is still a mine of information.
He first had a job on the ‘outside gang', doing repairs on the roads and at the intake, groyne building on the Harper River, and tree felling and topping; then five years as a carpenter's assistant; and finally he was the store keeper, 1960-85.
The latter job involved pay sheets and time keeping, which Hugh says he enjoyed, making only two mistakes in 23 years. “I reckon I'd get a job working for this Novopay outfit!” He was often popular with the workers when he had noticed they had not put in for such things as gumboot allowances.
Hugh tells me about the plethora of clubs that existed for the workers and their families, including golf, croquet, tennis, table tennis, and cricket clubs.
There was even a “Cow Club”, a successful cow-milking and calfrearing enterprise that provided members with milk at subsidised prices. It lasted from the First World War through to 1991, and involved many workers and volunteers, including the local children, as well as expertise from the neighbouring runholders, and grazing land provided by the Public Works Department (including the land between the power station's pipelines).
There were a total of 21 organisations for a population of just over 100. These have all ceased to exist as times have changed, and modernisation of the power station has reduced the workforce (now it employs just half a dozen staff).
However, the club house of the Billiards Club remains above the lodge on Riverview Terrace, and it is still used occasionally as a social club.
The power station has always supported the community in various ways, the most noticeable being the planting of trees around the village.
In the early days, large belts of pines were planted for shelter; other species, including willows, poplars, and silver birches, added variety and beauty to the village environs, and transformed what had been open tussock land.
Harry Hart, the power station's superintendent, 1923-53, was particularly interested in tree planting, and in 1933 began experimental plantings in nearly two hectares of land near the pipelines. He acquired seedlings from all sorts of sources, and imported seeds from all around the world, concentrating mainly on conifers, over 100 species of which were planted, most with success.
NZTODAY ISSUE 55
View of lake from Peak Hill.
Noel Stanger and Ammo perform the kneeling trick.
Sheep show the way on Lake Coleridge Station
Mike and Karen Meares at their Glenroy farm house.
View from the road on east side of Lake Coleridge.
NZTODAY ISSUE 55
Rainbow on the walk back from Lake Ida.
The Pinnacles, beside the Harper River.
Harper River, including a stop for lunch.
More high country views on drive.
The memorial to Clif Collister near the lower hut at Mt Olympus.
Around the top hut at Mt Olympus.
Memorial to Hugh Richards Mt Olympus Rd.
The group at Mt Olympus ski area: Simon Driscoll (back), from left, Colleen and John Drury, Jocelyn and Roy Herring, and Norman and Margaret Carr.
The road into the ski area.
Lake Coleridge Power Station (including generators and water races).
Dean Norton and Toni Barlow at Lake Coleridge Lodge.
Old photo of the Lodge when it was the single men’s quarters.
Hugh Burrows at his home in Papanui.
Hugh Burrows is sitting on the step to the left.