Hy­dro Power Sta­tion In The Can­ter­bury High Coun­try

NZ Today - - NEWS - By Charles Cole


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.


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.


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.

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