MY HIGH COUNTRY JOURNEY
While most High Country Journeys’ ‘Grand Slam’ tours leave from Blenheim and take in the Molesworth, convenient for North Islanders, I pick up this six-day/seven-night tour destined for Cardrona in Hanmer, and heave-ho into a group of 14 adventurers from three Islands ( I include Waiheke, that’s me). There are five ‘civilian’ vehicles in the line-up; Isuzu Max, Mitsubishi Pajero, Nissan Pathfinder and two Toyota Hiluxes. In regard to body protection, most have Nudge bars and that’s it. High Country Journeys’ premise is to travel from ‘Station to Station’, through a network of private station and conservation land tracks. Travel is mostly via ‘lanes’ and tracks otherwise used to muster and move stock and service these huge South Island stations ranging from 5,000 to 25,000 hectares. Those ‘on tour’ communicate via R/ T radios supplied by HCJ. These R/ Ts rapidly become a comic stage – “Yeah, there’s a left turn coming up”, “Right”; “Make a U-turn,” “I’ve seen plenty of ewes turn.” Occasional “vehicle passing”; Serious “I’ve got stuck on a rock, over”; Instructional “Low low, keep your foot off the brake,” ”Use some jandal”; Over-riding “Shut the gate.” Later there’s commentary and conversation and here is the true Southern dialect. Surnames and station names related in time and space, corporate and DOC ownership, tenure review, characters and misadventures, parties and haunts. The well managed operations with good healthy stock are soon pointed out as bloodlines and farming practices are discussed. Occasionally a farm may be passed in silence, the cold shoulder on the R/ T more pervasive than the lazy April breeze ( too lazy to go round ‘ya).
River Crossing Day 1.
From Hanmer we traveled through to the back of Hawarden for morning tea in the magnificent garden setting of the MacDonald Downs homestead. It’s one of many chances we have to meet a genuine station family and get a chance to learn about farming and family. Bill bought this station with the problem “we had no money.” His off-the-cuff suggestion of not niggling on the purchase price and paying holding fees for a few years led to a handshake before the tea was cold, and Bill “had to get moving.” The next adventure of the day was to cross the Okuku River as we headed into the top end of the remote Lees Valley, where after an excellent lunch with Rob and Julie Stokes of Richon Station we continued down the valley exiting near Oxford and then over Porters Pass past Lake Lyndon into the Lake Coleridge Station country. From here we explore the Wilberforce and Harper River areas, the region of Mt Algidus and its iconic station, subject of the classic tale of remote High Country station life – Mona Anderson’s A River Rules my Life (1962, re-released 2017). From the Coleridge Power Station we looked across the Rakaia River to the next day’s track. In guiding through this high country, you have to be a local to know it. Noel (Stanger), our guide for the first couple of days, gave me few personal insights. Besides that he had spent a lifetime in the high country fencing and mustering, including owning and running stations, I gleaned that he ”sold a horse trekking business,” ”kept an aeroplane in that shed” and via another “was the face of the Marlboro Man, Australasia.” Perhaps I could have guessed that a man rooted in the High Country would master the means to get around it.
Snatch Straps! Schist Slide! Stag! Day 2:
Stunning views of Rakaia, We’re on our way up the south bank, to take a private side track loop into the Blackhills area. This turned out to be the site of the most informal of tyre tests, with a small hill with mid-length grass and mud at the entry. The Bridgestones, “tried and true” 250s on the Mitsi made it up after recovering from a sideways flail at the start. The canopied Toyota Hilux was the star on Maxxis AT-980 Bravos. A few vehicles had to have a snatch strap assist. While on the subject of tyres it should be noted that low profile tyres, such as supplied as standard on many vehicles such as Range Rovers, are a no-no on these trips as they are extremely susceptible to sidewall damage on sharp rocks. After carrying on upstream we had lunch on the banks of the Rakaia amidst the stunning panorama looking up into Mt Arrowsmith and across to Manuka Point station where Noel once farmed. After lunch we pass through Glenfalloch Station, and crossed a huge ‘moving fan Schist slide). This is a stunning drive and to cap it off just before we travelled through the boundary with Lake Heron Station a 12
pointer Stag passed across in front of the lead vehicles
Beyond words Day 3:
After crossing the Rangitata River on Highway 72 and checking out the huge irrigation storage dams we visited Mt Peel Station and the recently restored Church of the Holy Innocents: This also gave the Mitsi time to duck into Ashburton to sort out a small diff lock malfunction. We then followed the Orari River through the Orari Gorge and Blue Mountain Stations out to the Fairlie Basin. A show-stopper at the end of the day was the track up to Clayton Station Airstrip with magnificent views of basin caps, a play of light and shadow at dusk. Unable to capture the emotional, sense and visual awe of the view, hopes are fixed on the ‘Drone’, the prized toy of one of the party. That night we stayed in Fairlie, at a dream of a homestay. Anyone for green beans and bacon; potato gratin off the Aga, carrots from the garden, roast veges, corned beef, topped with a swirl of warm mustard sauce from a large enamel, stove warmed, jug? Eaten in surrounds that take your interest, with rural views that take your breath away?
McCaw, Mackenzie. Day 4:
Our fourth day saw us head into the Mackenzie Country via the Mackenzie and Burke’s Passes to lunch beside Lake Benmore with its spectacular views through to Mt Cook. From here it was then through Black Forest and Te Akatarawa Stations on the equally spectacular Pylon Track which runs beside the lake to the Benmore Dam and Otematata. After a visit to the Te Aka woolshed it was on to the Kurow area. The night’s homestay again provided hospitality plus and was up the Haka Valley directly across from the McCaw’s farm (where Ritchie grew up). As to the legend of Mackenzie and his dog, together the pair opened up a huge unknown tract of grazing land. Unfortunately, Mackenzie was accused of sheep stealing and his demise was due to his faithful sheepdog identifying his master in court... the red haired Scot was so moved to see his mate, he was moved to tears. Case closed!
Dansey’s Pass Day 5:
After turning inland past Duntroon and crossing over the Kakanui Mountains via Dansey’s Pass it was followed by an exciting climb to explore the Mt Buster
Goldfields, which at just over 1200 metres (4000ft) were once the highest in NZ. We then climbed up a track on a snowy Mt Kyeburn for a late lunch in the chilly breeze with its stunning views of the similarly snow-clad Hawkdun and St Mary’s Ranges. It was here that once again the Drone was set aloft this time going AWOL in the stiff Maniototo ‘breeze’ at over 1600 metres ( 5500ft). Tip; set your drone to return ‘home’ at 20 percent battery which, happily, was the case here. From the top of Mt Kyeburn we then dropped down onto the Maniototo Plain and the historic goldfields town of Naseby for a spot of curling, staying at the historic Danseys Pass Hotel.
Maniototo Day 6.
On this our final day we explored the Maniototo ( which literally translates as ‘plain of red’, whether it was the legend of an ancient battle or tussocks glowing in the sun is unsure) before trekking up the Rock and Pillar Range for morning tea at a mustering hut with stunning views over the lower Maniototo Plain and right through to the Remarkables. We later met at a historic shearing shed for a chat with local identity Jim Hore of Stonehenge Station. The story goes that his grandad got the pick of the runs in a ballot for returned servicemen by drawing ( lucky) number 13. Stonehenge was so named because a rock formation on the skyline of the Rock and Pillar Range reminded an Englishwoman of home. In the afternoon it was then over the Rough Ridge via the Dunstan Trail through many gateways with huge schist rocks as strainer posts, another tribute to our resourceful pioneers, before a quick trip up and over the Dunstan Mountains then drop down through Bendigo Station, the home of ‘Shrek’ the legendary merino wether.
Just do it!
It is not a minor point that the food was good enough to set aside the question of “am I hungry?” Accommodation such as ‘Gunyah’ featured in NZ House & Garden, the Cardrona and Danseys Pass Hotels plus a moving feast of very comfortable farm stays was also first rate. This trip was so good that at the final dinner of the tour at the Cardrona Hotel all participants individually thanked High Country Journeys’ chief guide and operator John Mulholland for the experience of a lifetime, each with their different highlights most with the same themes – the stunning scenery, meeting genuine rural people, the awesome accommodation and meals and all grateful for being part of a smaller tour group. We were really pinching ourselves that, thanks to High Country Journeys' relationships with the station community, we got the chance to travel on the magnificent, historical, private land of the South Island’s High Country. To take your 4WD on tour check out the website highcountryjourneys.co.nz 513 Barneys Lane, R.D.1, Ranfurly 9395, Otago, New Zealand ph + 64 3 4449703, Cell 0272288152 or email info@ highcountryjourneys.co.nz
Track on Blue Mountains Station.
Road sign at the start of the Thompsons Track.
Schist Slide on Glenfalloch Station.
Vehicles on the ‘Pylon track’
Crossing the Okuku River.
View of the ‘moving’ Schist fan.
Trip end at Cardrona.