New Zealand Walk: Rata Escape walks with great diversity
It was the diversity that amazed me: snowy mountains, lakes, grassland, pristine beech forest and tussocks as high as your head all within two hours drive of Christchurch. And, just as important, walking tracks and friendly locals who knew where to go.
We were three couples on our annual long-weekend catch-up. Our base was the Rata Lodge at Staveley: a gorgeous bachy sort of lodge nestled into a native garden.
Bellbirds and fantails greeted us. Incredible views of an extinct volcano beckoned from the windows.
The requirements of our annual weekend were fairly straightforward – somewhere new, good walking, no fuss and a comfy base. We left all the arrangements to Rata Escape and the boxes were ticked.
Day one dawned cloudy but Rata Escape’s Elspeth and Judith assured us that this would pass. Indeed it did – just half an hour’s drive further inland to the beginning of the Mt Somers Walkway the sun burst through.
We crossed a bridge over the tumbling Woolshed Creek and began our walk up the Rhyolite Ridge. Woolshed Creek Hut was our lunch-time destination.
Beech forest gave way to sub-alpine shrubs and then we topped out onto a tussocky plateau. Views of the open basin and beyond to the mountains of the Main Divide were amazing.
There was never a dull moment – we took in volcanic columns, a waterfall and a suspension bridge all before lunch. On the hut verandah Judith produced a gas stove and in no time we had cups of tea to go with our scrumptious sandwiches and muffins. A falcon streaked across the sky in front of us. The creek was clear and beautiful.
The afternoon’s walk back to the carpark was shorter but no less interesting: a spectacular gorge, great views, tussock grasslands, beech forest and old coalmining relics.
Our options for the following days were more walks, mountain biking, a farm tour, a 4WD drive trip into the high
country or various options for the more creative, such as a water-colour lesson or limestone sculpting.
Keen to do more walking, and with a perfect weather forecast, we decided to visit Mt Sunday, famous as the location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Getting there was spectacular: a journey t hrough t he Hakatere Conservation Park, home to open expanses of tussock grasslands, glistening lakes and world-renowned braided rivers. We did the short walk to Mt Sunday and then a loop around Lake Clearwater.
The final day and what to do? The more energetic of the group mountainbiked with Elspeth down the Stour River on a 4WD track, an area that is also part of Hakatere Conservation Park.
Keen to go back to our rural roots, three of us opted for a farm tour around the rolling Surrey Hills, and a visit to Judith’s dairy farm. This concluded with making cheese from the fresh milk and sampling Judith’s previous batch – the feta was the best I’ve ever tasted!
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this landscape. The variety within a day’s drive is astounding, but most memorable was the feeling that comes from spending time in uncrowded open space – something often not achieved on more well-known and sometimes crowded walks.
The local flavour provided by Rata Escape hit the right notes too: a delightful lodge with knowledgeable and informative companions who obviously loved the area.
All in all – a great trip away!
Above: The Upper Rangitata River from the Hakatere Conservation Park. Opposite page below left: Looking into the Ashburton Gorge and Arrowsmith Range from Rhyollite Ridge on the Mount Somers Walkway. Below left: Rata Lodge and Mount Somers.