Herald on Sunday
TO... BURKES PASS
Wild spaces and hidden secrets
The tiny, historic rural village of Burkes Pass is snuggled into a curve in the valley of Te Kopi-o-Te Opihi, leading up into the magnificent Mackenzie Basin, with glacial lakes and New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki Mt Cook. For hundreds of years, it was the main route for Māori to access the giant food-gathering area of the basin with rivers abundant in eels, fern root and birds such as weka and moa, and on to the West Coast for pounamu (greenstone).
In the 1850s, European settlers built the township as a last outpost before the wild untamed spaces of the Mackenzie and the Southern Alps, seeing potential for vast pastoral farming on the plains and hill country. A railway was planned to reach Burkes Pass and bring supplies from the coastal port of Timaru and return with wool. However, the rail only eventuated as far as Fairlie, giving the characterful village the name “The Town that Time Forgot”.
Pause on your journey, grab a really good coffee at Three Creeks and indulge yourself with a wander in the clear fresh air surrounded by tussock-clad hills. For those who love all things retro, Three Creeks, on the site of the original Burkes Pass Hotel, has an intriguing collection of garage collectables, old cars and a gift shop.
Turn up the road and you will come across the delightful little wooden St Patrick’s Union Church, 150 years old next year and said to be the oldest union church on its original site in New Zealand. Its picturesque Gothic-style porch is an ideal spot for photography. Open daily, it is being restored by the Burkes Pass Heritage Trust and contains heritage information along with local gifts, native and cottage plant seeds for sale and a pleasant garden.
Collect a pamphlet to guide you on a relaxed stroll along the Heritage Walk, a 1.7 km mown grass track through the village. Stretch your legs (and those of your dog if travelling with a pet) or entertain your family with a “Where’s Sally” children’s game along the way.
Informative panels with old photographs are positioned outside places of interest. You can step inside the Musterer’s Hut filled with local memorabilia, and pass the first Mackenzie District Council building, formerly the Mt Cook Road Board Office, built in 1876 when Burkes Pass was the administrative centre for the Mackenzie.
Further on is the old school and school teacher’s house ,opened in 1879, and several cob cottages, built in the 1800s from a mixture of clay and chopped snow tussock, as timber was scarce. Up the road towards the summit of the pass, is the historic cemetery where early settlers and mountaineers are buried. Some of their stories, hardships and adventures are told in a booklet called On a Bronze Tussocked Terrace, which is available at the church.
A variety of accommodation is available here to enable you to take in all the sights at your leisure. Be sure to enjoy the brilliance of the night skies here in our special Dark Sky area.