South Island Road Trip
February 2006 Show introduction
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South Island Road Trip


In 1996 we toured much of the South Island, and since then we have made several other forays to areas within a day's drive from Nelson. However, the numerous attractions around Nelson ("the top of the South island") have distracted us from touring further south. In February this year we decided it was time to check out a few locations we had not seen on previous drives: the Canterbury High Country (the eastern approaches to the Southern Alps north of Mt. Cook); Central Otago; and Glenorchy, the access point for the Routeburn Track and several other major tramps in Mt. Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. Crossing the Routeburn from east to west was to be the focal point of the 10-day trip. We had no interest in visiting Christchurch, and aimed to spend no more time than necessary in the highly commercialized Queenstown, self-proclaimed "thrill capital" of New Zealand.


Our route took us to Blenheim and south along the Pacific Coast, then inland across the pastoral landscapes of the Waipara wine district and north Canterbury. We stayed a couple nights in tiny Mt. Somers at a motel-cum-gourmet restaurant called Stonechrubie (Scottish, as were many of the original European settlers in this sheep country). From there we followed a gravel road some 50 km up the broad Rangitata valley to Erewhon Station, at the base of snow-capped mountains. Along the way we deferred to a large "mob" of sheep (seemingly thousands) being moved along by one man (on foot) and four dogs. We got out of the car for a few hours hiking up the Mt. Somers Walkway past old coal mines to a "trig" (high point), there bumping into four other codgers (one M, three F) in the 70-80 year range whom I know from the Nelson Tramping Club. They were on their way back north after walking the Milford and Holyford Tracks in Fiordland. The views were spectacular, albeit obscured by haze from the humid easterly breeze, and included the LOTR setting of Edoras, the mountaintop redoubt of the horsemen of Rohan.

Central Otago

Then it was on south to Central Otago (or "Central" as it is known in those parts). Our route across the spacious, dry "Mackenzie Country" gave us a fine distant view of Mt. Cook, but we decided against the 2-hour side trip for a closer look, having enjoyed several days of that in 1996. Central lies in the arid space between the Pacific and the Southern Alps. It resembles the dry country of southern and central Montana and the B.C. interior. It was never permanently inhabited by Maori. Gold was discovered in the 1860s, and Otago rapidly became the focus of immigration and wealth for the nascent colony. Remnants of those glory days still comprise a major tourism focus of the region. More recently (the past 15 years), Central Otago has become an important wine region, primarily noted for pinot noir. Somewhat improbably, the apparently unexciting landscape of worn, low hills, sparse vegetation, and rocky outcrops has recently taken on a certain caché . This is due largely to the popularity of the paintings of Grahame Sydney, who has brilliantly captured nuances of light, form and space unique in New Zealand, but not unlike the western prairies of Montana. (Sydney's starkly realist style also evokes Christopher Pratt.)

Our base in Central was Alexandra, an old gold town smack in Sydney country. Our "Two Bobs B&B" hosts, Pauline (mn Roberta) and Lloyd (mn Robert), being enthusiastic promoters of outdoor pursuits, loaned us their bikes and took us out to a good starting point for a day's cycling on the Otago Central Rail Trail (which takes 3 to 4 days all in), a perfect way to pass through this landscape. It was an easy 40-50 km pedal back to Alex, mostly downhill, crossing gorges by viaduct and tunneling a couple times. We dodged off the trail for lunch at quaintly preserved Ophir, and for hydration at the Chatto Creek Tavern. Before we left, Pauline (a veteran mountaineer and tramper) expressed interest in joining me for the 5-day Rees-Dart Track next year, and she lined us out with some gravel roads to follow on our onward travels for interesting high country views (see below).


A beautiful one-hour drive north of Queenstown, Glenorchy is lovely base for major tramps and other activities in the nearby mountains and valleys of Mt Aspiring National Park. It lies in a broad valley, at the confluence of the Rees and Dart Rivers, with towering mountains on most sides, Mt Earnslaw being most prominent. There were lots of LOTR locations around here. In marked contrast to highly commercialized Queenstown, facilities include only a campground, motel, hotel-cum-pub, and a couple other eat-and-drink spots, plus the Backpacker Express and DOC offices for organizing trips into the mountains. All very tidy. Beyond the village there remains evidence of ongoing pastoral activities involving sheep and horses. We stayed that the motel, took the BE shuttle to the Routeburn, and returned from the end of the Routeburn via the Tracknet Shuttle to Queenstown and Buckley Transport back to Glenorchy (five hours in all). We would happily return to Glenorchy in the future.

Return to Nelson

We followed a somewhat unusual route back to Nelson. North of Cromwell, we crossed the Dunstan Range via the Thompson Pass, following a narrow gravel road through many closed gates. Pauline recommended this road for our little 4WD, and it was well worth while for the views, the interesting geology and vegetation, and the atmosphere of back-country sheep and cattle farming. This road took us back into the Manuherikia Valley, where we had cycled the Rail Trail. We drove on via the so-called "Pig Route" (SH85) over the Ida Pass into the Manitoto country, then turned north through Naseby to the Dansey's Pass road, another 1-lane gravel affair. More splendid views in the evening light, then down to the east coast and on to Timaru. Our B&B in Timaru featured Nan Raymond's nationally recognized gardens, and interesting conversation with former mayor Wynne. We stopped the next night in Waikari, and small pastoral town in north Canterbury (and more interesting conversation at the B&B, of course), and then back to Nelson by way of inland hills, the coastal highway, and Blenheim, where we made an obligatory winery lunch.