Wednesday 21 May 2014

The Dismal Swamp- Lake Onslow

We had about a week to fill in once we left Pinders Pond & before we were due back in Invercargill for the Bluff Oyster Festival and to say goodbye to the family for winter. We’re heading to the top of the South Island to escape the bitter cold of a Southern winter. While looking for the next camping site I saw that there was a freedom camping site at Lake Onslow which was about 22kms inland from Roxburgh. It looked pretty isolated, & with good fishing available, David was keen to take the fifth-wheeler there for a few days to check it out.

I did some research & asked a few questions on one of my forums, David also asked the guy at the local garage when he was filling up (he said it’d be fine as long as the weather was too) but after a bit of a discussion we decided that we’d stay on at Pinders Pond & do Lake Onslow as a day trip. The road starts out as gravel turning into a clay dry weather track about 10kms from the lake. It hadn’t rained for a week or so and the weather forecast was for fine but even though we thought we’d probably get in ok, if the weather turned, we’d then get stuck in there for a week or more. The weather at this time of the year can be very unpredictable.

There were two recommended access roads to the lake, one at Roxburgh East & the other at Millers Flat. The guy from the garage recommended the Roxburgh route & we thought we’d come back via Millers Flat to check that road out too. We wanted to be sure of the road because if we like the lake we’d probably  take the van there in the summer. The road climbed steeply out of Roxburgh and at the top we found ourselves nearly opposite our turn around point from the other day, when we travelled up the Old Man Range across the valley.

Once up on top, the road levelled out as we travelled through rolling green farmland for quite some distance. And the gravel slowly disappeared too, to be replaced by hard clay with very few corrugations or pot holes. It was actually a good road all things considered & would not have been a problem towing or driving a motorhome.

At the intersection with the Millers Flat route & Lake Onslow Road the road narrowed, the “Dry Weather Track” sign appeared and it now became a dirt track. Still not a problem to drive though, nice & smooth with the added benefit of no dust.

We had been slowly climbing and the surrounding 360 degree views were spectacular, as far as the eye could see there were smooth plateaus, narrow ridges & shadowed valleys.  The rolling green farmland gave way to the rugged desolate tussock grasslands that is typical Central Otago.

I could have stopped at every turn in the road (David thinks we did), fabulous landscapes & photographic opportunities in every direction, the scenery just amazing.

We hadn’t passed anybody on the road so far (and weren’t to see anybody else after this encounter either) but while we were stopped near the top of a ridge I heard a vehicle approaching from ahead of us. It was a ute which slowed when the driver saw me on the side of the road, they wound down the window to say there was another vehicle coming behind them. David asked if they had been duck shooting, “Yes we have but the guys coming have been hunting”. And then around the corner came a dust, mud & blood splattered ute with this poor stag tied to the deck. They weren’t  hanging around either and roared off down the road, no doubt keen to get home to tell all & sundry what heroes they were. Ok, I’m being facetious but I’d like the odds better if the deer had guns.

Further on near the summit of the road we came across more “Lonely Graves”, but these were memorial stones, a father lost in the 1960s & a son with quite a recent date. Perhaps farmers from the area who loved the land & the view.

We carry on along the track which seems to go on forever, it also looks like it may have rained recently up here as it was cut up a bit with a few more ruts and muddy potholes in the dips. Still taking our time we would have been fine with “Out There” on the back.

Finally we arrived at the top of a ridge to see Lake Onslow far below us in a shallow valley. The area where the lake now is was once known as the “Dismal Swamp”, the lake was created in 1888 by the damming of the Teviot River for a gold claim far below the range at Roxburgh.

Lake Onslow was not like any lake I’ve ever seen before. From this vantage point it reminded me of a large puddle, & with not a tree in site.

Down at lake level we found the worse patch of mud on the whole road & just through the gate and around the corner a narrow section with a reasonably sharp bend that we would have had to take our time getting “Out There” in there. But we would have made it. And what a perfect spot. If you like isolation, wide open space, big skies & vast views then Lake Onslow would be the ideal place. Add to that the large population of self-sustaining big brown trout that make the lake their home & you have the makings of a grand holiday.

Dotted around a point jutting out into the lake were an amazing assortment of huts and long-drops (NZ slang for outhouse). More fodder for the photographer!

We stopped on a clearing between the huts over looking the lake. Lake Onslow is known as an isolated, barren & windswept lake but today there wasn’t a breath of wind, the silence was deafening and to top it all off, it was a stunning warm autumn day with a huge blue ski and a beautiful deep blue lake. I can now see why blue & gold are Otago’s colours. What a breathtaking view.

And then from far across the lake we hear and could see hundreds of excited Canada geese making their way across the water to the island in the centre. I wonder if there are hunters over there and they’ve been spooked. And then we see two microlights flying across the lake. At first we think they are herding the geese but they fly right on by disappearing over the tussock covered rise behind us. The geese settle on the shore and the noise dies down. Peace & quite once again.

We wandered along the front of the huts admiring the whacky collection of ramshackle holiday homes……..wait, I can’t do the huts (& loos) justice by posting a photo or two of them here and then moving on so I’ve decided to do a whole separate blog post of them! Don’t worry though, I've posted it at the same time, you can find it here.

In the meantime here is a tempter-

After our walk through the huts we pulled out the chairs and sat on the edge of the lake to have our lunch enjoying the warm sun on our backs and still air.

I know that we were seeing the lake on a perfect day but I think I’d love it just as much during a storm or if it was raining & windy, even snow for a few days would be ok. I’d tuck myself up in the fifth-wheeler with a few good books, my laptop, plenty of food & some good wine in the fridge and the diesel heaters pumping out cosy warmth. Oh and of course the generator handy with plenty of spare fuel. Splendid isolation! David might even like to join me.

After lunch we drove back through the gate and headed up the road to check out the dam. In 1924, after originally being dammed to supply water for gold mining, Lake Onslow started operating as a irrigation & power scheme. In 1982 a new dam was built downstream and this increased the area of the lake from 367ha to around 830ha.

Below the dam there was a bridge & also a well maintained ford which I assume would be for any stock trucks taking sheep in and out of the surrounding high country stations. We took the bridge on the way over and the ford on the way back to clean the wheels, although it happened to be a bit deeper than it looked. No harm done though just a clean belly & a few raised eyebrows.

We drove on for a short distance, the road carries on into the interior for miles and actually joins up with the Old Dunstan Road, another 4WD road we want to travel when we “do’ the Maniatoto area. That in turn leads to the Serpentine 4WD road which I definitely want to travel, it would take us to the most isolated church in the country. In the meantime our road turns into a 4WD track  not far from where we turn around and is closed over winter because of snow. We might just come in from the other side one day.

While David turned around I got out to take a photo of the these sheep and the lake from another angle. Still not a tree in site.

And then we headed back up the road towards home stopping at the top of the ridge for one last look at the lake & the beautiful sky and to grab a photo of this abandoned tractor overgrown with tussock.

Back into rolling farmland with the road snaking across the ridge. We took the Millers Creek route at the junction and while it was a little quicker the road was a lot narrower & quite corrugated. We decided the Roxburgh East road was the one we’d travel with the fifth-wheeler on the back.

We had a fabulous day and I would recommend the trip to anybody that has the time, & especially to those who love wide open spaces and fishing.

And in case you missed the link, here it is for the Lake Huts & Longdrops


  1. Enjoyed the photos Shellie, we have done this trip recently and drove in from the Millers Flat end and staying the night at Lake Onslow, we drove out using the 4wdrive farm track road weather being perfect, road was okay, scenery awesome but only drivable in good weather, road closed for the winter. Looking at the photo on front of NZMCA magazine we can't place where this was taken, could you please settle this argument. Happy travelling

    1. Many thanks, glad you enjoyed the photos and Lake Onslow, it's a magic place that's for sure.
      You're not the only one who couldn't place the cover photo- the person who took it didn't either!! I didn't even realise it was my photo until I was reading the credits :) It's actually taken on the Road to Walter Peak Station-you can see the shot in this post part of a mosiac half way down.
      Now tell me who won?


  2. Beautiful scenery and beautiful colours. A very interesting blog Shellie :)

  3. Hi, I want to visit here, we'll be based in Ophir but I can't quite workout where all the 4wd roads around here go. Is there are better option than driving from Ophir to Roxburgh then to Lake Onslow and back the same way? Do you know if I can get from Lake Onslow to the Poolburn Reservoir? Do you know of a map that shows the roads in this area? Thanks.

  4. Hi Gareth, it depends on what time of the year you visit as the gates are locked across the top for 6-8 months of the year. If it's the height of the summer season you can drive from Ophir to Poolburn then take the Old Dunstan Trail across the top to the Styx/Paerau (top of the Maniototo) and then take the Lake Onslow track from Styx over the top again to Lake Onslow. There is a 4wd track from the Serpentine Church track to Onslow but it is really rugged and not to be recommended to do alone. Sorry I don't know of any maps other than the one I have on my blog (link below).

    Here's my blog on the Serpentine Church track, the map's at the end-

    1. Thanks, we'll be there for Christmas for a few weeks, should be dry. I'm the same Gareth that commented on your Serpentine Church blog :) Keen to checkout Lake Onslow and Serpentine Church, might be a long day, will make sure the tank is full. I found topomap yesterday, looks good, but some roads just stop, don't want to get lost or stuck

  5. Very well described. Great photos. I have just come back from the same trip myself in my Mitzi four-wheel drive pop-top van. I think now rather than show my photos I will direct them to your blog. Thank you and cheers
    Rather than show my photos

    1. Thanks Peter, sounds like you had a great trip & I'm sure you'll have some interesting photos too to share.


Thank you for taking the time to leave a message, I love reading them! All comments are personally moderated by me and I will post and answer them as soon as possible, Shellie