Saturday 2 August 2014

The Road to Sawcut Gorge

It was a pity we were passing back through this part of Marlborough in winter because there is a very interesting walk I had earmarked to do the next time we were in the area. While it is possible to walk to Sawcut Gorge in winter it would be extremely cold as there is no track as such, the walk is mainly through a rocky river bed with multiple crossing of the Waima River before reaching the DOC Reserve boundary & then following a track to Isolation Creek and the gorge. You then walk through a very narrow gorge where the sun (if it was shining) would only beam in for a very short time each day. It’s also not recommended to do this walk after heavy rainfall for obvious reasons.

Sawcut Gorge by all accounts is spectacular. The chasm is 50m deep, 50m high and at times only 2m wide and is New Zealand’s finest slot canyon & comparable to the slot canyons of Utah in the States. The “Sawcut” itself is a short and narrow canyon passage where Isolation Creek has eroded through a 50m high wall of limestone, leaving a unique slot that’s higher than it is long.

As it was a lovely day we decided we’d drive the road to Sawcut Gorge anyway and check out the conditions and have a look at the beginning of the track. The Gorge is located at the base of the Blue Mountain Range and at the end of a 12km gravel road that winds it way inland along the Waima River finishing at Blue Mountain Station.

We head back down State Highway One for about 8kms before turning inland at Ure Road, just before the Waima River bridge where there is a concrete shelter with a bike on top advertising a local backpackers accommodation.

The road turns to gravel within a few metres and it’s very corrugated, the ute & it’s occupants are bouncing about like jumping beans in a can. The thought that it would be like this for the duration nearly had us turning around but we gave it a couple of kilometres and it soon smoothed out. This isn’t the first road we’ve come across with this phenomenon, we wonder what happens to make the first few hundred metres so corrugated.  Perhaps there are lots of vehicles turning in and then deciding not to go any further, perhaps they hit the beginning of the road at speed, God knows but we sure don’t.

There’s a deer farm near the beginning of the road but the farmland soon turns to vineyards which stretch along the river flats. This is the southern reach of the Marlborough grape growing region and it’s great to see that the first vineyard is one of my favourites!

We cross over the Waima River which is crystal clear and sparkles against the white limestone mix on the riverbed, considering it’s winter there’s not much of a flow but we can see the tidemark of debris on the banks and road edge which had been left by recent storms.

Limestone is a prominent feature in the area, there is a belt of limestone that extends from the coast near Ward, south down through the Clarence Valley and between the Seaward Kaikoura and Inland Kaikoura Ranges. And in fact there is a large limestone quarry just before Ward Beach where we are staying.

The road soon narrows and climbs & winds along following the river gorge far below. The scenery & views are spectacular.

At regular intervals there are gates to open & close but so far we haven’t seen any stock.

I like gates, gates give me the opportunity to take more photos! Smile I'm a dab hand at wrestling a large camera & stubborn catches.

Welcoming party, imposter or stunt (stud) double?

Coming around the last bend in the road we see that the road ends ahead of us right in the front garden of the Blue Station’s homestead. The gate has instructions attached that say to drive on in and sign the visitors book on the front veranda. This seems a bit odd & we do feel like we're intruding as we drive in but I had read that the station owners have granted permission to cross their land to get to the Gorge which is on Conservation land.

We pull up beside the veranda where a lady is hanging out washing. We stop to talk to her and after an initial reluctance to chat (she must see so many people), we can’t get away from her as she tells us all about her & the farm’s history. Her & her husband (who we’re not sure was still alive- we didn't like to ask) sold the station to her niece who lives in the original homestead down below on the river’s edge.

They built their house up on the hill above and retired there quite a number of years ago. During their farming days there was no road into the farm, they got there by driving along the riverbed, stock was driven out the same way. She tells us of the resident NZ falcons that fly through at house height down the river valley and watching them catch smaller birds on the wing, birds that she feeds at the dozens of feeders she has dotted around the garden. The bird song & chatter are quite extraordinary.

There was a small carpark beside the house but those that had 4WD could drive down into the riverbed to park. She tells us that 76 is the most vehicles she has had visit in a day, they were lined up all over her lawn and along the banks down to the river & along the river bed. We told her we’d only come for a look and would be back in the summer to do the Gorge (hopefully not on a day that would see 76 cars!) “Wise decision” she said, “the water is ice cold, I’ve just walked over to my nieces to feed the animals”

It was a short steep track down to the river where we parked up on the beautiful stones to have our lunch. A toe test confirms the water is in fact colder than ice!

Sawcut Gorge walk starts near the cliffs at the back of the photo where you can see a rope strung across the river (at river level), the higher one is a telephone wire. The new homestead is up to the left by power pole.

A small flock of rams (the ones that featured on the sign back up the road) were rummaging about in the willows at the bottom of the track. They weren't too impressed to see us and took off before I could do a decent photo shoot!

Just over the river behind the poplars is the old homestead, the niece has to drive across to get in and out of the farm. It was lovely and sheltered down in riverbed, we had our lunch sitting on the tailgate enjoying the warm sun, bird song and the solitude. This surely is the life!

We climbed back out of the riverbed, opening and closing two gates on the way that contained the house animals; two alpacas, a goat, some coloured sheep and ducks & chooks. Spring must be on it’s way; blooming snowdrops, jonquils & daffodils were sprinkled about along the banks and under trees.

Back on the road we come across a flock of sheep that are feeding and resting beside the road. We slow & inch closer. Most take off down the steep side of the hill and I wonder if any might break a leg doing this. They virtually fly down the side, I even wonder if one was to take a tumble would they then bowl others over as it went and then they’d all drop in a pile on the river bed below. They really are very silly & skittish. This small part of the mob seem to have the brains to stay on the road and take the route up the hill…spoke to soon….one thought it would be good to run up the bank but his mates weren’t looking and we ended up herding them across the bridge before they scattered in all directions on the other side. Silly as a sheep.

One last stop to get a photo of the road twisting ahead of us and the river far below. We definitely will be back to walk Sawcut in the summer, it’s too unique of a walk to miss.

Back home and our last night at Ward Beach brings us a beautiful cloud formation with the pink glow of sunset. The sun might have disappeared behind the hill but the colours are sometimes better in the opposite direction.


  1. I've been in many of those slot canyons in Utah and Canyonlands in USA, I had no idea we had any in NZ.
    Amazing and so close, you certainly find em!
    Another slow loading blog, timed out once on me!

    1. Just make sure you don't visit on one of those "76 car" days Jimu, you'll get run off the road! :)
      Not sure why the blogs are taking time to load. I tried shortening them as in splitting one to create two posts, then I forgot about it so that didn't last too long :) Will try to remember for next time.


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