Tuesday 24 February 2015

Unfinished Business- Sawcut Gorge: Part 1

Some of you may remember when we were staying at Ward Beach in July last year, we took the road to Sawcut Gorge. We didn’t intend to walk to the Gorge- there are many river crossings, it was the middle of winter and the water was ice cold and running high. We thought we'd check the road out and see where the walk left from. You’ll find that blog post here.

February is an ideal time to do the walk and since we’re back at Ward we took the opportunity of crossing another ‘must do’ off our list.

These next couple of blog posts are going to be mostly photos so apologies for any slow uploads for those that are reliant on mobile data or have slow broadband but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words!

The Waima (Ure) River catchment is one of the direst areas of Marlborough with less than 600mm rainfall annually. The river dries up for months on end and even back in July (mid winter) there wasn’t that much water, now it’s totally dried up.

The road into Sawcut Gorge is narrow, gravel & 12kms long, it winds it’s way through farmland high up above the river bed. The snow on the mountains behind has long gone, the hills are tinder dry and devoid of stock.

Towards the end of the road we can see where the ‘river’ runs out; a thin ribbon of water disappears into a boulder patch. I wonder if it travels underground for a distance and also what happens to any fish, perhaps they know that this river dries up and don’t populate it. I’m sure there would be eels and small fry during winter though.

We arrive at Blue Mountain Station where the owners allow the public to use their property to park on while they walk to the gorge. It is rather strange pulling into the front yard of the house, it looks like a busy carpark with over a dozen cars lined up on the front lawn. When we came the last time, we were the only ones. There's a visitors book to sign and a donation box on the chair at the front door along with some information pamphlets.

Luckily we have 4WD, there’s a steep track down to the river bed where 4WDs can park. The river level has dropped alot since our last visit but there’s still a good flow of clear water passing by and this time it’s not ice cold. The willows on the other side of the river are just starting to turn colour.

Other than the water level the other most obvious change is the algae that has stained the river bed green and made it quite slippery. The water has a high pH due to the limestone rocks, I think this, the warm water and the sun have provided an ideal environment for algae to grow. A small consolation is the fact that we can see where the track starts.

The route to the Sawcut Gorge involves following DOC’s sparsely placed orange triangles directing hikers up the Waima River bed. There are at least 30 river crossings, much rock hopping and some boulder climbing. Occasionally the track will disappear into the bush on the side of the river for a short distance but mostly it is finding(fighting) your way over the rocky river bed. A walking pole is a definite requirement.

Much of the rock is stark white limestone, mixed in places with grey wedges of argillite, sandstone & mudstone.

The boulders get bigger and Isolation Hill (1059m) looms ahead of us.

Following the worn track through the green up river was not always correct, another track crossed the river to the left where an orange triangle pointed into the bush. We debated which to follow & ended up taking the bush track. Which was just as well as there were some major boulders & a small waterfall to climb over and up at the end of the river track.

It helped your legs & feet to find any patch of small pebbles to walk over. Because for every one of them there were six large rocky paths. I wonder if you can spot the orange triangle? That large rock ahead of David towards the back? Tiny orange dot? Yes, that's the next marker.

Getting closer….

Getting bigger! Also another triangle, at least we’re on the right track. But what you can’t see is…..

…the large pool in front of the triangle.

I’m not sure why David is holding his shorts up….. but I do know the water came up to my waist (very cooling on a hot day), and I forgot my phone was in my back pocket! That was until it started buzzing my behind a few minutes later. (Carefully attended to by my darling husband, it gradually came to life again over the next couple of days)

It wasn’t until we were talking to the farmer (where we are staying) that he told us a very large ‘pet’ eel lives in this pool and usually comes out to great everyone walking through, of taking a dip, by wrapping itself around your legs. Thank God it slept in when we passed through!

This is the pool from a little higher up, after climbing out of the pool at the far end, a track led up into the bush and across a steep scree slope (and we saw that a triangle pointed into the bush the other way- we missed the beginning of that track which would have saved us our pool walk).

Back down into the river bed and the rocks have become boulders! These are larger than they look and we have to clamber over them to reach the far end. Imagine the river rushing down this canyon when there was a flood. I could see flood debris caught up high in the trees in some places.

Finally we see the DOC sign for Isolation Hill Scenic Reserve, and a large orange triangle saying ‘Come this way’

Hmmm…..but which way?

Sawcut Gorge is located in the reserve & we leave the Waima River here and enter the Isolation Creek canyon. It’s taken us about an hour and a half to get this far and we still have another 15 minutes or so of rock scrambling to do.

“Ok, so these really are big….”

“Come on, hurry up!”

Another steep bush track up and over the point where the two waterways meet.

I stand aside to let a family through, the little girl looking no older than 4 or 5- she's done well, they’re on their way back to the carpark. The guy warns us that there’s a bit of a party going on at the far end of the gorge- he said he looked around for the tour bus! That will explain the number of cars at the homestead.

At the bottom of the bush track and up on the canyon wall is my first sighting of the Marlborough rock daisy, a tenacious shrubby plant with lovely daisy flowers, it's often found clinging to sheer rock walls throughout Marlborough. Unfortunately it has finished flowering.

To be continued…Part 2…and I guess in the end, it was a lot of words & photos!


  1. Fascinating! Luv the photos and commentary, so interesting, thank you!

    1. You're welcome Madeleine, pleased you enjoyed the walk! :)

  2. Enjoyable reading!! Sounds like quite an adventure, and great to see the photographs too.


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