We leave Lake Tennyson behind us for the second time on our travels and head back along the valley towards that horribly corrugated climb up to Island Saddle again.
Not far along we see a motorbike approaching from the distance and as we get closer to each other a calf makes a break across the road in front of us; there’s a small herd of cows and calves resting under the pylon, this one has suddenly realised his mother has crossed over and disappeared out of sight. I can see why the road is shut at night; black cattle + black night= kapow!
Towards the end of Island Gully, we take a short track that leads off the road to a DOC hut (4 bunks) overlooking the Wairau River. I’m thinking it’s a bloody long way to walk to collect water just as David points out a very narrow channel of water flowing through the tussock just below the sign. Honestly, if the sign wasn’t there you’d hardly know there was water close by.
It is here that I get my first bumble bee sting. Introduced borage grows profusely along the Rainbow Road, the blue flowers attracting many bees and whenever I step out of the car I’m suddenly surrounded by bumble bees. They don’t usually worry me and I prefer them to the persistent biting sandflies but today I’m wearing a bright blue top (duh!) and more than the usual number of bees are attracted to me. I raise my arms to take a photo and when I put them back down a bumble bee gets caught underneath one and gives me a zap. I don’t think they die like bees or wasps because he flew away once I quickly lifted my arm. He left behind an angry red welt that has been annoying me ever since!
This is my ‘bee’ photo- looking back towards the road we can see that massive ‘rock’ with its many scree slides that I mentioned in Part 2. On the left hand side, the slide has reached and crossed the road. I wonder how many times the road has to be graded to clear it.
Those ever present pylons line the road through this part. They are obviously popular with the cattle, as small groups rest underneath most of them- maybe they get a bit of energy from them….or perhaps they like the barrier the legs form; there are a number of huge Angus bulls wandering between the groups and I spotted one chasing a calf.
Just past Rag & Famish Creek (I’d love to know how that got its name) David gave a shout as he spotted what looked like a quail, running off the side of the road. I was looking in the wrong direction so didn’t see it but he also thought it was too big for a quail. Straight away I said I bet it was a Chukor. We pulled over and by the time I got out, the bird had reappeared and was running flat stick along the edge of the road away from us. And right behind her, running just as fast were 5 chicks. Our first sighting of a Chukor Partridge!
Chukor were introduced from Asia, as game birds in the 1920s and are only found in the South Island high country from Marlborough to Otago. They inhabit dry hill country, open scrub and tussock lands with scree slopes & rock outcrops east of the Southern Alps and up to 2,000 metres. We’re in the perfect country to spot them!
David is back on the road shouting directions (spot him? bottom left, bottom photo) but I think they've made a run for it and crossed into thicker scrub. We decide it’s time to move on and then, wouldn’t you know it, as I make my way back down the steep slope, gingerly picking my way around the needle sharp matagouri & rosehips, I flush the birds from under a bush I had stopped beside to check the route down. Of course I don’t have my camera ready and they fly off deeper into the scrub. Oh well, at least I got a few shots when we first arrived. Another bird to tick off our list.
We reach the boundary gate between the two stations; Molesworth & Rainbow and I spot a sign on a stake nearby. ‘Kikiwa 64km’. I googled to find out a bit more about it and while there isn’t much information it looks like it’s an area near St Arnaud and may have something to do with the transmission lines.
Now back on the private part of the Rainbow Road, there’s a noticeable difference between the two sections; the amount of gravel on the road (less), the narrowness of the road and the plants growing over the edge and along the middle of the road- more like a farm track which makes it an even better driving experience.
We approach the gravel slide with the washout again and have no trouble passing over it. Perhaps the station should use some of this gravel on their road.
We pass back through ‘Hells Gate’ the narrow gorge, failing to see where the fishermen have gone to, but spotting the tents of the cyclists who have set up camp for the night. Out the other side and the alpine scenery suddenly gives way to shaded beech forest reaching down the mountain sides. As we round a corner I spot a sign in the muddy bog off to the side. It would seem others have not been so fortunate in getting around the corner in one piece.
Finally we see the old Rainbow Homestead ahead of us, I open the gate and the lady who collected our toll this morning comes out to greet us. I chat to her for a minute or so; she tells me her family have worked on Rainbow Station for three generations, she loves the valley and enjoys being out here with her dogs & horses during the few months the road is open. Her husband comes out regularly and they live in Murchison over winter. She says she never gets lonely as there are plenty of people passing through each day.
She also tells us to make sure we stop at the swing-bridge further down the valley, it’s really beautiful. The sun has disappeared behind the mountains and it’s getting a little chilly but we stop for one last time to check it out. The swing-bridge crosses the Wairau and is the beginning of the Lees Creek tramping route which passes through a narrow valley and up to open flats higher up the Raglan Range, where there’s also a DOC hut.
There’s a steep stairway up the rock face at the end of the bridge and when I look back to take a photo I see David at the other end bent over swatting at sandflies. I wait for him to stand up but he disappears back up to the road, the sandflies getting the better of him. I cross back over the bridge and see that the rain is coming. The forecast for the next few days is heavy rain, we definitely chose the best day to do our road trip.
Back on the seal and guess what we come across at least half a dozen times? 1001 sheep making their way, at a steady pace, back to the front paddock.
We arrived back at camp around 6pm, the return journey taking us two and a half hours. We travelled 146km there and back- St Arnaud to Lake Tennyson and passed through three districts; Tasman, Marlborough & Canterbury. The total length of the Rainbow Road from St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs is 112km but as we’d already driven the other end we only went as far as the lake.
And although it was quite tiring (for both driver & passenger) we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the iconic Rainbow Road with it’s magnificent scenery and incredible mountain ranges. The road itself wasn't too bad but I can imagine it cutting up rough at the slightest hint of bad weather. It’s definitely 4WD territory in a number of places but nothing too major.