Tuesday 4 August 2015

Poolburn Dam- LOTR’s Plains of Rohan

The Rohirrim were a horse people of the land of Rohan in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, they lived in villages on the plains of Rohan. I don’t think Sir Peter Jackson could have found a better place than Maniototo’s Poolburn Dam to use for the Rohirrim villages. Before I show you my new favourite place, first we must get there.

Poolburn Dam is located in Rough Ridge at the southern end of the vast and sparsely populated Ida Valley. We take the road out past historic Ophir, past McTavish's Hut, up and over the Raggedy Range (I love that name), stopping at the top to take a photo looking out over the south end of the isolated valley.

We turn right at the old Poolburn Hotel, no longer the ‘Meeting Place of the Valley’, pass an old abandoned church and carry on for what seems like miles before turning left at the Poolburn Dam sign. Not too far along Websters Lane is an old restored stone cottage which was once the home of the Websters, early settlers in the area.

We approach the last settlement on the road, Moa Creek, which is now just a couple of rundown buildings but was once a bustling village after gold was discovered nearby in 1863.

This Moa Creek Hotel was built in 1912 and closed around 1978, it replaced an earlier hotel which was built in 1861. The general store next door was built in 1870 and closed in 1973. They’re now in the company of an assortment of ramshackle tin shacks.

A number of vehicles had passed us on the road and we now find out where they were heading. Behind the buildings is a gun club and a meet was taking place. Farmers and their shotguns were shooting up the range. We wondered why there were red flags flying on the fences as we approached the intersection.

We turn onto the Old Dunstan Road at Moa Creek and head up onto Rough Ridge. The Old Dunstan Road (Road 2- there are two parts to it) is a 4WD dry weather track that crosses the ridge and comes out at Paerau/Styx near Middlemarch. The complete Old Dunstan road is 170km and was once the most direct route from Dunedin to the gold diggings at ‘the Dunstan’ – present day Clyde and Alexandra. The track beyond the dam is closed during winter. There is also a track that leaves the Old Dunstan Road and ends up at remote Lake Onslow, the 'Dismal Swamp'- you may remember we visited Lake Onslow last year driving in from Roxburgh.

The 14km track to the dam is mostly dry and easy driving, although there are a few wet patches and as we get closer patches of snow appear in the lee of the rock stacks.

David was all for heading for home when we came across a mucky entrance where we stopped to open a gate (this was the blog banner from a few days ago). A mob of cows had obviously been keen to escape this barren land too. I manage to convince David that the dam wasn’t going to be much further on….

… and I was right, just over the rise ahead of us and spread out below in a shallow basin was the spectacular Poolburn Dam.

What an incredible landscape; remote, windswept and cold (in winter) with a blue frozen lake and great swirls of white ice that matched the clouds and sky above. The ground is covered in sandy tuffs of tussock and rich rust coloured spear grass with hundreds of grey rocky tors scattered about. A bleak moonscape with colours to match. No wonder Peter Jackson chose this area as his ‘Plains of Rohan’.

Many of the tiny iron shacks that are tucked into the rocky crevices on the lake edge remain plain and unadorned, blending into and becoming part of this stunning environment.

The lake has frozen during the last snow fall and this blue ice is weak and unstable, it's sometimes called 'rotten ice'. It's unsuitable for curling or skating on. The white ice is regular frozen water.

Some of you might recognise this photo, it appeared on TV1’s weather the night we returned from the dam. We were actually having dinner in the Omakau Pub when it flashed up on the big screens around the room and there was a loud cheer from the patrons propping up the bar. You should have seen their faces when I said I took the photo.

They were cheering because it was a local scene and the hut across the cove is owned by the Omakau Fishing Club, which some of them belonged to.

Poolburn Dam is another irrigation dam built in the early 1930s during the Great Depression when workers were plentiful, it was built to supply water to the farms in the Ida Valley.

The dam is located in a natural basin on top of the ridge and anybody boating on the lake has to be careful of the drowned rocky towers, some are under hidden under the water while others form small islands.

We drove (read ‘slid’) our way a short distance around the lake, unfortunately the track was very muddy with snow melt and with deep ruts in places. The ute doesn’t have very knobbly tires and they filled up quick with mud, so we were sliding all over the show. David wasn’t happy about continuing on any further as other than one vehicle heading out as we arrived, and a guy on a quad bike, we were on our own if we got stuck.

We decided not to explore any further or to venture on around to the dam wall. We found some high (and dry) ground nearby and had a quick lunch sheltered by the ute against a howling cold wind that was blowing a gale, it was the coldest I’ve felt for a long while.

I quickly took a few more photos before my fingers froze…

…if I had time I could have done another long-drop photo shoot, similar to Lake Onslows outhouses

…before we headed back towards the entrance.  I spotted these unusual ice swirls on the lake edge along the way, looking like a big tub of icecream which I'd call Blue Moon Swirl!

We took a short detour down towards some more fishing huts but the track was just as slippery so after a few more photos we turned around and headed out.

Poolburn Dam is my new favourite place, a photographers paradise, and we hear a fisherman’s too. We will definitely be back. In the late summer hopefully, when we can pull the fifth-wheeler up there and freedom camp for a week or two, when David can get the inflatable out and go fishing and I can explore to my hearts content. And we can drive the Old Dunstan Road to the other end and take another side track to the remotest church in New Zealand, the Serpentine. Yes, we will be back.

As we head out, the quad bike overtakes us spraying our windscreen with mud. We curse and shout at him but he’s long gone….until we reach the gate when we take some of it back and smile sweetly as he holds the gate open for us. Only for him to tear past us again a few minutes later. His shiny new red bike is no longer shiny. Or red.

We stop at the top of the ridge to take in the view up the Ida Valley, the sun is low and we can’t see much. Someone with some mechanical help has built a large rock cairn near the road, smaller replicas sit on the ground nearby. I imagine these are silent farewells to the horse people.

We take a back road from Moa Creek home, another road that runs for miles in a straight line passing the Ida Valley Station woolshed along the way, a station that was established way back in 1858. That's Old Man Range behind, the range that towered above us at Butchers Dam.

In front of us are the snow covered Hawdun & Ida Ranges at the top of the valley. Made famous by the well known NZ artist Graham Sydney.


  1. Impressive photo's text and TV results....that "blue moon swirl" only one step away from a hoar frost!

    1. I wish Jimu, I wish! We came across a localized hoar frost at a small dam near Naseby- a dam that fails to see sun all day. You'll have to wait for a future post to see it though. :)

  2. Hi Shellie , been there , not a trip for the faint hearted , i loved it someone else didn't real remote place

    1. Thanks Francis, yes I loved it and we will be back in the summer, then we can do the rest of the road and some fishing.


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