Sunday 9 August 2015

Thomson Gorge Track- Dunstan Mountains

The Thomson Gorge track crosses over a low saddle in the Dunstan Mountain range, the range that separates Lake Dunstan and the Upper Clutha Valley from the Manuherikia Valley and where we have been staying at Omakau in Central Otago.

As the signs say, it’s a dry weather track and recommended 4WD only (summer 2WD). Occasional maintenance work is done on the road but some sections are in poor condition, although I’d have to say it was one of the better back country tracks we’ve crossed.

The route was originally used by gold miners heading to the Upper Clutha in the 1860s but they got waylaid as they found gold at the other end, in the Bendigo Creek. An 1899 promise by the Government to build a road never eventuated however travellers & shepherds continued to use the route through the mountains. In 1975 the County Council started a dry weather track over the Saddle and it was completed by Matakanui Station who graze the high country on the east side of the saddle.

There are up to 23 gates to open and six fords to cross so having a passenger is highly recommended, and one with a camera in hand is an excellent idea!

After a few easy kilometres up the valley and the first gate open and shut, we start the steady climb up through the gorge. This is looking back down over the Manuherikia Valley to North Rough Ridge behind and the Kakanui Mountains in the background, Ida Valley is at the far right.

George Thomson, the first long-term runholder of Matakanui Station named Thomson Creek, Thomson Gorge and Thomson Saddle- he was obviously no shrinking violet and liked the sound of his own name.

Here’s a panorama of the Manuherikia Valley with three photos stitched together- click on it to see a larger size (and remember to use your back arrow to get back here).

The slope below the track drops steeply down to Thomson Creek with a towering rock wall on the far side. Ahead of us a herd of wild goats leap off the bank, gallop across the road and launch themselves over the edge and down the steep rocky bank to the gorge below. I take a look over the edge and they’ve all disappeared under the cover of the matagouri.

Stone stacking and diversion channels from gold prospecting during the 1870-1880s can be seen near the creek bed.

The track weaves its way through high country tussock land following Thomson Creek towards its headwaters. We pass an isolated woolshed and chase numerous flocks of merino sheep along the way. And as promised, there are many gates to open and close; I lost count at 16.

We had an exciting encounter at one of the gates when just as I was about to open the door we spotted off to the side ahead of us a bird coming at us like a torpedo, diving from up high and heading straight down towards the ute before veering away at the last moment. It was a NZ Falcon/Kārearea and it was probably checking out who was entering it’s territory.

We stopped for lunch near the Old Stone Hut, another amazingly beautiful & isolated lunch stop to add to our list. I know I can’t keep stock-piling places to visit in the autumn but I’d love to pass through here then; there are so many willows and briar bushes, I know the colours would look stunning against the taupe and golds of the grasses and tussock.

The stone hut was built by the County Council in 1908 for shelter for drovers & travellers and it’s still in use today although the door is firmly padlocked against casual visitors.

Matakanui Station cattle yards are nearby and also mounds of tailings from the gold prospecting era line the creek towards it’s headwater. It’s a shame that vehicles have worn deep tracks up to and around (and around, no doubt) the hut.

After lunch we set off again climbing steadily towards the saddle and boundary gate. We’re now 900m above sea level and crossing into the North Dunstan Conservation Area. The track runs along the ridge and we stop to open yet another gate.

Looking back over the ridge track towards Mt Kamaka…

…and beyond to the Southern Alps and a cool lenticular cloud (the one that looks like smoke rings)

…and out in front of us is the Upper Clutha Basin and Hawea Flats with Mt Aspiring National Park in the distance. The shiny water at the right rear is Lake Hawea and that first mountain in the front at centre rear, is The Peninsula, part of Lake Wanaka and across the river from where we stay at the Outlet Campground.

Further on along the ridge, a track heads off up Mt Moka, we had a short discussion about driving to the top (it is alot steeper than it looks here) and decided we’d give it a miss this time.

Before we left the ridge, I got out to take photos of the mountains and views while David drove down to the end of the plateau and disappeared over the edge. I was beginning to get worried when he took an age to re-appear, and very pleased to see him pop back over the top as it was freezing cold and blowing another howling gale and I didn’t have my jacket on. I was crouched down sheltering behind a rock by the time he made his way back up towards me.

The track now descends following the catchment valley of the Rise & Shine creek…

…down towards Bendigo Station and the Bendigo goldfield workings. The track is in worse condition towards this end, uneven and badly rutted with many muddy patches and deep bogs. I think there must be more traffic heading in from this end as there are multiple tracks and ruts as people have found their own way along the original track.

We pass a frozen dam and more stock yards and nearby are numerous mining relics from the Rise & Shine Reef, the most easterly of the three Bendigo gold workings but time is marching on, so we’re not stopping to check them out this time.

Over the next rise and just off the road is the Come-In-Time Reef and the restored ten stamp Matilda battery. There’s also a 60m mine tunnel that can be explored if you have a torch.

David has his head torch on so he heads into the tunnel with me hot on his heals; we’re hoping to find some wetas and glow-worms but all we find are a few spider webs and some glow-worm larva threads. The threads are made up of silk & mucous, prey is snared in the long sticky ‘fishing lines’ and up to 70 lines of various lengths can be let down by one larva. There are just two or three near this one though. We did spot a couple of adult glow-worms but they quickly turned their lights off as we approached.

At the bottom of the steep track is the Matilda battery which was restored in 2006.


After a quick look around the stamping battery and a slow climb back out of the creek bed we’re back on the road and dropping fast into the green patchwork of the Upper Clutha Valley.

We reach a fork in the road, to the left is Bendigo Gorge and the Bendigo gold workings. We decide to leave exploring there for another time, we can come in from this end the next time we’re passing. It’s getting late and the sun will be dropping behind the Pisa Range very soon. And, we still have to drive all the way back home via Cromwell, the Cromwell Gorge, Clyde and onto Omakau. The round trip is about 150kms. We take the right fork towards Lindis Crossing and I open and close our last gate- I think I must have opened at least 22 gates in the end. (ETA- it was 3 and a half hours from the first gate to the last, including exploring time)

If you can’t read the sign it says ‘Road Not Suitable for General Vehicles. Self Recovery Required’- that means walking out for help as there’s no cell phone reception and then paying an exorbitant call out fee for someone to come and rescue you. So think carefully before undertaking the drive.

Back on the main road we take the Bendigo Loop Road and find all that remains of the once bustling Bendigo town(1869-1872) are the stone remains of the bakery and a few stone walls. The bakery is close to the road and in the front yard of a very large winery and vineyard. Extensive vineyards are now being established on the terraces and lower slopes of the old gold town site.

And of course I had to stop to take a photo of the sign from another vineyard on the road. Some of you will remember us visiting The Lonely Graves near Roxburgh. ‘Someone’s Darling’ is buried there. I reckon it’s a good marketing move to have a label like this; wouldn’t you buy the product for your loved one if it had a label like this. The same goes for rose bushes, give them a name like ‘True Love’, ‘Sweetheart’ or ‘Memory’ and they’ll sell like hot cakes.

We had one last stop on the back road from Clyde to Omakau to look at this unusual water race with concrete steps instead of the usual pipe, which was a more expensive method of lowering the water. It was built in the 1930s when most of the extensive irrigation networks and major dams in the region were constructed. The irrigation race operates from mid-September until the end of April.


  1. Wonderful record Shellie. How long did the trip take? Was it an easy day trip? Cheers Chris

    1. Thanks Chris, glad you enjoyed it. It's a good thing I take plenty of photos, I got the time off them :) The time at the first gate is 12:30pm and the last one is 4pm, so 3 and a half hours which would include probably 45 minutes of exploring - and taking photos ;) Yes, it's an easy day trip as long as there's no snow or it hasn't rained recently.

    2. Just on the timing, so 3.5 hours just for the Thompson Gorge Road bit? Plus extra for the trip back via Cromwell and Clyde? Thanks, looks great.

    3. Hi Gareth, yes 3.5 hours just for the Track, although I guess that depends on the condition of the track and when the last rain fell. We had a good run.

  2. Fantastic south island rd!. There is so much to see and do there. Took a similar rd to the brass monkey motorbike rally this year,mid winter of course,just magnificent.

    1. It sure was a great road to explore and it sounds like you also drove the same road on your bike to the Brass Monkey. You were lucky to get through in winter, it's usually snowed under.


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