Thursday, 10 December 2015

A Trip Over MacKenzie Pass

Fed up with the wind, and dust blowing around our Tekapo camp, we headed out on another day trip exploring the back country.

Our destination is MacKenzie Pass, a road that we were intending to do the last time we were in the area. But we were side tracked on the day, a very long side track as it turned out. We carried on past the end of the MacKenzie Pass Road and off down a 60km gravel road to Lake Benmore.

I spot an Angler’s Access sign on a farm gate not far before we turn onto the pass road and we decide to check for trout in the river, which is at the end of a farm track. David stalks a large Brown upstream while I take a few photos of the farm bridge and crossing. There’s another vehicle parked near the river and a courtesy notice in his front window telling us he’s fishing upstream which means, if David had been fishing, it is angler's etiquette not to encroach into his fishing space.

We leave the fishing for another day and head back out and onto the MacKenzie Pass Road. As you can see the pass isn’t actually that high, it’s more of a dip in the hills of the Dalgety Range.

It’s hot, dry and dusty and the wind is still blowing a gale. Off in the distance we can see a very large cloud of dust fast approaching; a stock truck comes thundering towards us, a huge dust cloud sweeping along behind it. We move off the road and wait until it’s passed before continuing on and thank God that the wind is blowing the dust away from us.

The James MacKenzie Memorial is located at the bottom of the pass near the MacKenzie River, which is more a dribble than a river, as are many of the waterways in the MacKenzie basin. The memorial marks the spot where James MacKenzie was captured after rustling 1000 sheep.

In 1855 James Mackenzie became one of New Zealand’s most enduring folk heroes. On 4 March he was caught in a pass in the upper Waitaki River basin with 1000 sheep that had gone missing from the Levels station, north of Timaru.
While Mackenzie was in possession of the sheep, the tracks of several other men were visible in the vicinity. MacKenzie denied the theft, claiming that he had been hired by John Mossman to drive the sheep to Otago. After escaping he walked 160 km to Lyttelton, where he was recaptured on 15 March. In April he was found guilty by a Supreme Court jury and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. 
MacKenzie escaped from his road gang in May and again in June 1855, for only a few days each time. Subsequently he was placed in irons and watched carefully. In September a new resident magistrate at Christchurch investigated the case and found flaws in both the police inquiry and the trial. As a result MacKenzie was pardoned in January 1856. He probably returned to Australia, but nothing certain is known of his later life. He left his mark on the South Island high country, though. The significance of the pass where he was found with the sheep, and of the pastoral country it led to, were quickly appreciated by pastoralists. The region was subsequently dubbed the MacKenzie Country.
MacKenzie’s exploits won him the admiration of those on the margins of society. He was a hero to many would-be farmers of small means. Those who resented the power of wealthy landowners also identified with him, and his rebellious spirit inspired many who did not fit easily into genteel Canterbury society. His pardon was popular in a frontier society still engaged in establishing its social and political norms. His life took on legendary proportions. His almost superhuman strength and his ‘fabulous’ dog Friday saw him held up as shepherd, drover and thief extraordinaire- From NZ History
The inscription on the memorial is in English, Gaelic and Maori (Maori in honour of Taiko & Seventeen, the Maori shepherds that tracked the flock to the Pass).

We leave the memorial behind us and start the short climb to the top of the Pass.

We were a little underwhelmed by the view from the top of the Pass, David especially so, he doesn’t even get out of the cab. We leave the crisp dry countryside behind us and head down towards Albury  and into the Waimate District. 

We still have the dust though and we spot a small cloud approaching us from a distance away. A motorbike appears around the corner as we pull over to let him pass. He waves and gives us the fingers……no he doesn’t. He’s indicating that there are two of them. We carry on and the second motorcyclist soon appears, we leave him to eat our dust.

We’re now on the northern side of the pass and driving through rolling green farmland dotted with lily white sheep instead of the dirty grey of the merino sheep of the high country. This family take their time crossing the road as they look for a way back into their paddock.

Albury and the main road are just a short 12kms away but there’s one more stop we want to make before we get there.

We’re going to surprise Dusty, if we catch him at home. The road we're on passes by the front gate of Albury Park Station. Albury Park Station is where we spent a night as guests of Dusty & Kate, parked in their backyard, over a year ago. We’d stayed the previous night on the road side beside the Mt Nessing golf course and as members, had played a game of golf the next day. You can read about those adventures by clicking the links above.

We turned into the drive and headed up to the house passing the historic farm buildings on the way.

Just as we round the last bend, we meet Dusty in his farm ute coming down the drive. He backs up and jumps out to greet us. Friday barks a greeting too (and now I know where her name came from, it’s just clicked- MacKenzie’s dog was called Friday), while a new pup springs and bounds about our feet, giving quick little nips at our heels and hands when we we're not looking. This is 9 month old Stanley (on the left) a new addition to the family and one that seems to have displaced Friday from her perch. Poor Friday, she would have had her nose out of joint when he arrived.

Of course the farm dogs just sit quietly watching the carry on. We had a lovely cup of tea and a catch up with Dusty. We met the station owners as well, they stopped by for afternoon tea with some lovely home baking. The family have farmed the area for over 100 years and their farms reach right back up to the top of the Pass. We left the family talking business and bid Dusty farewell, before continuing on our journey.

Before long we’ve turned back onto the main road and head for home passing through Fairlie before starting the gentle climb through Burkes Pass (a pass that’s not too much of a climb either). We’ve stopped to shoot the iconic church at Burkes Pass before but have not pulled into check out the interesting looking collection of buildings and old cars nearby. Burkes Pass was originally named Three Creeks, and was a wagon stop at the bottom of the pass. The area was first settled in 1859 and is now considered to be the gateway to the MacKenzie Country.

Three Creeks Arts and Craft is built on the site of the former Burkes Pass Hotel which burnt down in 1994. There’s a fascinating and eclectic mix of items from the past for sale along with art and craft from the present including a large range of macrocapa outdoor furniture as well as indoor rimu furniture. An old 38 Morris that used to deliver groceries at the pass sits beside the Coffee Caravan.

The craft shop and coffee cart are popular with tourists and locals alike. Remember the Edmond’s sign, the Four Square Man, well these and a huge number of other signs and symbols of yesteryear, merino wool products, clothing, accessories, decorative household ware, country themed goods, they are all displayed in the various buildings. It’s difficult to know where to look, there’s so much to take in. Photography wasn’t allowed in the main building where all the art, craft and giftware was located but believe me there was an amazing amount of cool stuff in there too.

There’s a treasure trove of recycled and old bric-a-brac in and outside this building. It must take the owners half the day to arrange the goods outside and take it in at the end of the day. I failed to see the mangle on the wooden gate until I was looking through the photos, otherwise I might just have been tempted to add that to our travelling road show.

Old wheels, machinery, it looks like nothing is ever thrown out. The owner was hard at work down the back fashioning more wooden products. What a busy and hard working man.

This very interesting business adds to the life of Burkes Pass and compliments the work that has gone into restoring and retaining this quaint little historic town of the MacKenzie Country. It’s a place well worth a visit when you’re next passing through the area.

And in case you’re wondering; yes I have worked some magic on a few of the photos. I have a new photo processing programme and love what I can do to some of my more rustic and vintage photos. The problem is it takes me twice as long to select the photos for a blog as I end up ‘playing’ with the many different options. I’ve had to be strong and not get distracted, keeping the the new programme for a select few shots only.

Not far from Tekapo (and home) I spot a flock of merino sheep in a paddock beside the road. This is not just another flock of merinos, this is a flock of very expensive merino rams.

Rams with a grizzled, wrinkly and weathered face, and a huge set of curved and clipped horns.

And this photo is fast becoming one of my all time favourites.

And not a lupin in site….


  1. I only went as far as the McKenzie memorial the day I was there, stopped for lunch down by the river there. The Hakataramea Pass is well worth the journey, much more interesting scenery.
    Your sheep on the road look a lot like my roadblock from further up the road!

    1. Yes the Hakataramea is on our 'must do' list but it'll have to wait for awhile now that we've left the MacKenzie Basin. Glad you finally got home after all your drama. I just found your email a couple days ago, what a long trip home, glad you managed to get there in the end otherwise you'd have been stuck in the Haka! :)

  2. Love your blog. Is the road through the Pass suitable for campervans?

    1. Thanks, it should be fine as long as you're happy with dust, mud & corrugations. A couple of narrow sections but you can see other vehicles coming. Just take your time.


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