Saturday, 19 March 2016

Return to Poolburn Dam


Some of you will remember we visited Poolburn Dam last July. It was middle of winter and after slipping and sliding our way through 15kms of rock, mud and snow, we found a spectacular scene at the end of the track- a frozen lake on a rocky, cold and windswept plateau.

We had been thinking that we'd like to take the 5th-wheeler up there during summer and stay for a week or two, in total isolation. Where we could rest, relax and fish, and I could catch up on photos and blog posts. We've since decided we'll stay here in Omakau for awhile, we didn't want to get caught up at the dam if the weather changed, and after the cold, bleak day we experienced there, we think it might have been a little depressing if it didn't clear for a few days.

With Pam & Gerald staying beside us at the river and with just a day to spare before they headed off again, we wanted to show them Poolburn and check out the road again. So we squashed into the ute (we don't have a double cab, it's a super-cab with small jockey seats in the back and suicide doors), and headed off on the 30km trip to the dam.

Poolburn Dam is located on top of a plateau along Rough Ridge at the southern end of the vast & sparsely populated Ida Valley in Central Otago. This is at the beginning of the track looking back down towards the valley in the background.

The weather forecast suggested the cloud would lift as the day wore on, but the higher we travelled the lower the cloud, with the temperature dropping considerably too. At least the road was bone dry and it was an easy run through. And the lake still looked amazing. 

Tones of grey and taupe were the prominent colours, with the unusual rocky tors spread far and wide... 

...the mute colours in sharp contrast to beautiful blues, whites and russet colours of our last visit.

Other than a shepherd on a quadbike rounding up some stray sheep, we hadn't seen anyone else on our way up to the dam. We weren't on our own once we arrived though, a sleeper hire van passed us at the gate (a long way to travel for a night's sleep) and this fishing hut also had occupants, with one of them fishing off the point.

This was a similar view of the hut last July with the frozen lake, you can see how far the dam's level has dropped over summer. The white ice is regular frozen water, the blue ice is weak and unstable, it's sometimes called 'rotten ice' and is unstable for curling or skating on.

And although I think the dam looked stunning last winter, there's something very serene and haunting about the overcast sky and calm subdued dam of this visit. 

There was one similarity though; it was bitterly cold on both occasions.  

We drove on around the dam edge heading for the dam wall, something we couldn't do last time because of the snow and mud. Ahead of us we could see the main flock of sheep which the shepherd we'd passed on the road had already herded into the dam 'paddock'. I love the fishing hut up on a rise sheltered from the wind and separate from all the others, which were mostly on the edge or very near the lake.

The crazy sheep raced ahead of us, then stopped to watch as we passed them by. 

Over the hill and the dam wall came into sight as did a work vehicle on the other side.

It was a little strange to find two bright orange coat clad men walking about in amongst the rocky tors. They were surveying the dam wall; spraying ugly pink dots everywhere and checking to see if the wall had moved at all. 

We drove down to the bottom of the dam wall, crossed the small stream and wound our way up the other side.

We turned right at a T junction ahead of us; to the left the Old Dunstan Trail headed off across Rough Ridge. This 175km desolate and dangerous(at the time) route was the quickest way in the 1860s for goldminers to get from Dunedin to the Central Otago gold fields. We're hoping to connect  a few dots while we're here and drive part of the trail through to Styx which is as far as we reached coming up the Maniototo Valley last winter.

We headed to the last few fishing huts on the this side of the dam....

... where we donned our winter woollies and had a walk around and checking the lake for any fish. Pam got her rod out and had a cast into the lake, just to say she had fished Poolburn Dam. The bitter cold got the better of her before too long and there were also no fish to be seen. 

I wandered about taking photos of the corrugated iron clad huts, even the old caravan had weathered to the same colour. 

The alpine Spaniard (aka Horrid Spaniard or Speargrass) provides a splash of green amongst the rock piles. It's thorny leaves and flower spikes warning intruders off. Spaniard belongs to the carrot family, and Maori used to use flax ropes to pull it out of the ground for it's tubers. The rest of the plant was hung above a fire to extract a sweet smelling resin that was used for chewing gum and to make jewellery.

We drove back over the dam and around to the other side of the lake where there was another cluster of huts and where it was a little more sheltered. We were looking for somewhere to have lunch, maybe in the lee of a stone stack or behind a hut but with nothing forthcoming I'm afraid I have to report that we eventually found the perfect spot at someone's picnic table! We did feel a little awkward about it but I'm sure the owners wouldn't have minded had they met us and of course we left no trace.

After lunch including a welcome cup of hot soup, Pam & I walked amongst the other huts taking photos. Some of them belong to fishing clubs and others look like they hadn't had visitors in a very long while. We liked the one with the street light outside, of course there's no power out here but I wonder if they have it connected to their generator.

And then there were the assortment of longdrops. One built into a rock cave, a his and hers made of old steel cabinets and the usual corrugated iron and wooden door loos tied down with number 8 wire.

I was hoping for the weather to clear but it was not to be. We squeezed back into the ute, put the heater on high and headed back down the long and winding road and back to camp, stopping to take in the views across the Ida Valley along the way.


  1. Great to see your photos, yes it was a cold day. It was my family staying in the hut and my husband is standing by the rocks fishing. The weather did improve the next couple of days and we had some good days fishing.

    1. Small world! I bet that was a surprise to see when you read the blog- how did you come across my blog? If you send me note with your email address, via the contact form on the right of the blog, I'll send you a copy of the photo.

      We actually passed back through Poolburn a few days later when we drove to the Serpentine (there are 2 blogs for that trip under April), and yes the weather had improved a lot.

  2. No need to send the photo, I have managed to save one from the blog. I came across the photo when we were googling for photos of the dam at low water. It was interesting to see the sheep migrating back and forth each day until some of them found a way around the fence down by the lake and the whole lot followed.


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