Tuesday 5 April 2016

Seeking out the Serpentine- Part 1


Well that's done and dusted. I can finally tick off one my bucket list 'must see' places in New Zealand. The lonely & isolated historic Serpentine Union Church is located 35kms from civilization (our river camp at Omakau), deep within a vast plateau in the Rough Ridge mountains in Central Otago. The church was also at the top of my 'to photograph' list, to add to my collection of country church photos.  

Long Valley Ridge Road (a misnomer if ever there was one- these are not roads but dirt tracks) leaves the Old Dunstan Road, another rough track that snakes across the top of the ridge, not too far past Poolburn Dam. All these routes are summer 4WD driving only- Rough Ridge is closed during winter with locked gates at all entry points from the beginning of June until the end of September- though you can go as far as Poolburn Dam during winter if the road is dry. It is a cold and hostile environment up on the plateau and snows regularly during winter.

And even through summer, driving any of the tracks should only be attempted after a long dry spell, unless you are a true 4WD driver and not driving a 'shiny' like us. The rock and clay dirt tracks turn very slippery and puggie soon after rain. 

It's also wise to have an accompanying vehicle just in case of any emergency. We were able to get good phone reception for about a kilometre, mid-way through the trip and along the ridge at the highest point, but it would have meant a fair hike and a costly recover had we had any issues. The last vehicles to pass through the area had been 3 days prior (according to the visitor book at the church). 

Well, that's the disclaimer out of the way, so don't say you haven't been warned.

It was going to be a long day for us, we left Omakau at 10am and didn't return until 7pm. Of course we were already familiar with the 14km road into Poolburn Dam, this being our third visit; one just a few days before when we took our visitors on a tiki-tour and then last July when we slipped and slid our way there to be rewarded with the spectacular scene of a frozen lake with beautiful blue & white swirls.

Today we  saw our first boat on the dam, a dinghy with two guys heading off to set their koura pots (fresh water crayfish), a scene I doubt that is repeated anywhere else in New Zealand.

Once across the other side of the dam wall we turned left and headed into new territory, along the Old Dunstan Road, also know as the Old Dunstan Trail; a route used by gold miners in the 1860s to gain quick access from Dunedin to the prosperous Central Otago goldfields.

At one of our early gate stops we came across this Swamp Harrier Hawk. At first we were unsure of why it didn't lift off and I was able to get quite close before it became aware of us. I backed off when it started bumbling about and when I uploaded the photos I can see it had a bung eye but otherwise looked quite healthy. Due to the lack of rabbits we saw on the trip and the poison signs on the gates, we think it could have been secondary poisoning. We couldn't do anything for it and it was still there when we returned later in the day. Poor boy(or girl).

There are no road signs so it pays to have a good idea of where you're heading as there are a number of tracks leading off the 'main' road. We leave Old Dunstan Road here and head right, down Long Ridge Valley Road, according to our map and a couple of tracking apps we have on our phones. There is a Serpentine Road that leaves Old Dunstan at the other end of this section of the trail, near Styx, which you might be tempted to take. Don't. It's a rough true 4WD track.

There are at least a dozen gates to open and close on the way in, which means by the end of the day I'd done 48 gate actions; no wonder there was so much dust on my rubber floor mat. And many of the openings weren't as smooth as these ones. I wonder who decided a split gate was a good idea; I'd pull one side to and then have to race to grab the other side and pull that shut before the first side swung open again. My arms just weren't wide enough to reach both together. Well that, and the fact that I was wrestling to hold my camera as well....

Beside one of the gates was an old stock holding pen that had seen better days. 

We stopped often to take in the immensity of this stunning landscape- big skies, rocky tors, tussock and spikey Spaniard stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions.

The road bumps and winds it's way along the top of the plateau occasionally dropping down into a hollow. A hut symbol was marked on one of our maps and as we'd already been travelling for about an hour along Long Ridge Valley Road, we were beginning to think it might have marked the church instead. We'd convinced ourselves it was going to be the church so when we came over a brow it was a big surprise to see a tiny hut off in the distance....and then wonder how much further the church was.

This is Oliveburn Farm Hut, the cutest and most well kept hut we've come across on our travels.

The rough-cast concrete hut was built in the 1940's and would have been used as a rabbiters hut and probably for musterers too – it has the tiniest little porch, two bunks, plates & cutlery, a small sink and bench with chairs to sit at. And there are even a few supplies in the cupboard. At least we had somewhere to walk to, to spend the night, if we did break down! 

Wouldn't it be great if all these back country huts were similarly well looked after and respected by visitors.

We carried on along the track, David loudly wondering, after seeing the road disappear over a crest far off in the distance, when on earth we were going to get there!

Half an hour later and I open the final gate into the Serpentine Scenic Reserve. And we breath a sigh of relief. Even with maps and a good idea of where we were going it's quite disconcerting having no marker points on the road to say you're heading in the right direction. And on a map five kilometres might as well be 50 when you're driving on a slow bumpy dirt track.

The ungrazed tussock is thick and luxuriant in the reserve and alas, the track still wanders off into the distance. Dare I say it, but it also becomes a lot more bumpy and rutted, due I think to the fact, that any 4WDs and trail bikes have had to stick to the track rather than take shortcuts as they have done on the grazed areas coming in. 

Five minutes later and there's great excitement (on my part) when we can finally see over the side of the plateau and far out over a valley to our right.

A zoomed in shot reveals what looks to be the outskirts of Alexandra in the Manuherikia River valley with the Clyde Gorge cutting through the range behind (well that's what I'm thinking anyway).

And there off to our left, if you look very carefully, is the target of our tiki-tour; the historic Serpentine Church located in a vast plain of tussock (centre left, click on the photo to enlarge).

And in this zoomed in shot you can see the track behind winding it's way down to the church and the gold mine tailing pile in the foreground with a smattering of tussock growing on the nutrient poor rocky surface.

Far across this spectacular view is the "Dismal Swamp", Lake Onslow, one of our favourite dams which is accessible from Roxburgh on another dry weather track. Did you see it in the photo, two above, out to the right? There is a rough 4WD track from Lake Onslow to Serpentine but it's not recommended for anything other that true 4WDs. We knew we weren't going to be that far from Onslow but didn't realise that we'd actually be able to see it from here.

Before we head down to the church we check out the ruins of the old miner's cottages nearby (in the centre in case you miss them).

There's a walking track (1 hour return) below the cottage ruins which leads to the remains of the old Serpentine Gold Mine stamper battery and water wheel, both of which are (apparently) in excellent condition due to being recently restored. In 1882, the battery was located at the top of the ridge to crush ore from the mine. It was moved to it's current site in 1890 but the mine didn't live up to expectations and the battery was abandoned in 1891.

We decide we don't have time to walk to the battery, plus it's far too hot and it looks to be a steep climb back up afterwards. I'm a little disappointed as I doubt we'll be back this way anytime soon.

Behind a large rock I find another memorial plaque for someone who spent a lot of his life fishing and hunting in the area (we regularly find memorial plaques in remote and scenic spots). 

We climb to a high point above the cottages...

...where we can see back to the road and the parked ute...

 ...and out in front of us there are more dams in the sweeping vista-

The Greenland Reservoir...

...the Upper Manorburn Dam (Greenland flows into Manorburn). A track heads across the barren landscape towards the Manorburn. The battery walking track leaves it to the right a little way along, and sweeps around the valley to the battery and then down to the bottom where the mine tunnel is located.

We explored the road to the Upper Manorburn Dam, a few days before this trip (blog post still to come on that). The Manorburn Dam road, like Poolburn, is accessed from the top of the Ida Valley. 

And here are Geenland and Manorburn dams together-

And off behind us we can see Poolburn Dam, which actually doesn't look that far away as the crow flies, but is about 15kms and a couple of hours by dirt track.

Poolburn looks like a large puddle in the mountains in this zoomed shot.You can even see some of the huts on the far side. At a high point on top of another rock we had a 360 degree view of all four dams- what an amazing sight! 

And here's a bad pano shot showing three of the dams; this is four photos stitched together- from left to right, Greenland to left of the rock, Manourburn in the middle and Poolburn in the far distance at the right. Lake Onslow is out of shot to the left. And did you spot David coming up  towards me? Click to enlarge the photo.

I could have easily spent more time soaking in the spectacular views and checking out the small alpine plants and quartz showing in the rocks but it was time to move along, we still had a distance to travel even though we could now see the church.

The road made a frustrating wide sweeping curve around the ridge above the church... 

...before finally dropping down into the depression where it's located. Going by the state of the last 200-300 metres of the track the snow must settle and the rain pool here for days on end (in case you have been wondering, the green colour tint between some photos is caused by taking them through the windscreen).

And finally,  hours, 12 gates, 35kms and umpteen photos later we arrived at the remotest and highest altitude (over 1000m) church in New Zealand. The Serpentine Union Church, opened during the winter of 1873, but never saw many services. 

It was said of the first service that the minister was late in arriving (probably due to the weather). The congregation after waiting some time, adjourned to the nearby hotel for refreshments and had been drinking heavily by the time the minister arrived. When the service finally opened with a well known Psalm the, by now lively, congregation demanded an encore! The minister was not at all impressed, cut short the service and said he would never return. 

The church later became a miners cottage, the porch was added at this time.

Part 2- What's inside & what's in store...


  1. The Old Dustan Road is an enduring memory of my first real tour of NZ. It felt like being on top of the world. Brilliant sunshine all the way ... until we reached the top of the long steep down to Alexandria. Then suddenly it was dense fog and cold clammy rain in the town.

    1. Hi Nancy, you're right it did feel like we were on top of the world, especially when we could see far into the valley below. It always amazes me that there's a average day going on down there and most of people would have no idea what sort of environment they have very close to their back-door step. I remember coming down from the top of the south side of Banks Peninsula(a difficult snow covered winding track) into Little River with a cafe full of Lady Lunchalots & weekend warriors in their cycle gear and thinking there's a whole different world above you guys that you'll never experience.

      And luckily we had fine weather all the way! Thanks for your comments.

  2. Once again - fantastic job of capturing the stark remoteness of this region. As much as I am enjoying your exploration, it truly does remind me of the frustration of rarely being able to experience this type of NZ 4WD adventure w/o resorting to a hired vehicle (definitely a suspect choice) with my own heavily equipped 4x4 10000 miles and an ocean away. Thanks very much for this extrapolated reality - much appreciated!!

    1. Hi Mike, nice to hear from you again! It is a pity but I doubt you'd be able to hire a 4WD vehicle suitable to do any of these tracks or if you could, you'd be charged an arm and a leg for the privilege, so much that you might as well just buy the vehicle. In the meantime you'll just have to live vicariously through me! :)

      Thanks for your comments & glad you enjoyed the blow by blow account!

    2. We are lucky enough to live at Moa Creek...we ride (horses) up over there a lot.....stay in an old hut at Poolburn..... or the horse float....I never tire if it.
      They filmed Rohan for LOR uo there and more recently Mulan....glad you enjoyed our stunning piece of heaven

    3. Awesome, as an ex-horse rider, I'd love to do that. What a great place to explore on horseback too. Poolburn is one of our favourite places to visit, we're heading back for our 4th or 5th visit as soon as we can.

  3. So glad I found your blog, we spend our Christmas holidays in Ophir. We bumped our way to Poolburn Reservoir last time in our 2WD. We've just bought a 4WD and I was looking for interesting things to do, the Serpentine Church is now at the top of my list.

    1. Hi Gareth, glad you enjoyed the blog. You won't know yourself now that you have a 4WD, there are so many places to explore in Central I'm sure you'll have trouble deciding where to head. Omakau and Ophir are our favourite places in Central, one day I might even live there! Check my blog for Upper Manorburn and Thompsons Track and Falls Dam for more ideas on where to head; there are blogs for them in there too. Also you can now do the whole of the old Dunstan Trail from Poolburn through to the Styx and beyond to Middlemarch. Have fun, and look out for us on the your travels.

  4. My late hubby and I visited this old church to find a geocache. We tried to drive up the track to do the loop but it was just too wet and rutted for lone travellers. We really enjoyed those back roads in Central, the place of my birth. Didn't get to Onslow tho. Is the road ok for a camper van via the Maniatoto area?
    Love your interesting blogs.

    1. Pleased you enjoyed the blog, did you read Part 2 (link at the bottom of the above blog), you will see that we failed to do the loop too. We've driven from Lake Onslow to Styx but unfortunately I didn't do a blog on it. As long as it's dry and the gates aren't locked, the road is very similar to the Old Dunstan Track. It's across the top so no big ups and downs either. Your camper would have to hardy though, 4WD preferably. We also love Central, it's our favourite region.

  5. Hey dude looks like you had a good adventure at the diggings. Does the mine there have a stream feeding the water wheel area?

    1. Hi, glad you enjoyed the post, no I didn't see any water source.

  6. Enjoy your blog. Had an enjoyable drive into Serpentine Church on 6 December along with 16 other members of our Christchurch based photography society on a 5 day trip around the harder to get to places in the Maniototo. Mostly in high clearance 4wd. Long Valley Rd and track through the reserve was ok even after heavy overnight rain if taken carefully and straddling the deeper of the wheel ruts. Such a thrill to visit the church and imagine the tough life those miners endured.

    1. Sounds like you had a magic time and ticked a few locations off your bucket list. Glad to hear getting to the church was all good too. Cheers, Shellie


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