Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Seeking out the Serpentine- Part 2

Continued on from Part 1

After arriving at the historic and isolated Serpentine Union Church on a beautiful sunny afternoon I spent the first ten minutes or so rushing around taking photos. Just in case. Just in case the thick bank of cloud approaching from the horizon behind reached us before we'd finished having lunch. I didn't want to come all this way for the weather to suddenly ruin my blue sky day. 

The first thing I noticed as I approached the porch was a great swarm of blow-flies buzzing about. I then noticed a couple of large rabbit holes in the mound of dirt that held the porch poles. And from out of them came more flies. Eeuw yuk. There was obviously something dead inside one of the holes and most likely a rabbit of two. Not pleasant at all and just as well I couldn't see the bodies. 

I have a feeling that they were either poisoned (there were poison signs on nearby gates) or the calicivirus has taken hold again. I also suspect the the sick hawk we saw back at the beginning of the trail may have dined on a poisoned rabbit. It must also be the reason that we saw not one rabbit on the road in, very unusual for this area of Central Otago.

Back to the church- the iron roof is held down by wires weighted with large rocks tied to the ends, it was obviously once thatched as remnants of thatch are still visible from the inside. The chimney has long gone from the back corner and iron patches the hole left behind.

I was a bit worried opening the door as to what I was going to find inside- dead rats (or worse still, live ones), dirt floor full of burrows, someone hiding behind the door, well you never know what surprises await you with old buildings. But I was pleasantly surprised to see a wooden floor and various pieces of authentic furniture- whether they are original or not I have no idea. I've included a number of the photos from the inside in this post; I thought I'd do my bit for social history and upload them as there is very little on the web about the church, other than the standard 'little church, big sky, heaps of tussock' photo.

A centre strut and cross beam have been added to support the roof. There's a raised platform (chancel) at the front of the church from where the minister would have conducted his sermons.

I suspect the coal range was added when the church became a miner's cottage. The wetback (if there was one) and chimney have been removed and the gap re-stoned. The iron sheets on the outside protect this corner.

There are a few old bottles on the window sill (and a couple of Speights cans), and a wooden cupboard on a box in the corner.

David opened its door for me (well, there might have been a body inside). Of course there was nothing so exciting, just an interesting collection of old tools, tins and other relics and a few large spiders. 

An old wooden bench seat didn't look too inviting and was a bit wonky on its legs.

David filled in the visitors book which sat on the dusty table, the last entry was 3 days prior. He also decided to give the floor a sweep with the broom that was propped up beside the door; the floor was covered in thick dust and dirt. I had to stop him quickly as a swirl of choking dust rose and nearly obliterated my view as I took photos.  

Two old shoes...

A couple of old wire wove beds fill a couple of the corners.

A brief history of the church has been engraved into a gothic arch shaped piece of ply. I hate to admit it but we failed to spot the engraving- it was very dark inside the church, most of my inside photos were taken at a slow shutter speed to let in the light. Or perhaps there was just too much dust swirling about- but it wasn't until I uploaded the photos that I saw writing on the board. Click on the photo to enlarge.

Outside, and its another photo of the Serpentine Church- a tiny stone building in a vast and isolated landscape. Pretty amazing really.

The only signs of life on the plateau as we drove through were a large a number of hawks soaring far above us, a few sheep off in the far distance, the odd pipit with a death wish; running and jumping ahead of us...

And dozens of beautifully patterned skinks sunbathing on the warm stones in the church wall. I knew they were native NZ skinks but was unsure of the species, so posted an observation on the NatureWatch NZ site for identification. Here's the response I received-
Good find! There are two different species in these photos. The first and third pictures are of a McCanns skink, Oligosoma maccanni, and the second picture is of a southern grass skink, Oligosoma polychroma 'clade 5'.

We're keen to find an Otago Skink, which are very rare and only found in Central Otago. They are very large lizards by NZ standards and can grow to around 300mm in length. We've only ever seen them at Orokonui Eco Sanctuary on the outskirts of Dunedin.

And here's one final photo of the Ranger in front of the church.

We spent about an hour soaking in the scenery, the warm sun, checking out the church, taking photos and having a late lunch on our favourite seat; the ute's backdoor. Reluctantly we decided we'd better get going before it got too late in the afternoon.

Beyond a closed gate near the church and heading east we could see a rough 4WD track, it climbed up through the tussock before disappearing over a hill off into the distance. We knew that this track would be rough for about a kilometre before it met the old Serpentine Road, but if we could manage it, it would mean we wouldn't have to retrace our steps back over Long Ridge Valley Road. If we took this track we'd then be able to complete a big loop and either return via the Old Dunstan Road or head down into civilization through Styx, into the Maniototo and home via the main highway.

It started off well enough, just a couple of small boggy patches to cross and a relatively straight run along the tops of the ruts. It may not look like it from these photos but the narrow ruts in the track from the church (in the background) to here were quite deep. I had to walk (run) ahead directing David so he wouldn't drop a tyre off into a rut and belly out. Our walkie-talkies were invaluable!

A little further on and the going got a lot tougher- a bigger bog patch that we were unwilling to cross. You never know how deep they're going to be or what's in the bottom of them- this one had a metal spike sticking out and a few mudguard remnants on the side. Bog trophys from past excursions by others through the interior. We also don't have very knobbly tyres and they were already full of mud and very slippery.

David eased the ute up the side, towards the tracks that earlier vehicles had used to avoid the bog. In the end the angle just got too acute for us to feel comfortable- our motto is 'sticky side down, shiny side up' and we wanted to stay that way! First the towbar, then the rear bumper were dragging on the rut ridges behind. David got out to check...

And then decided to see what was in store ahead if we did get through this part- that's him, a tiny dot on the horizon. he came back to say it was marginal, there was another rough patch up the side of hill but also another track that others had formed beside it, still rough but not as bad. 

In the end we decided 'discretion was the better part of valour' and we'd have to return via the way we came. Being by ourselves, late in the afternoon, with no phone reception, driving a 'shiny' and a vehicle which we rely on for our lifestyle, made the decision in the end. It was borderline comfort zone for both of us, but I can see how people can and do push the limits. We kept saying "but just over the hill and we'll be back on a relatively easy track", the lure of a new road was hard to ignore. I've since heard that the Serpentine Road is just as bad; it's not used nearly as much as the Long Ridge Valley Road and when it is, it's by true 4WDrivers- we'll have to check that out from the other end.

And here's what the track can look like, no wonder the ruts are so deep! -

After a twenty point turn and a popped mudguard (very hard to turn on a narrow deeply ridged track) David carefully drove back towards the church. We heaved a big sigh of relief when we got back to the gate. We knew the road ahead.

Without the stops to explore and take photos, we made it back to the Serpentine Reserve gate in half the time.

And then it off across the plateau travelling on a road that seemed alot bumpier than before. Perhaps it was because we are travelling at a slightly faster pace, keen to get the miles behind us before the sun dropped into view ahead of us.

We did stop a few times; once to check out an airstrip (shown on one of our apps) which was down a side track- it was a relatively bare and bumpy strip of earth covered in short tussock stumps and pitted with rabbit holes. I doubt much would land here, perhaps it's a top-dressing refill point or somewhere they carted in fence supplies for the new fences and gates that criss-cross the area.

I still carried my camera out for every gate opening; you never know what might take your eye. Like these Spaniard spikes beside a rock and poking out of the tussock. 

Finally, 1 hour and 40 minutes after leaving the church we're closing the gate on the Old Dunstan Road- this same same distance this morning, took 3 hours. We're within sight of Poolburn Dam...

...which looks absolutely stunning in the late afternoon light (6pm)...

We found the guys from the dinghy this morning sitting out in the sun enjoying the peace and quiet and their very own 'happy hour'.

Half an hour later and we're heading down into the Ida Valley which is looking mighty green compared with our visit last winter. The Rough Ridge dams are doing their work.

Then up and over Raggety Range (still love that name), stopping one last time to take a photo overlooking the Manuherikia  River valley and Omakau outskirts. It looks amazing in the light of the setting sun (7pm). If I hadn't felt so worn out after our 9 hour tiki-tour, I would have returned to the lookout with my tripod and captured some panoramic shots. That'll have to wait until next time. I have a feeling Poolburn hasn't seen the last of us.

And that was the road, there and back, to the Serpentine. Another amazing day, enjoyed well off the beaten track. It was time to follow suit and enjoy a long cool drink.


  1. Wonderful remote 'big' landscape. Now I learn where's the most isolated church in NZ! Why is poison used? For controlling rabbit pest?

    1. Yes, poison is used to kill rabbits. Another introduced pest that causes a lot of heartache. Rabbits destroy pasture land and native plants. Although they do have their purpose- they provide food for other introduced pests eg rats, ferrets, stoats, weasels- if rabbits were eliminated altogether, these would then feed on native birds (much more than they do so at the moment).

  2. Hi Shelley,
    My son & I visited the church several years ago, with a group of others in 4WDs. We came in from Dunedin and over the Old Dunstan Trail from Clarks Junction, it certainly is an epic journey.
    Unfortunately I don't think I would manage it these days in the vehicle I have now - less ground clearance than I used to have!
    Glad to see you had a weather perfect day for it, it is certainly a trip that should be on everyone's to-do list!

    1. Hi Lisa, nice to hear from you. I thought you might have covered some of this area being so close to Dunedin and knowing how you love a challenge! ;)

      Yes, we were pleased with the weather too. I would hate to get caught out there in the would mean no blog post for a few days! :)


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