Monday 11 April 2016

The Walk to Nowhere- MacKenzie Country


You may remember my post about The Road to Nowhere. Well now we have the walk to nowhere! 

And just in case you've lost where we're at, this is a catch-up post from December and we're still parked at the DOC camp beside the Ahuriri River in Omarama in MacKenzie Country.

I had a DOC brochure mentioning a walk to the Wairepo Kettleholes, a series of shallow ponds (called tarns in the high country) and that they are important feeding grounds for a number of bird species including black stilts, wrybills and black-fronted terns. "Great!" I thought, lets do some dedicated bird watching in an area that wouldn't have too many visitors.

The entry point was 14km down Quailburn Road which wasn't far from our camp site and in fact carried on past the turnoff to the Clay Cliffs, heading towards the mountains.

It was a big surprise to round a corner and see the prominent and familiar shape of Ben Ohau across the farmland and to find that we weren't that far, as the crow flies, from Lake Ohau, hidden out of sight below the ranges in the distance. The road we explored a few weeks beforehand up the west side of the lake, was also just across the paddocks.

We parked near the entry point to the Kettleholes... (and now I'll try & let the photos do the talking)

...and headed off down an old farm track via a public easement...

...over the first hill and the road stretches off into the distance on a day that's getting hotter by the minute...

...then over the next hill and still the road stretches off into the distance. This is starting to get a little boring. David is getting hot & bothered. "Surely we don't have to walk to the far end?" he says. Where are these elusive kettleholes! 

We're escorted the length of one paddock by a herd of frisky cows. This beautiful- if somewhat boring when you're walking it- landscape & former sheep country, is being converted to dairy farming. Hence the newly widened and gravelled access track we're walking and the new fencing and water troughs we're seeing. 

The hunt for 'white gold' has reached way back here in this stunning high country. Where winter temperatures drop below zero, snow lays on the ground for weeks on end and the soils are poor, how will cows survive? Not to mention the unnatural effect pivot irrigation has on the surrounding landscape, turning dry and arid tussockland and alpine herbfields into pasture. 

Finally we reach a stile and the only tell-tale sign that it must be a conservation area is the orange DOC marker pole. No signs. No directions. Nothing.  

David scans the horizon- dry tussock as far as the eye can see. We head off towards the middle, I think I can see some taller growth indicating a waterway.

David checks his 'go-to' GPS app- ViewRanger on his cellphone. It seems that whenever I look around to see where David is, his head is down and he's reading his app. A bit like me I suppose, all he sees is a camera stuck to my face. 

Anyway he tells me I'm heading in the wrong direction and we should be heading up the fenceline, so we weave our way back through the tussock to the fence and follow a vehicle track that runs alongside it. Off to the side and a good distance away I see first one, then another, and another rust coloured depression in the ground (zoomed in below). These must be the kettleholes; I had read that red tussock is a feature of them. But there's no water. They are bone dry.

I can see a slight rise ahead of us. Perhaps there'll be a bigger and wetter kettlehole up there. Well I got it half right, there was a bigger tarn but still no water. Which meant no birds. David was utterly incredulous- "you mean we walked all this way for nothing?" Yep, seems like it. He walked off in disgust, heading back towards the entry point leaving me to marvel at the landscape and the photographic opportunities that lone bright green willow provided.

And to wonder what the two short parallel fences were for that ran down to the dried up tarn in various places around the outside. There were at least half a dozen of them. You can see one to the left of the tree in the photo below (click to enlarge) and another part one to the right. And I still have no idea why they are there.

Never one to miss an opportunity, I took a few photos of the flowering groundcovers-

And then rushed to catch David up; another herd of cows, young heifers this time, had rushed over to the dividing fence to check us out. They were now skipping (see far left),bucking and running after David down the fence. I don't think these cows had seen any humans for a few days, and were probably thinking we had food for them. 

Once I got to the corner where they were gathered of course I had to stop to talk to them, and take some photos. They all crowded in around me, nosey ones at the back pushed others forward until they broke away snorting. 

Being heifers they would have been used to handling during their rearing but even though they were keen to come forward and sniff my hand, or push their tongue out far enough to touch,  they just weren't game enough to let me pat them on the head. 

By now David was way ahead of me. Time rushes by when you're having a chat...

...and finding another subject to photograph. Maybe that's why there's no water in them tarns, the tank is leaking!

And finally I arrived at the stile where David is patiently waiting, and reading his app again....or maybe it's the news. 

We head back up the farm road, the first herd of cows have broken into two, one lot are chasing the sheep across the paddock, the others are running up the fenceline with us. These guys really must be lonely.

At the top of the last hill I look across the paddock to see that lone willow and the tiny black dots of the heifers I said hello too. Even as the crow flies it looks a long way off; our walk took us off to the left, out of picture, before turning in along the fence to the willow. A bloody long way, all for naught.

I smiled later when I re-read the DOC brochure; 
- "...the result is gently rolling hummocks of moraine and a series of depressions which are sometimes filled with water"
'Sometimes' being the operative word. And as it was early summer when we visited I'm guessing that they only have water in them during the middle of winter after snow melt or after a long period of rain.

It wasn't until I was choosing the photos for this blog post that I discovered that the DOC sign post at the beginning of the walk had the words 'Department of Conservation/Te Papa Atawhai" painted over. And now I need to know why; the walk is still listed on the DOC website, it's still in the brochures. I'm wondering if all the dairy activity around the site has or is going to curtail access. I'm now on a mission to find out this space.

Update- How's that for service I fired off an email this morning to DOC's Twizel office and I got a response this afternoon. Some retched beggar has blown bullet holes in the sign and those are the repairs! Problem solved. I also asked about the fences around the tarn. They are permanent vegetation monitoring plots. The plants within the plot are being monitored for research purposes around the wetland areas. Cool. You learn something new everyday.


  1. The possible reason for the parallel fences could be that if the tarn was ring fenced off access to water could be obtained down these formed raceways preventing pugging around the tarn perimeter. MR. Brown.

    1. Good thinking Mr Brown! If you re-read the post I've now found out the answer :)

  2. We did this walk this weekend. The Doc website didn't have much about access and Google kept trying to tell us to turn off into strange paddocks. Slightly confused I tried to search the walk hoping others had posted about getting there. We ended up finding this and then we relieved to find the last marker a few minutes later! The kettleholes were more of a slight bog at this time of year (late spring). We still got a few "is that it?"'s from the group 😁


Thank you for taking the time to leave a message, I love reading them! All comments are personally moderated by me and I will post and answer them as soon as possible, Shellie