Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Unfinished Business- Across the Top


While we were staying in Ettrick and with fine weather forecast we decided to see if we could connect a 4WD road that we'd attempted to drive from the Piano Flat end earlier in the year.  

Waikaia Bush Road, which runs across the top of the Old Man Range from Piano Flat near Waikaia in Southland to Shingle Creek in Central Otago, is a public road that is closed for five months over winter. And for very good reason. The gates are locked due to the remoteness of the area and sub-alpine conditions up on the plateau. 

This is the range where a group of thirty eight 4WD enthusiasts got caught out in blizzard conditions last year and spent 24hours stuck in thick snow waiting to be rescued. And these are the snowcats that eventually rescued them. They were parked in a farm paddock at the bottom of the road.

We steadily climb up the track, stopping often to open and close farm gates as we go. My reward for the effort involved in climbing in and out of the ute is that I get to take plenty of photos! David gets to roll his eyes. He's such a patient man....most of the time. 

This is not too far up the road, looking back over the Roxburgh Dam. The track you can see on the south bank is part of the Roxburgh Gorge Cycle Trail- the section from the dam wall to Shingle Creek. It's an impressive trail with some magnificent scenery although I think the boat ride that joins two sections of the trail is more my idea of fun.

We climb higher and the views behind are fabulous although a little hazy. The road is smooth, dry and easy going but being clay, that can turn to custard at any hint of rain. We keep a close eye on a big dark cloud bank building up to the south.

Looking east to Roxburgh- this reminds me of the view we had when we drove (slipped and slid) to the top of the Bullock Track back in 2014. It heads up to the top of the same range but nearer Roxburgh and joins the Mt Benger track behind Ettrick, so Harry tells us when we're having a talk later.

And this is looking north-west towards Alexandra, centre left of the flat hill. That's the Clutha River wending its way to Lake Roxburgh, and the main highway mid right. I love the texture and colours of the tussock covered slopes on the hills in front of us. 

You can see from up here why this is called Flat Top Hill. It certainly didn't seen like that when we walked the track up and over the hill a couple of years ago. Flat Top Hill Conservation Park will be known to many RVers, Butchers Dam free camping area is part of the park.

 As we approach the top, the track starts to get lumpy with a few boggy patches and wash outs where water has flowed over it on it's long and convoluted descent to the Clutha River far below.

Valleys and gullies are thick with spongy brilliant green mosses where the crystal clear water flows or trickles through on it's way down the mountainside. Hardy merino sheep graze the far slopes in the top photo.

We're nearing the top and still going strong, 1366 meters at the summit. It's not only David's watch altimeter that says we're near, it's also very cold outside. There's been a significant change in temperature once we passed a thousand metres. 

On the top and we arrive at another gate and the entrance to the Kopuwai Conservation Area, a huge 16,780ha area that takes in Old Man Range and the nearby Old Woman Range. The remains of a old stone hut sit nearby, most probably a remnant from the gold mining days. Potters No. 2 gold diggings are not too far away. In the 'great snow' of 1863, thirty men from Potters lost their life trying to cross Old Man Range to safety. 

And this is looking towards Waikaia Valley and Piano Flat, off in the distance somewhere (see the map below for the pins showing how far we travelled up the road from both ends). It's looks like a pretty unassuming landscape but as we know, looks can be deceiving. Water creeps and flows across the tussock plateau, gathering in tarns and bogs and seeping out over the track. 

And because the plateau is relatively flat, the water gathers in pools on the road, some are shallow, others deep and thick with mud. The grader driver that we stopped to talk to when we started up this road from the Piano Flat end told us he'd pulled several vehicles out of bogs up on the top over the summer. He told us to drive through the bogs not around them, they're usually firm on the bottom whereas the sides are mud and boggy. 

But this 'shiny' won't be going any further today (and the AA Hut won't be added to my hut photo collection, even though it's only about a kilometre away). We passed through a few shallow bogs but they were becoming more frequent and muddier and we started to feel uncomfortable. We'd seen no one else during the trip and we were a little worried about getting stuck. We do have to be careful, our ute tows our home and if something happens to it, we ain't going anywhere fast. 

As if to rub salt into the wound, we're backing up when two trail bikes fly past us frightening the bejesus out of me as they roar off into the distance (you can't turn on these tracks, the tussock covers bumps and dips and more bogs). Back at the gate I see a blue spot off in the far distance down a side track. I zoom in and see a ute and tent; probably a hunter camped out and looking for deer. It is the beginning of the roar. We weren't alone after all.

We head home...unfinished business still unfinished.

The dark rain laden cloud has moved over the top of us now but it carries on past, up and over the top of the plateau behind without spilling a drop.

Below in the valley we can see the green patchwork of the stone fruit orchards Roxburgh is famous for. And way off and out of sight on the range across the valley is our favourite Lake Onslow.

About half way down we stop to check out this new installation over the top of a mountain stream. I have no idea how it works but it must monitor the water flow as the water eventually enters a small water canal that then winds it's way down to a farm pond at the bottom of the road. 

Perhaps it has to do with Central Otago's controversial new water allocation permits that need to be negotiated before 2021. Up until now the water drawn off has been under old mining permits which were issued as water rights by Mining Wardens under the Goldfiled Act (1858), long before data on flows and allocation were available.

It's hard to reconcile that there's a shortage of water in Central Otago, with many secondary rivers and streams running shallow or dry....

...when there's a huge volume of water flowing down the Clutha through its hydro dams on its way to the sea.

Roxburgh Dam 


  1. Hi Shelley, shame you didn't get to make it all the way. The digger you saw the day i met you at Piano Flat had gone all the way to the small shelter hut (AA hut) so from there to Piano Flat was in very good condition when I went across last month. If you are back down this way next summer you might make it, its got wet up there now. Sing out if you need vehicle company, potters hut is worth the side trip as well. regards Glen

    1. Hi Glen, lovely to see your comment come up! What a bugger we were so close and yet so far. We were wondering what happened to the grader coming all the way through like he told us, now we know! Thanks for the buddy offer, that's very kind of you. Not sure when we'll be back down south once we leave this time though.

      PS- Lumsden 4Square carpark has now painted all the raised nibs bright yellow! It pays to complain sometimes :)

  2. Such beautiful country, I love being able to share your adventures to places I won't ever be able to go too :)

    1. Thanks Carol, it's one of the main reasons I write the blog- so people who can't travel or might not be able to visit some of the places, get to see what a wonderful country we live in. It's hard to imagine there is such diversity in landscape contained in two small islands isn't it.


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