It takes less than four hours to drive from Geraldine to Alexandra on the conventional route. But having had two thoroughly enjoyable four-wheel-drive tours with Robbie and Connie Crickett of NZ Adventures Ltd last year, we booked early for the 2019 Big Sky trip, a mostly mountainous excursion through Otago, Canterbury and a little bit of Southland.

At the briefing in Geraldine the evening before the trip, we met up with two other couples that we travelled with last year and learnt that most of our fellow travellers on these well-organised tours are previous clients. Robbie warned that dust was likely to be an issue due to the recent prolonged dry spell, and suggested that when on the dusty roads our convoy spread out a bit to minimise any nuisance.

Mackenzie Basin

Next morning it’s no time before we’re up into the mountains through Orari Gorge Station, past some of the oldest farm buildings in the country and the first of many musterers’ huts that we see during the trip. To our right, Mt Peel at 1743 metres soars above us as we head towards Blue Mountain Station, and we start to get an idea of just how much largely unseen land there is in these mountains.

Robbie keeps us informed with facts and figures as we drive, mentioning that recently the market for ultra-fine (sub-17 micron) wool has dropped, as apparently the leisure garment market prefers 22–23 micron wool for its products; top merino store lambs fetched $160 in the sale at the beginning of March, and even the poorest fetched $94. He adds that Angus are the cattle breed of choice regionally.

Aoraki/Mount Cook across the Mackenzie Basin

We reach Fairlie where, at the Red Stag restaurant, we’re entertained by a strong-minded Samoyed named Benson. Meanwhile the men move as one towards the Ford F150 ‘Daddy Raptor’ when its bonnet is lifted, before we all head inside for a scrumptious lunch.

Then it’s into the Mackenzie Basin. Most people know that the Mackenzie country is named after the sheep rustler James Mackenzie, but recent publicity about cattle rustling in Northland leaves me without much admiration for the guy, although I have some sympathy for the dog that paid the ultimate price for its part in the escapades.

Women can do anything! Tail enders for the day, Ann and Jaquee Reid, driving through a river crossing

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Climatic conditions in the Mackenzie Basin are extreme. “There’s about 600mm of rain and 100 frosts annually, and then you get snow,” Robbie explains. While the Basin is said to be unspoilt, it’s actually significantly modified, with English grasses, power pylons, hydro development and fibreoptic cables all being obvious. I’ve heard that DOC wants to ‘turn the Mackenzie Basin brown’ but having seen the thousands of acres of DOC land up in the hills, they’ve got enough to worry about up there.

It would be a concern if, driven by ideology rather than common sense, the Basin reverted to DOC ownership and became not ‘brown’ but instead, a bed of the already prolific wild roses, within 20 years. Water rights and land use is too big a subject to cover here, but it’s ironic that around Auckland, elite horticultural soils are being subdivided to make way for urban sprawl, while down south, land – if it’s given water – has the ability to grow an enormous amount of feed or produce.

There’s no shortage of spiky Wild Spaniard

The tenure review’s still making its presence felt, although there’s talk of it being scrapped. Glorious weather and the sight of Aoraki/Mount Cook provide the perfect backdrop to our first day’s drive, which ends at Omarama.

Day two sees us off through the enormous Oteake Conservation Park that includes parts of no less than five mountain ranges. In some places the driving’s challenging but once again the weather’s ideal and the landscape’s picture perfect. In these isolated hills we pass remnants of water races built largely by Chinese labour in the 1870s to service the batteries in the goldfields.

Mitchell’s Cottage

The Chinese were brought in to work in support of the miners, and after the initial construction works many stayed behind and successfully fossicked for gold that had been left behind by the European miners. Their treatment was appalling, and some of those who had been lucky in finding gold disappeared never to be seen again. A time of shame for our country.

We enter the Lauder Basin and pass more historic farm buildings before heading miles up into the hills on some fairly rugged tracks. More spectacular views, and a stunning reminder of ‘The Who’ song I Can See for Miles. We’re among amazing rock formations, alpine plants, a lot of the spiny Wild Spaniard and tussock for Africa. It’s here that we see our first moss swamp, an area of moss with incredibly delicate palest blue flowers. This clever plant retains water during the wet season and gradually releases it during the summer, the moss itself drying up over that time.

Obelisk Rock – photo NZ Adventures Ltd

It’s precious areas like this where DOC should concentrate its efforts. The idiots who drive motorcycles and four-wheel drives through these fragile landscapes cause water to release prematurely and upset the ecology. But here today, we feel incredibly privileged to see these very special places and plants. Then it’s into Cluden Station, through another river which someone hits a bit hard and dislodges the number plate, then off to Alexandra for the night.

The third day begins with a visit to historic Mitchell’s Cottage just outside Clyde. Built in the 1880s by the Mitchell brothers using masonry skills learnt in the Shetland Islands, the cottage and outbuildings have since been beautifully restored. Some of the trees remaining in the well-kept, although rabbit-ravaged grounds were planted by Andrew Mitchell.

On the road to Potters goldfields

Then we travel upwards towards the Obelisk, an outstanding 26-metre landmark rock formation in the Kopuwai conservation area. There’s no shortage of schist in this barren landscape; in fact the area is part of the largest alpine schist plateau in New Zealand. Here and there tenacious alpine plants have made themselves at home among the crevices, and we have our first and only close-up encounter with snow for this trip – on the Old Man Range, a physical barrier between Central Otago and northern Southland.

Robbie points out that the green of the landscape reflects the higher rainfall here than that of dry, brown Central Otago. It’s an extremely scenic drive along the tops before descending to Potters, an old goldmining area with an often-harsh climate that in the early days saw many men die of exposure. One such miner was William Pitt, who perished in 1864 while clearing a path in deep snow for packhorses, and whose grave, a 30-minute walk from Potters is said to have the best view of any grave in New Zealand.

Much-photographed Teviot woolshed remains

Probably not much consolation for Mr Pitt though. That year, work had started on installing 300 perpendicular snow poles standing 2.7 metres above ground. Because the poles identified the route, and the depth of the snow could be gauged, the route was a lifeline for the miners.

Inside one of two Potters’ schist huts is a laminated copy of a newspaper report that tells the story of the first motor vehicle to cross the Old Man Range in April 1934. There was no formed road for much of the journey, and Mr Cronin, who made the crossing with a Mr Thompson, said that had there been dew or rain, their chances of getting their Willys 77 over the range would have been nil. The story describes the difficulties they faced during the two-day journey including ruts, bogs, streams and a particularly steep hill as well as being literally stuck between a rock and a hard place, in this case a large stump from where it took some time to extricate themselves. The report also refers to a later crossing in a 1929 Oakland tourer “complete with boy astride the bonnet continuously topping up the radiator from a four-gallon kerosene tin”!

19th century roading

After leaving Potters, we set off past more moss swamps and head a long, long way downhill. During the trip we see a lot of the Clutha River from various vantage points. With a flow that’s twice the volume of the Waikato, the Clutha’s currents mean it’s not a very good recreational river, and swimming’s not recommended. In prehistoric times the Clutha came down out of the Old Woman range until it was blocked by a landslide and a lake formed near Cromwell. Its course then altered, and the river began to head towards Dunstan and Earnscleugh.

Another delicious lunch waits for us at Teviot, famous as the site of the remains of the enormous historic 40-stand wool shed. Apparently, there were once 80 stands, but half of the shed was demolished following a fire many years ago. We’re welcomed to the house and extensive grounds by Trevor and Karen Peters, owners of Peters Genetics, a family business that specialises in Angus bull and Romney ram studs.

Buster goldfield remains

The afternoon sees us up in the Hokonui hills and then driving along the old coach road to Alexandra on part of the Knobby Range. Some of the properties we traverse are in private ownership, but we’ve been lucky enough to access these roads as part of local fundraising initiatives. “This is the nearest we’ve got to America’s Oregon Trail,” says Robbie. Once again, the scenery is outstanding; firstly we look way, way down on the Clutha River, and further along we’re told that the ‘blue blob’ outline we can see in the distance is Stewart Island.

After driving past several rocky outcrops, and over a piece of road that’s been built up and edged with flat stones in another historic engineering feat, we again enter open country where huge fungus rings stand out among the prolific wild thyme in the hills. Then with varying degrees of skill and confidence, we creep our way down the steep incline of New Zealand’s ‘Grand Canyon’, the Roxburgh Gorge, to our overnight in Alexandra. “Now that you’re all safely down, I can tell you that the place we’re at is known as Graveyard Gully,” Robbie laughs, referring to the Manuherikia Junction Cemetery where a monument stands to the 14 pioneers who died between 1863 and 1868.

A couple of locals

Alexandra, the hottest, driest, coldest town in the country has a rich goldmining and fruit-growing history. Remnants of a sturdy historic bridge built in 1882 still stand in the river as a monument to its beauty and the skills of its engineer. As well as the vineyards and the annual Blossom Festival, even the local place names – Shaky Bridge, Drybread, Brass Knocker Road and Leaky Lodge – make this a must-come-back-to kind of a place.

Next day we pass through historic Ophir and travel through big sky landscapes, made famous by artist Grahame Sydney, until we reach Danseys Pass. We’re off to the south end of the Oteake Conservation Park, land acquired by DOC as part of the tenure review. It’s steep, rugged country and there’s so much of it!

Waterwheel at the Young Australian mine workings

In the distance we can see an area that looks like sand dunes, and the closer we get to what turn out to be the Buster Diggings, the more desert-like they become. These goldfields, 1300m above sea level and in a very remote spot, were only ever marginal at best. When WWI broke out, the young men enlisted and the mining operation folded.

Somewhere in these hills is a memorial to police sergeant Garvey who fell off his horse and broke his neck while searching for criminals. A lot of skulduggery went on in these remote places which were often inhabited by desperate people with little to lose.

Looking back at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds from the Pisa Range

We lunch at an old musterers’ hut on Kyeburn Station. Up until 1967 they used mules to bring supplies in here. Lunch included a South Island special, Belgian square. My daughter-in-law’s mother used to make this slice but she had to stock up on cassia during visits to Christchurch, the spice ingredient that gives the square its taste, because cassia wasn’t available in Northland at the time. Although its ‘cousin’ cinnamon was usually substituted, cassia was the ‘real deal’ in terms of taste. After lunch it’s up more mountains and through more streams before reaching our destination.

Day five and we’re on the Crown Range Road at an altitude that’s one metre higher than the North Island’s Desert Road. Last year when we were here, the weather was fine and clear but temperature-wise it was only a chilly 1°. This year the weather’s also fine and clear and the temperature’s a balmy 18° – warm enough for the Ford boys to pose in front of their vehicles.

Boys line up – Ford owners L–R: Neill Bainbridge, Don Reid, Philip Reid, Cam Neil and Bruce Ekdahl

Fifty-seven kilometres of water races traverse these hills. Constructed in goldmining times, they were used to drive sluices and a giant water wheel that originally came from Bendigo Station. With three intakes from the Old Woman range, they still run freely and are still used by farmers today. Users have water rights to 2021 after which they will need to apply for resource consent or obtain another irrigation source. In nearby Tarras, irrigation has been based on miners’ licences, so growers have collectively invested significant funding into establishing a bore field, in the interests of producing high-value yields including milk, meat, fruit and vegetables – we’d previously passed extensive plantings of carrots at Tarras.

The water wheel’s at the site of the Young Australian mine, named after the number of young Australians who worked it. Remnants of stone buildings can be seen beside the wheel. Back in Alexandra, a restored water wheel outside the museum gives an idea of the size of these big machines, and accompanying signage explains the process by which the power generated was used to operate the stamper batteries that crushed the ore.

Looking down on Cromwell, we learn that it is one of the fastest growing towns in the country. It’s the furthest distance from the sea and receives less rain than anywhere else in New Zealand. Beneath apple trees in the vast orchards, some type of reflective foil matting has been laid to help the apples ripen evenly. The view from up in the hills is extremely picturesque with well laid out orchards, the river and its mountain surrounds. But we’re heading to Bannockburn for lunch, then past hopeful gold panners on our several crossings of the Arrow River, before we run out of time and must turn around and head for our destination of Cardrona. We’ve stayed at Cardrona Hotel several times now and its cosy olde-worlde atmosphere, English-style gardens and hearty meals never fail to impress. This visit is no exception.

As an avid watcher of the Race to the Sky in the past, my husband finds it quite moving on the final day of the tour to be driving up the road where so many greats – Rod Millen, the late Possum Bourne and the indefatigable Nobuhiro (Monster) Tajima – raced in the past. A memorial to Possum Bourne, who died following an injury sustained on this road in 2003, once stood here, but it has since been removed to his home town of Pukekohe. We’re intending to drive over the Pisa Range which means travelling through the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG). During the winter months SHPG, a secure site on private land, offers automotive winter testing facilities for vehicles, tyres and components. Facilities include test tracks, workshops, snow and ice preparation, and accommodation. It’s early autumn when we go through, but low cloud on top of the Pisa Range forces us to turn back for safety reasons. As it happens, this particular cloud has a silver lining: Robbie’s talked to Steve at SHPG who gives us a short but fascinating talk about the work they do up here.

One thing about the South Island is that there is no shortage of mountains, so after a drive along the highway to the Lazy Dog restaurant where we’d booked for a delicious platter lunch (we ate like kings during this trip), we were back up in the hills where the views were wide and clear. This, the final trek of our tour, ended at the old Lindis Pass historic hotel where we soaked up some history before leaving for our accommodation where, unlike in the Lindis, the beer still flowed.

And yes! What a way to spend six days! We’ve had a wonderful time and we’re excited to be off again next year on 46 South – a tour that runs roughly along the 46th parallel and will take us into more unexplored territory.