As much as I had looked forward to travelling through the region, I wasn’t expecting it to be as stunning as it was. This slice of New Zealand known as the Mackenzie Basin is simply majestic.
The Mackenzie region varies from dusty, parched hillsides to jagged, snow-topped mountains and turquoise glacial lakes. During November and December an added bonus are the beautiful lupins, which create patchworks of colour across the countryside. Even night-time is special with crystal, clear night skies.
Burkes Pass is the gateway to the Mackenzie country. At the beginning of Burkes Pass is a small settlement known as Three Creeks. It’s a tiny, historic township with unique craft stores selling retro collectibles, antiques and craftware, classic vehicle memorabilia, outdoor furniture and so much more. And there’s a coffee shop housed in a retro caravan.
Only a few hundred metres along the road from Three Creeks is the Burkes Pass cemetery. Many pioneers have been laid to rest there along with Connie Scott, ‘The Lupin Lady’.
In the 1950s, Connie Scott of Godley Peaks Station purchased a sack of lupin seeds from a local stock agent with the intention of making the region more attractive. David Scott helped his mother scatter the lupin seeds along the roadside.
Lupin seeds are able to tolerate wind, poor soil, warm or cold temperatures and grazing, and the explosive seedpods allow lupins to grow and spread quickly.
Russell lupins (Lupinus polyphyllus) are a perennial herb originally from North America. During November to January the Mackenzie Basin attracts countless tourists armed with cameras eager to capture these iconic high-country flowers.
Environmentalists and ecologists believe Russell lupins are an environmental weed as threatening as broom and gorse. They can prevent native plants establishing and are known to alter the shape of riverbeds. Not only do clumps of lupins cause sand and gravel build-ups, resulting in erosion and flooding, they’re also responsible for preventing some river birds from nesting.
New Zealand river birds such as kaki, wrybill, black-billed gulls, black-fronted terns and banded dotterels nest in open riverbeds, where the openness allows them to see predators such as cats, stoats, ferrets and hedgehogs, and they are more vulnerable when lupins proliferate and provide an environment for such predators to hide in.
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However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Merino farmers in the Mackenzie region have seen value in cultivating Russell lupins. The late AgResearch scientist David Scott believed lupins are an exciting pasture plant.
Russell lupins are a long-lived and nutritious sheep feed that requires little fertiliser. They are high in protein, nitrogen, sulphur and alkaloids, and this combination improves animal performance such as increased wool production and faster body-weight gain. Plus they provide cover during lambing.
I appreciate there are two sides to the Russell lupin debate; however, I just enjoyed being among them.
Another gem of the Mackenzie Basin is the lakes. The three larger lakes (from north to south) are Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki, and Lake Ohau.
As we approached Lake Tekapo we were greeted by spectacular carpets of pastel-coloured lupins – they lined road edges, and many paddocks were adorned with their beautiful flowers. The numbers of tourists among these flowers was entertaining, I’d never seen so many selfie-sticks!
Lake Pukaki was the next lake. Whenever I see Lake Pukaki I’m in awe of its beauty. Huge snowy-peaked mountains provide a stunning backdrop, while the turquoise-blue water is truly breathtaking.
Mackenzie’s largest lake, Pukaki was created by a receding glacier that left huge glacial rocks blocking the valleys. The lake is fed by the braided Tasman River, that runs from the Tasman and Hooker Glaciers near Mt Cook. Being fed from nearby glaciers, it has a distinctive bright turquoise colour created by glacial ‘flour’ (finely ground rock particles from the glaciers). When sun shines on the surface of the lake it reflects off these particles, creating a brilliant blue colour.
Tucked beneath Aoraki/Mt Cook (New Zealand’s tallest mountain), is Hooker Lake, a smaller glacial lake. The track to this lake starts from the White Horse Hill camping ground, a DOC camp (no dogs allowed) within Mt Cook National Park, only a stone’s throw from Mt Cook Village.
We couldn’t stay at the DOC camp (because of our three dogs), so I set my alarm for 5am to get to the start of the Hooker Valley track in time for sunrise.
My first stop was at Peter’s Lookout along Mt Cook Highway (SH80), a popular place to take a photo with majestic Aoraki/Mt Cook in the background.
I arrived at Mt Cook Village before 7am, which allowed me time for a quick look around. I found the Aoraki/Mt Cook School, the only school in New Zealand inside a National Park. The school only has nine children and one teacher, and all the children speak English as their second language.
After visiting the school I followed road signs to the Hooker Valley track carpark. Close to the start of the 5.5km-long track is the Alpine Memorial – a tribute to over 200 climbers who have lost their lives on the peaks around Mt Cook.
After I’d paid my respects, I wandered back to the main track and noticed others already ahead of me. A guy who briskly walked past was returning from his walk – and I thought I’d had an early start!
After about 15 minutes I came to the first of three suspension bridges. To the left was the milky grey-coloured Mueller Lake.
It was an easy walking track, well maintained and wide enough for passing, which was just as well with the number of people walking it!
From the second swing bridge the vegetation changed to more-open tussock and a wider valley floor. Among the alpine vegetation, I came across the Mount Cook buttercup – the world’s largest buttercup. It was previously named the Mount Cook lily. They can grow over a metre tall and have leaves larger than an adult’s hand. The glossy green leaves are shaped like a cup and often hold water after rain.
A long boardwalk led to the last of the suspension bridges, which crossed the source of the Hooker River. And just over a gentle rocky incline was Hooker Lake, complete with icebergs and milky glacial water.
I found a flat rock at the edge of the lake to sit while I admired the scenery. Although some of the icebergs seemed as though they’d melt at any second, after feeling the water I knew they wouldn’t. I read somewhere that the lake’s temperature is usually lower than two degrees Celsius.
Hooker Lake only began forming in the late 1970s when the Hooker Glacier started retreating. In 1990 its length was 1.2 kilometres and by 2013 it measured 2.3 kilometres. The lake is expected to grow in length by another four kilometres as the Hooker Glacier retreats further up the valley.
And guess how deep it is? One hundred and thirty-six metres! I can only imagine how cold it is near the bottom.
I was hoping the clouds would part so I could see Aoraki/Mt Cook’s summit (3724m) but that didn’t happen. Aoraki means ‘Cloud Piercer’.
On the walk back, I spent time admiring and photographing alpine plants, and marvelling at their ability to survive in extreme conditions, often growing in infertile soil or shattered rock with huge changes in temperature.
The vegetation in flower was either white or yellow. Most of New Zealand’s alpine flora, have white or yellow flowers because they’re pollinated by flies, moths and beetles, which can’t detect different colours.
Close to the carpark there was a short path that lead to Freda’s Rock. This special rock is the place Freda du Fair once stood for a photo.
Freda du Fair was a pioneer of mountaineering in New Zealand and Australia. In 1906, Freda travelled from Australia with her father for an International Exhibition in Christchurch and was captivated by photos and pictures of the Southern Alps. When it was time to head home to Australia, Freda headed for the mountains instead. And four years later, in December 1910, she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mt Cook (with two guides, Peter and Alec Graham).
Near the carpark was a plaque on the site where the first Hermitage hotel was built in 1884 to accommodate travellers and tourists. In 1911, construction began on a new hotel where today’s Hermitage sits. But two years later, before the new hotel was completed, a rare flood raced down the Mueller Glacier, bursting through the moraine wall and destroying the original Hermitage.
Feeling energised from the walk and awed by the scenery I drove back down the valley. To my left was Lake Pukaki, shimmering underneath a bright blue sky, creating a mass of turquoise delight.
It’s not just the large lakes that are appealing, the smaller lakes are right up there too.
Loch Cameron lies between Twizel and the Pukaki Canal. It’s a tiny lake known for good salmon and trout fishing, and children enjoy the popular annual fishing competitions held there. But fishing isn’t the only attraction that Loch Cameron is known for. It’s also a photographer’s dream. On still days the reflections are spectacular; golden-brown hillsides are mirrored on the water’s surface creating a serene scene.
In the Loch, surrounded by water, is a tiny island supporting a handful of trees. Again it provides an ideal subject for photography and if you’re not afraid of eels the island would be perfect to swim to.
A little further south is Lake Ruataniwha, an emerald-green man-made lake located in the Mackenzie Basin, just two kilometres from Twizel. The lake was formed as part of the Waitaki hydroelectric project and is fed from Ohau A power station’s output. It was named after ‘Ruataniwha Station’, a large sheep station in the area.
The 4.5-kilometre lake has a world-standard rowing course and is the main rowing venue in New Zealand. New Zealand rowing championships are held every second year, alternating with the national secondary school champs.
Across the highway from Lake Ruataniwha, before the salmon farms, is a sign listing an ‘Old Iron Bridge’. It’s a historic iron bridge crossing over the Ohau River. Crossing rivers was often dangerous for early travellers, and before the bridge was constructed people crossed the river using a wire rope and a cage.
Although the historic bridge undoubtedly saved many lives before it was built there was concern the new structure might allow rabbits to spread to other areas. However, construction did go ahead, and in 1890 the bridge was completed (at a cost of 1033 pounds and seven shillings). It’s the only engineering structure of its type in the Mackenzie Basin and is registered by the NZ Historic Places Trust.
I found the Mackenzie country’s history intriguing and was interested to learn that the area was named after a sheep rustler, James Mackenzie. Apparently James Mackenzie was caught red-handed with 1000 sheep that had gone missing from the Upper Waitaki Valley area. He denied the theft and managed to escape from his captors. However, he was caught again near Lyttelton where he was sentenced to five years’ hard labour. Again he managed to escape, twice from a road gang, but he was pardoned after flaws were found in the police inquiry and the trial. Apparently Mackenzie went to Australia, but little information has been discovered of his life after he was pardoned.
Another item on my must-see list was the Omarama Clay Cliffs. These natural rock formations are just north of Omarama. They’re accessed via a private road, and the farmer has placed an honesty box for a $5/vehicle admission fee, to help with the upkeep of the road. You can also pay at the Omarama i-SITE.
The landscape was stunning and so typical of the magnificent Mackenzie Basin. Although the briar roses had finished flowering they managed to fill the air with sweet perfume. And as for the Clay Cliffs … WOW!
The surrounding vegetation made a striking contrast against the golden clay cliffs towering above. These geological wonders are a mass of tall, sharp pinnacles separated by steep and narrow ravines made up of layers of gravel and silt. Originally they were formed by the flow of ancient glaciers over two million years ago. That sounds like a long time but when you compare it to the 250 million-years-old surrounding mountains, they’re relatively young!
If you’re planning to visit the Clay Cliffs, I suggest you wear sneakers or footwear with some grip. I climbed up as far as I could go, but the path was steep and over loose rocks (varying in size) which made it easy to slip and slide.
Beside the Clay Cliffs runs the braided Ahuriri River, which is popular for brown- and rainbow-trout fishing. The river travels from the Southern Alps and flows for 70 kilometres through the southern part of the Mackenzie Basin before reaching Lake Benmore.
We stayed about six weeks in the Mackenzie area and we could easily have stayed longer. However, we had other enticing places and a long ‘Must See’ list, luring us onwards.
And now added to that list, is to re-visit the Mackenzie Basin in autumn when the terrain will be a kaleidoscope of rustic orange, yellow and golden hues.