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Isthmus Peak Revisited

28 April 2020

Words: Dave Mitchell
Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen


noun: a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land; mix of debris and lubricant that gets wrapped and packed around derailleur pulley wheels and in-between cassette cogs.


Dirty old cog town

Back in twenty thirteen, baby

Bolting along the tops

Isthmus Peak

Once upon a time on a bright sunny in September 2013 we parked at the bottom of the newly liberated slice of high country on the western shore of Lake Hawea, the the finger of hilly terrain that separates Hawea from Lake Wanaka. Tenure review had entrusted DOC with yet another chunk of conservation land. A nice shiny new bit of trail had been formed bypassing the home paddocks through beech forest and along an open terrace to join a farm 4WD. This climbs abruptly to the very top of the un-named range above. The resident sheep were extremely weary of anything not white, low to the ground or woolly. We saw a few grasshoppers and butterflies but not a soul on that particular ride, up or down. I must confess, it felt a bit selfish to have it all to ourselves.

When pink was

But here's the thing, fast forward to 2020 and reveal the power of social media. In late March with all the NZ borders closed, staggeringly the twin car parks were full. What it must be like in peak season, back during the old normal, we can only imagine and maybe dread.

Spot the sheep

Anyway it's good to see people out there doing it, not watching it. The first section straight out of the car park has some steep pitches and rocky and rooty climbs that had us scrambling for the hyperbaric chamber. The traverse to the farm 4WD was again full of white fluffy sheep who this time hardly made any effort to move off the track. They had no doubt seen it all before like a broken record. This was their home until the freezing works beckoned and their leg was surrounded by roast potatoes and enjoyed by families all over the world.

All up from Hawea

The farm 4WD track does very little but ascend steeply, cut with a powerful bulldozer immune to the effects of gravity. The previous nights rain was giving us exceptional grip and consequently no reason not to try and ride everything. We were mostly sheltered from a stiff westerly that only caught us out on the odd occasion as we zig zagged our way to the summit. Along the ridge top the wind grew cooler and stronger like the grim reaper. Nothing but stunning views fanned out below with a ridge-line back bone of towers and sharp peaks disappearing down towards Lake Hawea, like the tail of a mighty dragon.

Pike marks the spot

Pike descent

With much encouragement from a group of four French nationals, some Germans and loads of Kiwis and Brits, we made it to the Isthmus Peak turnoff . We hunkered down below a huge snow-grass and ravenously consumed a large sandwich each. After adding a few layers, windstopper and warm gloves we continued along the exposed but vista strewn ridge-top to an un-named peak. A solid steel pike driven into its summit. A row of carefully placed rocks circling like electrons around a pike shaped atom, marked the spot.

On top of the world

It was getting a tad windy to continue on the endless exposed trail ahead so we back tracked to Isthmus Peak turnoff. The side track to the peak was sheltered and warm in the midday sun. We snapped a few pics soaked up the view, its enormity only then fully registered. I must say it did feel a bit unreal high up in the snow grass plonked between Lake Wanaka and Hawea. More food was required before the much anticipated downhill could commence.

Topping out on Isthmus

Pole leaning

Those water molecules from the night's rain had really penetrated the track surface holding all the loose rock and dirt together in its atomic vice giving us grip where we had no right to expect it. This may be a grade 5 up, but was no more than a grade 3 down on this occasion, fast and fun where you can actually relax and concentrate. The singletrack reared up to greet us soon enough and, like most of the track, begged the question "did I really ride up that thing". We bottomed out at the blunt end where 22 degrees warmed our merino socks and sent us packing up smartly. It was just a short drive around Lake Hawea to the Kidds Bush DOC campsite for a relax in the sun.

Sheltered descent

The one and only rock shoot

The next day a tramp into the hills called, and all being well in these troubled times maybe a foray on the Dingleburn single track. This resides along the far eastern edge of Lake Hawea and would be the final 800-meter puzzle piece to achieve our 20k ascent odyssey milestone for the 18 rides thus far on our 2020 summer holiday. Then just maybe a three day adventure to the head of the Hunter Valley if the weather gods were still taking requests.

Tin can alley

Foot Note: A weather forecast of mixed metaphors saw us opting for the bush tramp high above Kidds Bush on the Sawyers Burn Track. This is a fab walk to a retro tin can hut on stilts, hidden in a wacky beech forest. It was worth hut bagging though. On our return and much to our surprise we found the Kidds Bush DOC Camp deserted and a sign in the window that proclaimed “CLOSED FOR REPAIR” errr actually "CLOSED FOR COVID-19". It was time to pack up and bale for home, before time left us in limbo or worse, a flat place with no MTB or walking tracks.

Stay safe in your bike box and plan for that special adventure ride on the other side.

Dave & Ditte

Pot black