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Southern Dispatches

19 March 2018

by Dave Mitchell

A favorable weather pattern gave us the only excuse we needed to head south to the tracks and trails of Otago and Southland. A road trip on the cusp of autumn was soon conceived with our van packed to the gunnels, maps selected and bikes prepared within an inch of their lives. It wasn't going to be all biking as Ditte had never seen the Catlins and my memories of, were past their use by date. We dropped “The Valley Girls” (Russ & Barb) off at the airport, on there way to start the Tour Aoteroa and we were on the road, to where they would eventually end up.


On the Hakataramere Highway the retired Waimate Gorge Railway trail (decommissioned in 1971) delivered us to a steep DOC track that climbs onto the Studholme Reserve tops. The track meanders down to a small waterfall surrounded by large totara trees then traverses via the Bellbird Track through open tops and above bush remnants to the very top of the Waimate MTB Park. Alas logging has decimated the landscape for about half of the descent on DDT#3 & DDT#2, but the lower section hits the native bush and is most excellent, technical and challenging. The White Horse Big Easy uphill trail lived up to it's name returning Ditte & I back onto the ridge top (nice ride up). The replanted pine forest will eventually be back providing pine needle single track to the upper trails in the not to distant future.

Cake Tin

A gloomy day greeted us in Dunedin as we drove to the Whare Flat trails in the southern hills above the city. From Bull Pen carpark we sampled the Fir Trail, Snakes and Ladders, The Green Mile, Burma Road, 3 little Pigs and Mackie Dackie before the drizzle set in, exit east to the almost deserted Toko Mouth crib settlement, to explore the sandy beach and camp for the night.

Government Track

The lonely narrow Waipouri Falls Road travels inland from the east coast, Henley and Lake Waipouri, towards the Hydro settlement of Waipouri Falls. Power generating dams and surge chambers mix it with the South Otago bush and plantation pine. We parked up 100 meters beyond the trail head and commenced the familiar making of lunch and bike readying dance. What to wear, what to wear and hey does familiarity breed contempt?

The track veiled in mystery climbs steeply up a few zig zags, through orange barked native fuchsia to a bench of a most agreeable gradient. This winds its way gradually up the contours leaving the valley to its own devices and the surge chambers to do what comes naturally to these devices. The bush was thick and lush with massive beech trees, stunningly green broad leaf and ferns dominated the stream gullies. Manuka hugs the dry faces and we encountered plenty of stinging nettle to keep us on your toes, where the odd slip and tree fall has messed with the balance of power. With no dock leaves handy we were reminded with days of tingling not to mess with these trail side opportunists.

A block of steep open farmland half way up interrupted our flow but provided views across the valley to all things hydro and an overview of pine and native. Back in the bush for more great trail that finally delivered tussock tops, a perfect string of three sets of power lines and a massive commercial pine forrest tumbling out north down over the ridge to Loch Louden and an old derelict school. Kowahi Spur Road dissects the lot but you may struggle to find one amongst the pine needles. Rolling with a surprising amount of stored gravity made the return downhill a blast. The dry leaf litter and track clearing we had done on the way up only added to the confusion. I must say if we lived a bit closer we'd be back up in a jiffy to give the old boy a bit of a hair cut and wack out the track side stinging nettle. It's all beer and skittles until someone looses an eye and it was all over too soon. Repack and head for the Catlins.

The Catlins coast is stunning and the bush isn't far behind. What it lacks in long range tracks is made up with short front country trails, a beautiful coast line, lighthouses, sea lions, penguins, petrified forests and waterfalls. We managed one ride in the Tawanui Area but got rained on and soggy whilst returning back to camp. Had much better luck the day before, tramping the Catlins River track in sunshine. Nice DOC camp spot at Tawanui.

Electric Blue

We headed for Tapanui, Wiskey Gully Domain and the Blue Mountains. So named in the 1800s as they looked blue like the ocean from outer space. With no MTB trails on offer we indulged in a tramp that follows Wiskey Gully Stream through native bush and more flaming nettle. It then climbs steeply breaking out onto open tops and wanders along the summit ridge for ages. At lunch the expansive views over the lurid green rolling farmland dotted with whiter than white sheep and a spider web of roads fanning out forever revealed itself. We had crossed into Otago and were looking forward to the schist, gold mining relics and legendary trails that reside in the hills between Roxburgh and Alex.

Ditte Does Doom

Flat Top Hill resides above the beige waters of Butchers Dam and contains some astounding sections of technical single track. Peppered with mighty rock tors and Otago schist of every shape and size amongst the thyme and rose-hip fields, its top would be hard pressed to provide anything remotely flat. Its east flank plummets steeply to the emerald waters of the mighty Clutha River and the Clutha Gold Trail. We found a new trail (Ashe's Trail to Doom) had been cut on the traverse around to a much improved Doom Rock descent that challenged our DNA, meaning of life and everything. A short section of river trail connected us to the aptly named Sphinx Track. This climbs gradually like a switch backed serpent, for five relaxing kilometers back onto Flat Top. Excellent work you lawn mower wielding trail builders.

We lunched in the sun admiring the expansive views east to the barren and rocky Knobby Range, west down to Butchers Dam and beyond up to the Obelisk Range, its very top cloaked in a veil of southerly smog trying to decide if it was coming or going. We descended back to base via Purple Haze and a Jimmy Hendrixs sound track plucked from my memory banks back catalogue.

Day two saw us back up to Flat Top via its northern aspect. A series of steep gnarly climbs got us smartly onto the summit ridge. We undulated south along Back & Blue Trail all the way back to the top of the Sphinx Track. We wanted to sample the bermed corners, flow and speed of this trail, knowing the climb back up was going to be OK. This endless downhill delivered on all fronts.

With the climb back up done and dusted we returned via the ridge top to enjoy the rocky drop offs, occasional jumps and new bit of trail that descends aggressively to Butcher Creek and roams back to the dam. We returned to base in time for tea or at least to start making it. Bullock Track beckoned with a favorable forecast predicted for the Old Man Range tops the next day, fingers crossed.

What a Load of Old Bullocks

Holy moly, steep would best describe the initial 700-meters of this climb. I felt sorry for the bullocks having to cart all those mining supplies, grog and food into these mountains way back when. The gradient did ease a tad beyond the halfway point, marked by a lone pine kowhai tree perched amongst schist boulders. Mushroom, puff balls and other unknown-if-edible fungi abounded, taking advantage of the heavy dew and ample sunshine. Below us an ever expanding view of the Teviot Valley and a patchwork of orchards, paddocks, shelter belts and pine plantations. Both Roxburgh town and the Roxburgh Dam and hydro settlement, skirted by the Clutha River and lake beyond the dam, lay at the peripheral edge of our view.

So much for the sight seeing bit, there was a serious climbing job to be done now that riding was barely sustainable. We reached the Pomahaka Road junction and the legendary picnic table, schist tors and storm battered wooden sign just in time for first sandwich. This dry weather road and 4WD track surrounded by snow grass, wanders in a westerly direction into a folded landscape of the Old Man Range. We crossed Bullock Creek then commenced a final climb to just over the 1100-metre contour. A steep descent with a loose and rutted lower section finally delivered us to our goal - the old alluvial gold tailings in the Pomahaka River Junction. Located beside the most historic old Junction Hut and slightly less historic newer Junction Hut.

You could eat off the floor of the newer Junction Hut, tidy and provisioned would inadequately describe its state of being. We looked but did not touch, lunching instead on its front lawn via another well placed picnic table. Wandering along the adjacent water race gave a lofty overview of the extensive tailings and dwelling remains. The return uphill looked daunting with a push up the lower rutted section, but the remainder proved remarkably ridable. Back up at the top and with over 1500-metres of downhill before us and a pile of mushrooms to stuff in our back packs, there was no time to waste.

Loaded down with foraged fungi, each one the size of a medium sized fry pan and happy with the smooth and fast descent we arrived back at the truck planning tea. Now what goes with fried in butter, all you can eat field mushrooms? We must recommend the real fruit ice-creams at the Bullock Creek entrance fruit stall.


The Kopuwai Conservation Area covers a vast track of tall tussock, snowgrass and spaniard country dotted with monolithic tors. It sprawls along the tops of the Obelisk and Old Man Ranges. Our ride would take Ditte and I up Prospect Hill Track to the Obelisk and return via the Omeo Gully Track. We parked up on Fraser Dam Road and peddled the smooth dry weather road to the Prospect Hill saddle. The hydro road building boys had been busy carving the old farm track up with massive fancy diggers, graders and dozers making a two lane service and supply road into the upper Fraser River via the Prospect Hill Track. Which incidentally had all but disappeared under the carnage in a little over two weeks since they commenced work.

We made the most of the smooth line up between the corrugated self laying tracks, but it still remains a mean climb. Thankfully the road builders had headed west at the Three Sisters Junction, while we continued climbing up the main ridge via the original 4WD track, towards this sodding great TV tower. It's perched within schist throwing distance of the multi-million year old monolith they call Obelisk, and guess which one will survive the next million years. At a tad under 1700-metres up we mistook the well ventilated TV backup infrastructure for NZs highest chippy. The rarefied air or maybe a mirage may have caused this misconception.

Lunch on the sheltered side of baby Obelisk gave us a commanding view from the Remarkables, Aspiring, St Bathans Range and way across the Maniatoto Basin. A brisk south westerly was humming through the tower and had provided a little bit of assistance to our plight as we neared the tops. We back tracked 500-metres to the Omeo Gully/Obelisk Loop Track and commenced our 1600-metre descent. Ruts and washouts hidden by waves of tussock and snow-grass precluded throwing caution to the wind. Herds of impressive and healthy spaniard would have made poor crash sites and their small offspring that littered the trail a puncture fest without TR tyres, rim with WR and latex sloshing around inside. Again the tell tale white domes of fungi dotted the lower slopes all the way back out. We closed the loop gaining 12 deg C, loosing the wind and packing up in what felt like a heat haze.

A well deserved rest day was on the cards with a shop and a good look around Alex, plus maybe garner a bit of local knowledge on the trails that reside on the wrong side of the railway tracks.