What this NZ road trip definitely did promise was wide open spaces, exploring seldom used passes and long overdue solitude. The terrain of the central South Island ranges from vast sub-alpine grasslands to densely wooded mountains topped with scree slopes and snow.
As promised, Jo broke me in gently on the first day with a fairly straightforward journey past some stunning high country lakes that nestle between the arid hills like uncut jewels. After a welcome but frigid swim, we pushed on and camped a few hundred metres off the road, on a sheep station up Danze’s Pass. Farms in the rural parts of NZ are known as stations as they are generally well off the beaten track and cover huge tracts of land.
We were conscious of not having permission to stay on this station, but as there were no homesteads in sight we made a hasty, yet neat camp for the night. It was exquisitely clear and silent which felt completely alien after the incessant racket of the city life we were used to.
We woke early the next day and headed for the Serpentine Pass, somewhat of a Holy Grail for 4X4 enthusiasts as it is accessible only in a 4X4 and only when it is completely dry! We were in luck with a clear and dry day. A few kilometres in and I was already squirming in my seat and franticly pumping an imaginary break pedal. All of my efforts were in vain though as Jo was now ploughing through the rugged terrain in full four wheel drive, entranced in a state of mud-splattered ecstasy! (This breed of adventurer is indeed a curious type, known to survive for weeks on coffee, diesel and adrenaline alone!) But it was all worth it as the Serpentine Pass offered views of rural NZ that defy any description – just go there!
Another lake swim, a hair-raising riverbed traverse and what felt like the opening and closing of four thousand farm gates later, we reached the Red Hut, well into the Ohau valley. By now my complaints about semi-aquatic Toyotas were limited to sporadic whimpers of, “Bul, jy skud my wyn!” The hut was immaculate when we arrived, fully stocked with firewood as is the unspoken rule when it comes to staying in these isolated mountain shelters spread across New Zealand. It was incredibly picturesque and serene, leaving us feeling humbled and privileged.
Our last two days were spent at the McCaulley Hut, which in comparison to most back country huts, was like the Ritz! It had running water, an outhouse and even an outdoor bath! I can highly recommend a hot soak accompanied by a cold beer, enjoying the conversation of the river while surrounded by an amphitheatre of rugged mountains.
And it was so amazing we stayed an extra day during which our peace was slightly disturbed on the second night by a merry mob of Land Rover enthusiasts. Had they not been such cracking, cool, bohemian types, we would have resented the company, but rather we relished this lively end to our extremely adventure filled and solitude rich experience!
Joubert and Christian used a book called 4WD South Island by Ken Sibly & Mark Wilson to navigate their way around NZ. To create a similar 4X4 NZ experience, also check out the Department of Conservation www.doc.govt.nz