Change of Seasons

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Allan Dick experiences winter and early spring in the Mackenzie Country

Story Allan Dick Photos Allan Dick and Helen Harrison

How was your winter? Let me tell you about mine.

The idea was that we – Miss Google, assorted animals (three cats and Audrey the dog) and I – would spend four weeks in a reasonably remote area of the Mackenzie Country called Ben Ōhau, 15 kilometres or so west from Twizel heading into the mountains. It ended up being exactly six weeks because Lockdown II arrived just as we were about to get back to civilisation. We hummed and haahed a bit and decided we liked it so much we stayed for the duration.

Miss Google had long harboured a wish to winter-over in a really cold part of New Zealand, so, short of the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook or camping among the frozen peas in the freezer in the garage, staying in the cottage attached to Jason and Amy Menard’s property at Ben Ōhau was the answer.

But first, there was a little acclimatisation adventure – three nights’ winter camping, just so Ben Ōhau wouldn’t be too much of a shock.

We had already handled a mid-winter camping trip (see issue before last), so we knew what to expect. What we didn’t factor in was the 4WD system on the Nissan breaking down and leaving us with just rear-wheel drive.

 

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We found this out while mooching near Lake Mahinerangi when heading for Lawrence from Ōamaru. We ventured towards the old cemetery down a road covered in about six inches of snow, but when things looked just a little too challenging we decided to get out – instead we got stuck! In reality, it wasn’t so bad. It was a glorious day, warm with clear blue skies and, had the worst come to the worst, we could have stayed there until the spring thaw! But, after an hour or so digging away with our small ‘toilet trowel’ we broke free and were back on the road. That first night was spent near Lawrence where it started to freeze at sundown and we awoke to sheets of ice on a small lake nearby.

Then we headed into Central Otago to get to one of our favourite places on earth – the Poolburn reservoir. We went in from the Moa Creek, Ida Valley end, but the higher we got, the deeper the snow, and without four-wheel drive we played it safe and eventually drove in among some of the giant schist tors here, hid from the world and camped for the night on a bed of snow. 

Next morning we learnt we were just 500 metres from the reservoir, but the snow was a metre deep!

Third and final night was at the DOC site at Golden Point, just down the valley behind Macraes Flat, a place I love for its feel of history. Cooking the evening meal was marginal but by 6.45pm it was pitch black and so cold – minus 11 degrees our thermometer said – that we escaped to the warmth of our boudoir and crushed ourselves under all of the blankets we had on board. There was a real chance of us freezing half to death, but just after midnight there was a wind shift and temperatures soared to about zero – so it wasn’t so bad.

With that experience behind us we reckoned we were pretty much set for anything Ben Ōhau could throw at us. Miss Google had spent a weekend in the Menard’s cottage at Ben Ōhau earlier in the year and was so captivated by the place she booked four weeks in the last month of winter.

Jason Menard is an American from  Wisconsin with a passion for music and the outdoors. But he also has a ‘real job’ – previously the Marketing Manager with the A2O Cycle Trail, he now does the same sort of work, from home, for the Mackenzie District Council. Amy Menard is a Kiwi from Kotuku, the mother to their three kids and as passionate about alternative living and the outdoors as Jason is.

 

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Wanting a special life for themselves and their family, Jason and Amy bought 10 acres of bare land in the lee of Ben Ōhau about 15 minutes’ drive into the mountains from Twizel, and there they have established a mini eco-resort. It may be devoid of the luxury trimmings you associate with ‘resorts’ because the focus is on ‘homely’.

Initially they built and lived in a two-bedroomed cottage, and when that was complete, they built a second, larger home for them to live in and rented out the cottage as tourist accommodation. 

They have added a small sleep-out and also have a large multi-role garage which serves a as lounge, music studio and movie theatre!

This part of the Mackenzie Country is scourged by two pests – wilding pines and rabbits – and Jason and Amy have declared war on both. The property is rabbit-proof fenced and any bunny that lines up in the sights of Jason’s twenty-two is sent to bunny heaven; and wilding pines are either pulled from the ground as seedlings, or felled for firewood. Their plan for the place includes having it eventually pine and bunny free. But it’s not the job of a moment as both wildings and bunnies are in abundance.

The Mackenzie Country is a large patch of wide-open country in the lower central South Island – you could say it pretty much begins at Fairlie and ends after Ōmarama as you enter the Lindis Pass. This is Big Sky country unmatched anywhere else in New Zealand and that makes the wilding pines in particular so bizarre. Almost as bizarre and as out of place as the huge irrigation pivots that have greened the brown of the Mackenzie in places and seen dairy cows introduced.

The region is named, of course, after the legendary sheep rustler of the late 19th century, James Mackenzie who is actually credited with far more than he ever really achieved. He is glorified in both the name of this great corner of land and a stone monument tucked well away from prying eyes.

There are some clearly defined features of the Mackenzie Country – the space, the ring of soaring mountains, and the great ‘Upper Waitaki Power Scheme’ where man played God in diverting rivers and draining lakes in a massive engineering project that lasted from 1967 to 1985.

I defy anyone visiting or driving through this region not to be impressed by what men with scrapers, dump trucks and bulldozers have achieved. While the irrigation pivots seem so alien here, the canals of the complex power scheme have added to the mysterious beauty of the place.

Those men and machines created a legacy – a huge imprint on this land – and the entire project was overseen by a giant of a man called Max Smith, a man who became a legend in his own lifetime and who seems to have invoked feelings of awe and/or dislike. There appears to have been no half measure when it came to Max Smith.

When the project got underway, the Mackenzie was still very much about as back-of-beyond as you could get in New Zealand. Leave Fairlie heading for Tekapo and you were into another land. SH8 through the Mackenzie and Lindis Pass was a rough, narrow, gravel road and not the wide, sweeping main highway it is today. 

Nor was there the level of communication we have today, so the whole project had the air of another world about it, giving Smith a huge level of autonomy – which he took advantage of.

This became Smith’s Kingdom, and stories of the ‘liberties’ he took with the plans drawn up by the Ministry of Works in Wellington are legend. He seems to have changed plans and added to them as he saw fit and his underlying feeling seems to have been that because of the mountain of tax dollars being spent on the project it should be more than just something industrial – there should be a recreational aspect to it as well. The rowing course and service buildings at Lake Ruataniwha are just one example of Max Smith’s contribution – his work is to be seen everywhere, if you know what to look for.

The scale of this project is mind boggling – it stretches from Tekapo to the top of the Haldon arm of Lake Benmore and there are almost 60 kilometres of canals that slice across the countryside, skirting mountains and traversing valleys and gullies. I cannot think of another single human project in New Zealand that has so transformed such a large swath of countryside.

It was the end game in the hydroelectric development of the Waitaki River. First there was the Waitaki dam at Kurow built in the Great Depression. Next came Benmore in the late fifties and early sixties, then between Waitaki and Benmore came Aviemore and, finally, the piece de resistance, the Upper Waitaki scheme – although in geological terms it really is the Mackenzie basin scheme.

Over the past 30 years I have driven SH8 from Ōmarama to Fairlie many, many times and every time I have had to blink at the audacity of the canals which you cross twice on that drive. I have ventured down the occasional side road and seen more canals and huge pipes carrying water to distant power stations, but I have never really known how it all works. 

 

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 It has been a mystery. But after six weeks in the region I have come to understand. 

Really, it’s easy. Lake Tekapo was raised by increasing the height of the dam at the natural outlet and then water taken from the lake via a canal, across the countryside to the northern side of Lake Pūkaki. Pūkaki was also raised and a second canal exits from the southern side and heads for Twizel where it empties into ‘Smith’s Dream’, Lake Ruataniwha. But before it gets to Ruataniwha, in behind Twizel this canal is joined by another shorter canal that drains water from Lake Ōhau, which was also raised by a dam across the natural outlet.

Then from Ruataniwha another canal (now carrying water from Tekapo, Pūkaki and Ōhau via Lake Ruataniwha) heads east to the top of the Haldon arm of Lake Benmore and thence into the Waitaki River. Along the way from Tekapo, water from the canal passes through five power stations; those plus the three on the Waitaki River, Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki making eight in total in this entire scheme.

Initially they were all run by the state-owned Electricity Department but in the great Max Bradford-inspired privatisation and carve up, all eight stations from this combined scheme went to Meridian Energy (51% owned by the government), but in a later review the then-government decreed Meridian had too many toys, and the power stations at Tekapo and Pūkaki were transferred to Genesis (also 51% government owned), leaving Meridian with six.

Another legacy of the hydroelectric development of the greater Waitaki River has been the birth of a couple of towns. Otematata and Twizel. Otematata was created in 1958 as the base for the building of Benmore and Aviemore dams, and while about half of the workers’ houses were eventually relocated to Twizel, most of Otematata was left to become a holiday town.

When the Upper Waitaki scheme was launched, Twizel was born with the intention it would be closed down and nothing but bare earth left when the project was completed. 

But saving Twizel was one of the things Max Smith successfully fought Wellington over.

But Max wasn’t finished yet. He also envisaged a canal running parallel to the Waitaki River pretty much all the way to the Pacific Ocean, with power stations along the way. 

So certain was Smith that he could persuade Wellington to do it, he started on preliminary work based from Otematata before Wellington threw their hands in the air and said, in a very loud voice “STOP!”

Max went off into early retirement. However, a decade later, his canal scheme was revisited under the name Project Aqua, but it drew too much opposition from fisherfolk and environmentalists and was quietly put away in a bottom drawer.

I make no apologies for zooming off into a description of the complete Waitaki power scheme because the canals have become an essential feature of the Mackenzie basin. Along with wilding pines and bunnies.

So, Twizel, against all expectations, survived. Well, more than survived; it’s become a successful and increasingly popular place to both live and holiday at.

Like its name, Twizel was never a pretty place. Indeed, when Twizel was chosen as the name for this new construction town, people screwed up their faces at the ugly sound of it – taken from the nearby river, Twizel is named after the Twizel Bridge in Northumberland, England. At its height Twizel boasted the largest school in Australasia.

The vast majority of houses in Twizel were simple rectangular dwellings plonked at an angle onto a bare section. The houses themselves were either relocated from Otematata or were built on a production line basis in Ōamaru by two companies – de Geest or Firman.

Even though Twizel has expanded and aged, and additions and plantings have softened the look of the place, it’s ‘hydro’ town beginnings can’t really be disguised. Around the original core of streets and workers’ houses, there are new small subdivisions with some quite elaborate and posh houses, but on surprisingly small, handkerchief-sized sections considering the vastness that surrounds the town.

But, apart from the town, there is also another side to living ‘in Twizel’ and that is the lifestyle blocks out the back of the town.

When creating the canal scheme, the Ministry of Works bought a number of farms and stations and these became difficult to ‘farm’ after being bisected by the canals. So, a local entrepreneur, Frank Hocken, bought the land and subdivided it as lifestyle blocks. The uptake was swift and ‘out the back of Twizel’ is now a sea of lifestyle blocks, some with flash houses, others with very, very rudimentary dwellings.

It is out here that wilding pines are out of control and I am surprised it is not a requirement for land owners – those on the lifestyle blocks – to clear them. But I understand that the home owners like the wildings for ‘privacy’.

It’s out here, where we were spending our six weeks.

The first four weeks were spent exploring as many of the side roads that we could, and getting to grips with the canal system. There are four towns in the Mackenzie – Fairlie, Tekapo, Twizel and Ōmarama.

 

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It is the administrative centre of the Mackenzie District and now almost world famous because of the Fairlie Bakehouse that sees queues of people every day waiting patiently for one of the pies that they have heard so much about. The fame of Fairlie pies shows how something can take on a life of its own. As a pie enthusiast I can vouch for the fact that Fairlie pies are great, but there are many others around the country that are the equal and better.

We made just one visit to Fairlie as it’s on the other side of Burke’s Pass and you have to breakout of the Mackenzie basin to get there.

If there is a town in New Zealand that has the potential to rival Queenstown in terms of – watch how you say this Dick – ah, tourism potential, it is Tekapo. Lakes, skiing, spectacular scenery – it’s got it all, including artificial hot tubs, artificial skating, two ski fields nearby and lots of development that you feel is not universally approved of by all ‘locals’.

Covid and the break in international tourism has had the expected downturn effect on Tekapo, but you just know that if you could board a time machine and see 50 years into the future you would find Tekapo as another Queenstown. Good thing or a bad thing? We will all have our view of that.

We visited Tekapo a couple of times, stopping on the way at the information centre/toilet/small shop on the Pūkaki dam to have a drink and buy some salmon. With views clear up Lake Pūkaki to Aoraki/Mount Cook I have often wondered why there is so little development here.

Ten or 15 years ago an old friend originally from Dunedin surprised me when he admitted he was responsible for relocating a small stone cottage to Pūkaki from Timaru. 

He pulled it to pieces, numbered the stones and rebuilt it alongside SH8 where it looked as though it had always been there. 

Plantings almost hide the place today but it’s now been joined by a sizeable resort that sits alongside. In fact, this area of land had long been available for development but nobody has really done anything. I hear though, that a Vaishnava Hinduism group from Lake Pūkaki have plans for a significant development behind the resort.

Twizel has two Four Square Shops! It also has the remarkable Jake’s Hardware where the variety of stock you’d find in a Mitre 10 MEGA is crammed into a place little bigger than a corner dairy. Worth a browse. 

Looking for knitting wool in Twizel? You will find it in the local sports and outdoor shop. Of course you will. And that’s the theme of Twizel – multi-purpose shops. The café also houses a small and perfectly formed bookshop.

It’s all quite quirky and eclectic.

Twizel is also where Meridian Energy has its centre that controls waterflow through the lake outlets and power stations. Being an electric power company, most of Meridian’s vehicles are electric – Tesla or Nissan Leaf and the like. Twizel very probably has more electric vehicles per head of population that anywhere else in New Zealand. Maybe the world!

 

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Around the town centre is also the most remarkable collection of rubbish and recycling bins you will find anywhere in New Zealand. I think I counted five nests, each of six very large bins that are electronically monitored so that someone, somewhere, knows when they are ready to be emptied. The local Mackenzie council has also stationed large dumpster bins at key road junctions around the region. 

The thinking of most other councils seems to be based on the premise that if there is no bin, people will take their rubbish away with them … Wrong. We are a nation of litter bugs!

We visited Ōhau – the first time since the devastating blaze that swept through the small alpine town destroying dozens of homes. Lots of rebuilding going on but no real evidence anymore of the fire.

But our greatest pleasure was from driving to the end of various roads and exploring the canals.

I had, on a previous trip, been to remote Haldon and Black Forest stations on the eastern edge of the Mackenzie. On that occasion I had turned off at Dog Kennel Corner just out of Burke’s Pass. 

On this trip though, we followed a sign that said ‘River Road’ from near the dam at Pūkaki. The use of the word ‘road’ is questionable – this is really the bed of a dried-up river and after 40 minutes of low gear bouncing, jouncing and crashing we passed by a standing chimney that indicated at one stage human beings had lived in here. Eventually we came to a remarkable bridge – simply two steel girders hung across the Tekapo River and a sign calling it ‘Iron Bridge’ and warning us to be careful!

Back on SH8, near Twizel, there is a sign to ‘Old Iron Bridge Road’ and I wondered if this was it – but then I considered we were too far away. Later I did find that other Old Iron Bridge – it is part of the original road before ‘the project’.

On the other side of the girder iron bridge we found ourselves at the back gate to the huge and remote Haldon Camping ground, but closed at this time of the year – is there anything as desolate looking as a large, empty camping ground? From here it is just a short drive to Haldon Station with its pretty little school and on to Black Forest Station.

We didn’t fancy heading back via River Road and although it was much longer, we opted to get back to our cottage through Dog Kennel Corner. River Road was an adventure, but not twice in the day thanks.

We also followed Glen Lyon Road around the base of Ben Ōhau and up the eastern side of Lake Ōhau. Maps showed the road went deep into the Hopkins Valley, but in reality it stops at Glen Lyon Station owned by the Wigley Family. I learnt later, it’s just a matter of showing manners and asking and the family will let you through providing you have an adequate vehicle. Next time perhaps.

It’s an interesting road that was built as a ‘make work’ in the Great Depression, and the workers lived in a small hut at the roadside which still exists today and is ‘maintained’ by locals. The place has its own system of running water and an alfresco bath and spa! Apparently a squatter arrived a year or two back and took the place over, including having a dog that kept people at bay. He was eventually ‘moved on’. 

It is similar, in a way, to the roadworkers’ hut on Braemar Road between Pūkaki and Tekapo.

We did day trips with picnics to the end of the Ahuriri Valley, Lake Alexandrina, Jollie River up the side of Pūkaki, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Lillybank Station – once owned by my namesake Allan Dick, but also by Tommy Suharto, playboy son of the former Indonesian strongman.

The weather? Well, this is a region renowned for its extremes – searing cold in the winter, blazing heat in the summer. We arrived mid-winter and left in early spring with the first blossom just appearing and some lambs in the paddocks. We arrived with heavy frosts every night and even a hint of a hoar frost. Occasional rain and two quite heavy falls of snow. And it can be windy. From nowhere comes a gust that almost knocks you over, that rattles doors and bends windows. Many homes have berms built around them as some sort of wind protection – but an absolutely magic, dramatic part of the world. However, something needs to be done about wildings and bunnies. 

Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine. 

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