The Rock & Pillars Range was the destination for a group four-wheel-drive trip organised as a fundraiser for Dad’s local golf club. I was keen to see somewhere new, so happily went along. The meeting point for eight-thirty in the morning was over an hour’s drive away – when I realised there was only going to be three of us in Dad’s 4WD (Dad, my uncle Geoff visiting from Australia & me), there would be room for my bike too. With a pick-up in the morning, bikepacking the day before & camping somewhere overnight before meeting at Clarks Junction seemed perfectly feasible.
This plan also meant that I’d finally get to ride to the end of Ramrock Road (a gravel road that goes through the hills west that I’d ridden down part-way a few times in the previous weeks) and see what was there. After an early lunch & farewelling Adele (off for seven weeks in Canada skiing & ice-climbing in the cold), I set off for Middlemarch (also one terminus of the Otago Central Rail Trail – which I hope to ride as a training ride shortly). A warm, but cloudy, day it was perfect for bikepacking on deserted gravel roads – plenty of hills to conquer and great views added to the enjoyment.
Looking back towards home.
Hills and clouds.
After about three hours, I was at the high point of the day – the biggest challenge having been avoiding the livestock all over the road & trying not to frighten large animals into trampling me as I whizzed downhill to the Nenthorn Valley (which was once a busy gold-mining town – one is advised not to venture too far off the beaten path lest a fall down an old mine shaft brings one to demise). One last steep climb up to Moonlight Road and my fifty-eight kilometres of gravel was over as I cruised down to the Taieri River and stopped for lolly cake (yum – haven’t had that for years!) in Middlemarch.
As it was only late-afternoon, I figured I had plenty of time to make it all the way to Clarks Junction before the pub kitchen closed (the pub is pretty much all there is at the Junction). So I set off along the valley floor, knowing that soon the road would give me much more climbing on the second half of the thirty kilometres. For a State Highway, the road was deserted and few cars passed me in the evening light. Hoorah – the pub was still open; I was the only patron as I devoured a lamb burger and set up my tent, for the first time in months, in the sparse and dated playground.
Monday dawned bright and sunny – I was baking in my tent before seven o’clock. I was pleased that the two days’ weather was this way around – I would not have wanted to bike almost one hundred kilometres under such fierce sun; likewise, heading up the Rock & Pillars would not have been very scenic on a day as cloudy as the one I rode. As the group assembled – ten vehicles in total – Dad & Geoff arrived with my breakfast and I set about loading my bike & camping gear into the back of Dad’s Suzuki.
After a brief briefing, we all set off up the Old Dunstan Road. Another deserted gravel road climbing up into the hills, I couldn’t but help think of the bikepacking possibilities of such roads – especially since I could ride from home & seemingly just keep going all over Central Otago.
After steadily climbing up on to a plateau, our first stop of the day was on the shores of the Loganburn Reservoir – where guide-for-the-day John regaled us with local farming and fishing anecdotes.
Soon after, our little convoy left the road heading up on to the range on the 4WD track. The route became more & more rugged as we climbed. With all the other vehicles having substantially more ground clearance & just generally being large 4WDs, the little Suzuki and Dad were working hard to clear and avoid various obstacles – mostly a lot of rocks and big ruts. We occasionally stopped to regroup, look at the view or find the correct route.
The views opened up, naturally, as we climbed – the reservoir in the centre.
As we got above about a thousand metres above sea-level, the tussock grass got more sparse in places and low herbs and cushion plants became more predominant. At times looking west, we could even see The Remarkables range near Queenstown and Mt Aspiring near Wanaka.
Shortly before noon, we arrived at Big Hut (it was pretty big – there was even a large room seemingly entirely devoted to table-tennis) where we sat outside in the sun and out of the breeze eating our picnic lunch while admiring the view east (I tried to pick out landmarks on the route I followed the previous day) and watching a helicopter ferry the odd tourist up to look around.
There was still more climbing, bouncing and jolting around to be done after lunch as we went past Summit Rock. 4WDing sure is uncomfortable as we bounced around at such low speed. It may be a lot more effort, but I would have much preferred to be on bigger diameter wheels on my mountain-bike avoiding most of the obstacles and at least being able to anticipate the unavoidable ones.
We didn’t stay on the official route for much longer, instead turning off to travel through John’s large sheep farm on the western side of the range. By now Dad had had enough of the challenging route, so I drove down the hill on the better made farm tracks – thankfully I had to concentrate enough that I wasn’t constantly pining for a bike. I also forgot to take any more photos at this point, apologies. Once off the Rock & Pillars, we called in at the pub in the small village of Patearoa. Unfortunately, it was closed – but never mind, John just called the landlady & she came around and opened up just for us; ah, country NZ.
To finish the day, we traversed the northern foothills of the range through more of John’s farm to end up on north of Middlemarch on the highway. I was interested as we crossed the rail trail again near Daisybank, where I may just camp sometime soon. A great day exploring new country – but I’m not convinced sitting in the back of a 4WD, getting covered in dust and generally getting shaken to pieces is for my near-future.