31st January SOUTH ISLAND-MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS
We leave early to catch the Interislander ferry across the Cook Strait through the Marlborough Sounds to the South Island. After a short wait at the port, we drive on and head upstairs to the seating area which is filling up quickly and make use of the on-board wi-fi for the three hour crossing over relatively calm seas to the port town of Picton.
As we approach the Marlborough Sounds, we climb up to the top deck to take in our first views of the South Island as we peacefully glide through the intricate maze of inlets, headlands and beaches formed from a vast network of ancient sunken river valleys flooded after the last ice age and so convoluted, they make up one fifth of NZ’s coastline.
Gliding over crystal clear blue waters of the sounds with moody skies and stunning views of vibrant green mountains, small islands and bays all makes for a great introduction to the South!
As we had booked a whale watching trip for the following day, we drive 156kms and 2 hours south towards the coast and the town of Kaikora. We pass through Blenheim, State Highway 1 taking us out into the picturesque Awatere Valley. The drive takes us on a winding road following the dramatic Pacific east coast shoreline, plenty of seals basking on the rocks below to our left, and the imposing snow-capped Seaward Kaikoura Ranges to our right as we drive past lots of roadside crayfish stalls and cherry stands.
We pull into the picturesque peninsula town sandwiched between the mountains and the sea and book a room at a campsite in the centre.
1st February CLARENCE VALLEY
We leave Kaikoura and head for the remote Clarence Reserve conservation park, an epic 4×4 track straddling the Seaward Kaikoura ranges in a vast and rugged high-country landscape. Martin especially had been wanting to do drive this track since we had decided to ship to New Zealand. The reserve is only open to 4WD vehicles on five weekends per year so we had to make sure we got the timing right.
The route to the valley takes us 5kms south to the Waiau turnoff and then inland for 25kms. Martin parks up and signs in with the DOC warden at the gate who assures him it is a well maintained track and there is no problem to attempt it solo. However the paperwork we are given states certain sections of the track are steep and rough with slips and floods common, and there is no guarantee of a safe vehicle passage! We also have to check out the next day and any vehicles which don’t after a certain time would be automatically placed on a search and rescue alert plus the police would be notified.
The road from the entrance first crosses Kahutara River and takes us up to Blind Saddle, steadily climbing on a mud track through farmland to a height of 500 metres in thick fog and cloud. We are unable to see the dangers over the edge of the tight and winding road although we assume it is a few hundred metres drop into oblivion! The mist at 600m is so thick that visibility is just a couple of metres in front of us.
The steep mud road takes us up and up with the mist seeming to encircle us even more. We enter a series of hairpins climbing sharply into the cloud as we drive along the ridge of the mountain. Visibility drops back to 2 to 3 metres and we are still climbing with a sheer drop to the right of us. The mist descends into the valley below us. Up at a height of 1190metres we have reached Blind Saddle and the road has certainly lived up to its name today; we are supposed to see a fantastic panorama of the surrounding landscape but all we see is a thick layer of eerie fog.
Suddenly the mist disappears giving way to blue skies to reveal an incredible view of the mountains meeting the valley below and green alpine clad hills rising up to the right.
There are a couple of motorcyclists with a guide just ahead of us as we drive towards Bushy Saddle. From this vantage point we can see the 4×4 track going all the way across the mountains. The views are breath-taking, with each one getting better as we turn each corner!
In the valley below us, we see the mighty 220km long Clarence River meandering its way along the rocky outcrops and incredible land formations all the way along the mountains, it’s journey following a natural fault line between the Inward and Seaward Kaikoura Ranges.
The track descends from the saddle, a narrow and at times rocky and muddy track, all the while a sheer drop to the left down the mountain; it’s terrifying, beautiful and exhilarating all at once!
At the bottom of the valley, we come to Tent Poles Hut made of corrugated iron, one of the two surviving huts built to provide accommodation along the track for musterers (men who would round up the livestock) and pack-men before crossing Blind Saddle to the ‘front’.
We drive along the rocky streambed of Seymour stream. One of the motorcyclists has stopped just ahead of one of the steam crossings and his guide and companion are nowhere to be seen. He tells Martin the bike has got wet and won’t start but the other two are not too far ahead and will come back eventually!
Imagining what it would be like in winter; the whole valley must flood with ice slabs slipping down the steep slopes.
We catch up with the other motorcyclists who have now stopped and let them know what has happened to their friend, before arriving at a clearing with colossal sheer mountain walls covered in pine trees enclosing us. The red colour of the mountains are remnants of ancient underground volcanic activity.
At the junction, we follow the track downstream to the confluence of Seymour stream and the Clarence River, stopping at Seymour Hut, an old hut with a few worn looking mattresses and two wooden platforms for people to sleep complete with a log fireplace in the corner.
Awe-inspiring views of convoluted mountains and alpine covered slopes remind us of scenes from LOTR. Some of the highest mountains outside of the Southern Alps are within the Clarence.
After leaving Seymour Hut a chalky white mountain comes into view covered with limestone outcrops.
At the junction in the steam, we follow the confluence and head towards the Quail Flat area, with a homestead which dates back to the 1860’s. The leaseholders would use materials at hand for building such as willow and elm used for framing. Station life in Clarence valley would have been one of isolation and limited communication. Maori living at the mouth of the Clarence River used the river valley as a route through to Waiau for at least 750 years.
From Quail Flat, we make our way to Goose Flat on treacherous narrow mountain ridges. As well as contending with a narrow track with steep drops to the side, there are also deep ditches Martin has to navigate. The DOC warden did not mention any of this! The car loses a bit of grip and I think we are going off the edge on a couple of occasions and consider asking Martin to turn around. However, there are no turning points and it’s a 2 hour journey back to the nearest camp spot, so the only option is forward! The first car we have seen all day is approaching on the tight track. I get out to make sure there is enough room to pass safely as the track is so narrow. We manage to slowly move past each other carefully but that was close! It takes us around another half hour to reach Goose Flat through scrubland, gardens of alpine plants and twisted rock formations. Martin has managed to make it all the way here without incident and in one piece somehow! The views from up here looking down on Goose Flat are spectacular and also a welcome sight. We set up camp next to the pretty Clarence River and cannot resist a dip in its cool clear waters!
We take a walk down the sandy river bank in the sunshine; it is so tranquil as we have the whole place to ourselves. We make a small fire and cook some jacket potatoes under a blanket of stars before retiring up to our trusty roof top tent.
We awake early to start our trip back to Kaikoura, with the sun beginning to come over the mountains we are greeted with fantastic views back up the valley and across the river.
The journey back is fantastic; the skies are clear as we criss cross the river driving crossing after crossing.
Martin decides that he wants to also take the northern track up the valley. We start to ascend up a steep grassy track until we reach a large mud hole.
As we enter the mud hole, disaster strikes, the hole was much deeper than we thought… With a loud bang the rear of the car hits the ground. We jump out to clear the mud and inspect the damage. Unfortunately the bump has crushed our fuel tank guard but more importantly has split the air hose and valve to our rear air bags (used in the springs). OH NO! This is one of the worst places this could have happened, as we are in the middle of nowhere. With the damage done, we decide to turn back and head back up to Blind Saddle and descend back into to town.
Heres a video of the trip 🙂 (best watched in HD!!)