Dams Lakes and Cliffs Waiting For A Mount Cook Weather Window

We’ve now slipped eight weeks behind on our blog postings would you believe? Do bear with us, we’re hoping to get you updated at some stage!

After leaving The Vanished World of Duntroon on Saturday 24th April, we were entertained by nature’s palette of autumn colours along the shores of Lakes Waitaki, Aviemore, Benmore, Ohau and Pukaki. These bodies of water gradually lower from Pukaki to Aviemore, where the power of the water is utilised to harness the energy by the Waitaki Hydro Power Scheme.

The Road To The Dams

Driving along State Highway 83, we were compelled to stop at a larger than life billboard of Richie MacKaw, the retired All Black Captain, in Kurow. Richie grew up in the Hakataramea Valley just across the Waitaki River, where he began playing rugby for the local club. For many years, they’ve been trying to raise sufficient funds to build a bronze statue of the rugby giant to boost local tourism.

They still look a long way off from the funding target board! I hope one day they get there.

The Waitaki Hydro Scheme

From Lake Tekapo to Lake Waitaki, eight power stations generate energy for New Zealanders. We languished at length, exploring the Aviemore and Benmore Dams. The first we stopped at was the Waitaki, the oldest of the eight, generating enough electricity each year for about 51,000 average New Zealand homes. 

The Waitaki was the first large state hydroelectric scheme in the South Island since Lake Coleridge. Work started here in mid-1928, 7 km from the Kurow railhead. It was the last major dam built by pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, tools anachronistically retained because politicians wanted to reduce the unemployment rate. At its peak 1,200 men laboured in often dangerous and freezing conditions.

We drove a little further and crossed over the Aviemore Dam. This generates enough electricity each year for about 107,000 average New Zealand homes. The generators are the largest in New Zealand, with rotors almost eight meters in diameter, weighing 210 tonnes. The dam itself is made in two parts: an earth dam and a concrete dam. It’s the biggest dam of this type in New Zealand and the second-largest concrete dam – the largest is the Clyde dam we visited after we’d been to Bannockburn.

Barry chose to drive up the east side of Lakes Aviemore and Benmore, NZs largest man-made lake, after crossing the Aviemore dam, rather than continuing along the main road SH83. The first photos in his slideshow below, are of Waitaki, Aviemore and Benmore dams. Along the shores of the lake we spotted many camping areas. From October to the end of April each year it’s a popular place for short visits and it looked like long ones too with some caravans looking like they’d been left there a while.

Benmore Dam

Benmore is the country’s second-largest hydro station after Manapōuri, which we visited when we cruised on Doubtful Sound. It generates enough electricity each year for about 298,000 average New Zealand homes. Built between 1958 and 1965, it’s NZ’s largest earth dam.

Lake Benmore, above the dam, is the largest man-made lake in NZ and a very popular fishing area. It was quite overpowering to drive over the Dam, then stand beneath it. Our visit coincided with early autumn so the area was swathed in a golden autumnal blaze. It was spectacular. Prince Philp’s death had recently been announced, and we assumed the NZ flag was flying at half-mast in respect.

Ahuriri Bridge Camp

That night, we camped for free at the Ahuriri Bridge DOC Campground near Omarama. It’s a large expanse of land, that Ngati Puha have set aside for tuna eels restoration and replenishment.

The Ahuriri River is a ‘nohaka’, or place to stay, set aside under the 1998 Ngāi Tahu Settlement. They’ve cleaned the water and re-introduced tuna eels. Although electricity is a necessary part of modern-day life, it usually comes at a price to produce.

The following day, Sunday 25th April, I had a pleasant stroll along the river bank, spotting a few stray lupins clinging to life – and an outdoor gym! What on earth that’s doing there is anyone’s guess.

Lovely Lake Ohau

We knew that Aoraki/Mount Cook is often covered in cloud and wanted to wait till it looked like we could walk to it on a clear morning. Lake Ohau isn’t far away, so we chose that as our next destination to sit for a night. We were delighted to see snow on the mountains at the end of long road leading there. It was so pretty.

We parked up at the lakeside for a coffee and to gaze at the stunning expanse of water, surrounded by mountains. Fortunately the sun was shining at that point, with a mighty wind forming waves on the lake.

The 300km Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail passes through here; we spotted a number of cyclists passing by. Next to Lake Ohau Track was a splendid carved and elaborately decorated totem pole. With many words of wisdom. Like many places we’ve experienced, it sadly seemed we were the only people looking at this.

Round Bush Campsite

We stayed overnight (free) at a spectacular lakeside DOC campground called ‘Round Bush’, literally on the shore of the lake. During the summer, in the beech forest there’s an abundance of colourful mistletoe. Rather different to the English variety that’s white and picked for New Year’s Eve primarily!

Walking along the lake shortly after we arrived, we could see Mount Cook in the distance – though not terribly clearly. Later on, we watched the almost full moon rising above the mountain opposite.

The following morning the scene was vastly different. The weather had closed in and could covered the horizon.

From the forecast it looked like we had a couple of days before a fairly clear one for Mount Cook. So we headed to the top of the road on the west side of Lake Ohau to check out what was there, then headed to the Clay Cliffs nearby.

Other DOC Campsites

The uppermost DOC campsite at Lake Ohau is Temple Campsite. It’s VERY remote! Especially on a cool, campy day. As we drove up a big ute overtook us on the gravel road and parked there before us. Despite extensive signeage saying not to light fires, there was clearly a large fire lit inside the hut a the campsite. Not surprising in the cold weather. Nearby is the start of the North and South Temple Stream Tracks.

Driving a little further up the road we came across a parking place for other walks. It looked as though some people were walking them, as there were cars parked up but no-one around. Yikes! The weather was atrocious so we hoped they were well equipped!

As we left Lake Ohau, we noticed the first DOC campground adjacent to Lake Middleton, near Lake Ohau village, was closed due to fire damage. Quite a timely reminder about not lighting fires I would’ve thought?!

We were greeted by a rainbow on the road to our next destination, through Omarama. Lake Ohau and surrounds is known as an ‘Alpine Wilderness’ and is a popular skiing area in the winter months. Along with some much more upmarket places to stay!

Clay Cliffs

We visited a place called the Clay Cliffs, not far from Omarama, that we’d previously missed. A friend had highly recommended to go while we were in the area. It was Phenomenal. She was so right.

The walk up to the main cliffs was rather steep and precarious, with loose stones underfoot. Going up wasn’t too bad but coming down the slopes was quite hair raising! Fortunately neither of us fell over …

I love this image of me that I mistakenly took. It reveals such a sense of joy at the surrounding beauty. Barry too seemed a little overwhelmed:

We were so thankful we’d made the effort to visit. Yet another natural marvel here in Aotearoa.

Lake Pukaki

Later that day, Monday 26th April, we found a fantastic free campground overlooking Lake Pukaki (one of The Hobbit’s filming locations – ‘Lake-town’ in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.). From our van we could see the magnificence of Mount Cook about 70 km in the distance. By the time we arrived the sun was setting, causing a reflected rosy glow in the sky. Boy it was getting cold! I had some work to do, so we sat still for much of the following day. What a stunning work vista I had from ‘the office’.

Our plan was to drive to the DOC campground at the start of the Hooker Valley Track, and haul ourselves out of bed just before sunrise on Wednesday 28th April, when it was forecast ‘fine.

We’d initially booked NZ Areandare into a panel beaters in Nelson for 27th April. To fix a small scrape on the side panel that occurred in late December. But obviously that wasn’t going to happen! In January we had no comprehension how blown away we’d be by the beauty of the South Island; our many unplanned detours had taken their toll. We wanted to spend a couple of weeks close to Barry’s daughter Jamie, in Christchurch, so we put the panel beaters appointment back to 27th May.

An Update On Our Present Position And Future Plans

Although we’re way behind posting about our epic South Island adventures, we’re determined to make time to record them all for you and posterity. Last Wednesday, 16th June, we arrived back in Barry’s birth city of Gisborne. Here, we’ll catch up with family and friends, as well as sorting our belongings out. We have flights booked to return to the UK on 5th August, and hope to get our COVID vaccines before then. Barry definitely will as he’s in the over 65s age group. I may struggle but fingers crossed I’ll find a way.

Although our original plan was to return frequently to New Zealand, due to the uncertainty of long-haul travel, we can’t depend on that being a possibility. Our main ‘residence’ is aboard NB Areandare, and we don’t want to leave the boat empty and out of the water for another British winter. We also want to be close to our grandsons while they’re growing up. Consequently we will be selling our gorgeous campervan NZ Areandare before leave Aotearoa.

So there’s lots of change ahead once again, and we find ourselves in the painful transition of moving hemispheres …

Barry’s Slideshow

On a brighter note, prepare to be enthralled once more by Barry’s superb shots of this portion of our adventures. Click on the first image to begin …

3 thoughts on “Dams Lakes and Cliffs Waiting For A Mount Cook Weather Window

  1. Pingback: Magnificent Mount Cook ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

  2. Interesting news – 5th August return to the UK! That’s our 43rd wedding anniversary!!! Our news is that we have joined a syndicate and bought a twelfth share of NB Honey Street, currently based in Wrenbury, and we have a week booked at the end of August so we may come across each other on the cut!
    Give Gizzy our love and take care. xx

    • Yes, back in the pains of transitioning hemispheres!

      Congratulations on the boat share. That’s brilliant. It would be amazing to catch up with you both on the cut. Keep in touch and we’ll give your love to Gizzy. It’s rather wet here atm. A few coast roads been washed out at Waipiro Bay and Tokomara 😰

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