I was told to stand in the middle of the Ranfurly Motor Camp and turn through 360degrees.
“See all those Peaks and Ranges,” said Greg Carroll from the Otago Recreational 4WD Group, “well we are going to get you to the top of all of them by the end of the week!”
And they did.
The third OR4G Safari was the Maniototo Muster, based in Ranfurly the last week in February, and attended by just on 60 offroaders from all around the country, and a pair of friends from Australia.
These trips have gained a massive reputation over the 5 years since the first, and the week of offroading was booked solid almost before registrations opened.
On the Tuesday morning, with the entrants divided into two groups, Blue, that’s us, and yellow, we headed out with our leaders and trail crew, to climb the Rock and Pillar Ranges.
The weekend before the muster, we had come up to Ranfurly via Middlemarch, so had followed the Rock and Pillar range for a big part of the journey.
Someone had told us you could get to the top via a DOC track, so we were pretty keen to explore that on the way back. The rocks, and pillars, looked amazing from below, and we couldn’t believe we could drive up through them.
As you can imagine, we were rapt to find out we were going to be given a guided 4×4 tour of the whole range, as part of the second day of the Maniototo Muster.
From Ranfurly, our group cruised out to the little settlement of Patearoa, before taking advantage of the access the Otago group had arranged with the Becker family to cross their farm into the DOC lands on the R & P Conservation Area.
The Beckers are legends in the sport of Curling, both in NZ and Internationally, and were instrumental in setting up the countries only year-round Curling Rink in nearby Naseby.
You may remember the Mainland Cheese ads of a few years ago, when ‘Guinea …??’ Was sent out onto a frozen Otago lake to check the ice was thick enough to support the annual Bonspiel Curling extravaganza.
For many of us, this track up through the Beckers was our first experience of ‘Matagouri Stripes’. Driving too close to a Matagouri bush is akin to driving too close to a barbed-wire fence with the effect it has on vehicle paintwork!!
But the highlight of the climb up through the farm was a visit to the tiny stone hut perched beside the upper section of the track. The origins of the hut aren’t known, but a farm worker from nearby Linnburn Station lived there for a time with his wife and thirteen children.
The children attended the Patearoa School. A nearby rock enclosure was used to house the horses and the house cow.
The ceiling of the hut was made from flattened out five-gallon cans, with many classic brand logos still visible in the rafters.
By this stage, we were well into the schist rock formations (Tors) that give the range its name. The range itself was formed about 3 million years ago, by the movement of deep local geological fault lines.
The Tors are blocks of harder rock that were forced upwards, and have resisted the erosion efforts of 3 million years of wind, rain, snow, and frost, that have shaped them into the distinct forms they show today.
The persistent North West wind also creates a unique cloud formation, the Taieri Pet. The name refers to the Taieri River that almost surrounds the range.
Flowing from the Lammermoor Range (more about Lammermoor later) the Taieri is the 4th longest River in NZ. It flows North initially, before turning East around the ranges, through 180deg to then flow down through the Taieri Valley and Gorge.
From the top of the Rock and Pillar Track, we were almost surrounded by the river.
In the midst of the drought affecting the country, our track along the top of the range is really just a pair of dry and dusty wheel ruts, at times climbing up and over the schist formations.
In a couple of places, there are harder options, but basically these are just deeper dusty wheel ruts, evidence of more difficult 4 wheeling in the wetter months.
Our leaders assure us that there are some real challenges to driving up here in wintertime, that is if the area isn’t blanketed in deep snow!
Just before we stop at Big Hut for lunch, we pass a side-track that heads straight down the side of the range to Middlemarch, in the Strath Taieri Valley. This is the track we had been told about.
Big Hut was built in 1946 as a 70 bed Ski Lodge, but as the Ski area declined in favour of Coronet Peak, the Lodge became almost derelict until it was rescued by Bruce Mason and a group of enthusiasts, and transformed into the tramping hut, and 4WD destination it has become today.
Just in case we needed reminding of how exposed it is up there, Joe and Marion were pretty keen to show us the big steel cables (guy wires) that anchor the building to the bedrock, and the rope to cling to when walking between the hut and toilet.
The highest recorded wind gust in the area was 184km per hour in 2014!
Our lunch break was held in brilliant sunshine on the rocks around the hut, looking down on the historic village of Middlemarch and the Taieri River. We were entertained for awhile by Marion’s antics, waving a high-vis jacket around, as she tried to attract the attention of a friend in the village, who she was talking to on her phone at the time.
From Big Hut we continued along the top of the range for another couple of hours, surrounded by the pillars before crossing to the other side of the range, and views of the Great Moss Swamp, and the Logan Burn Reservoir and power station.
The site originally boasted two hotels as well as the jail and stables, the jail was built in 1863, but was more for safe storage of the miners’ gold during overnight coach stops, than incarcerating villains.
With the off-roading part of the day completed, Joe and Marion invite us to join an optional trek further along the Upper Taieri Paerau Road to visit the Lammermoor Distillery, which proudly claims to have been ‘Distilling Whiskey illegally since 1863’
Lammermoor does a great tour through their historic family distillery, which organically grows its own grain, and completes the whole process right through to bottling and selling the finished product.
Our tour guide, claims there is an old ‘Moonshine Still’ up in the hills on the farm, but it was abandoned when the men of the area left for WW1, and couldn’t be found when they returned.
A very different, and fun way to end the day, and just another example of why these OR4G Off-roading weeks are so popular.
PICS BY DENA & JOHNNY MAC STORY BY JR
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF COLIN RICHARDSON