The Wild West Coast Mid-Winter 4 Wheel Drive Trip

All the planning had been done, and the participants had registered for this July school holiday club trip to explore the beautiful West Coast.

The temperature in Reefton was in the minus most days of the week before we left.

As the trip was to commence in Picton on Friday morning we all had separate travel plans to arrive at our start point, my first sailing was cancelled, and the next delayed, so we all ended up on the same crossing.

Arriving in Picton late at night we headed for the motor camp and our pre-booked cabins, to get a few hours sleep before the trip commenced. After breakfast on Friday morning, we assembled in the car park opposite the Blue Bridge check area. Orange Peel (TD5 Landrover) pumped up a slow leak, and we left for the drive around the Sounds to our first 4WD track at the Pelorus River Bridge.

The Maungatapu Track (Pelorus Bridge to Nelson) was our first trip off-road and a shakedown for all the vehicles. Due to a slip on the Nelson side, which is currently not cleared, there is a locked chain across the road, and we could only travel as far as the saddle summit, before returning to the main road at the Pelorus River bridge.

It’s a great track (although approval has to be sought from Nelson Council) and well worth the drive. Along the way, one passes murder’s rock, scene of a highway robbery, and murder, during 1866 when the track was the main road to Nelson.

It was on to Nelson and a stop for fuel and parts for Tigga (Black Nissan Patrol), who was having free wheeling hub problems, but that would not be all as we were to find out later in the day.

Lunch was at the Café next door to the Wearable Arts and Classic Cars Museum. As the weather was clear blue sky far into the distance, Ian (Orange Peel’s owner) arranged a set of keys to allow us access to Mount Campbell.

The first part of this track is public, to a gate on a left-hand corner. Then up we went, into the bush with patches of snow and ice on the road, the higher we got the more snow/ ice, but just before the bush ended, Tigga came to a halt in a cloud of steam, and the smell of heated oil.

It was confirmed that the auto was a little hot, so we left him parked to cool down, while the rest continued on, but about 150 metres below the summit, so much snow covered the road that Enterprise (Ross’s Toyota SWB) ploughed on in a cloud of snow, as he went up the hill sideways to vanish over the crest. OilPro (Pajero LWB), attempting to follow, ended up off the road and had to be recovered backwards. 

While the recovery was underway the troops walked the short distance to the top in the snow for the view of the surrounding hills and out over Nelson.

Then it was back down to recover Tigga, while OilPro headed to town to obtain transmission fluid so a change of oil could be completed once back on the main road. Once we arrived back on the tarmac, it was pump up the tyres, and replace the transmission fluid in Tigga, before we headed for our nights stop in St Arnaud and dinner.

Saturday morning was again bright and clear, so after a quick photo stop at the lakefront, it was onto the start of the Porikia Track. Turning left off Highway 63, onto Howard Road, we stopped at the DOC signpost before heading to Louis Creek Goldfields road, and our first off-road track for the day.

After a short drive, a creek crossing, a muddy track and then a frozen track, with snow and ice, we arrived at the Louis Creek Monument to the days of the Gold Miner. The area is now a free gold panning area for any that want to give it a go.

After a brief stop to look around and a few photos we headed back down the road to the Porikia Road junction and started up the track, which climbs, with more snow in the sheltered places, till we arrived at the summit.

Still in the bush, we headed down towards a fog-shrouded Lake Rotoroa, driving intermittently on snow and ice, with good runoff and control. Then it all ended. As the track headed down the ridge towards the top of the zigzag, it was covered in snow/ice, and getting steeper.

With no protection or runoff, as there are no trees along this section, and having come to a sliding halt we called a halt to the rest of the trucks, it was time for a walk. After having walked, and slid down the track for about 250 metres, the decision was made to turn around, as the track only got worse the lower down it went.

Knowing that once committed there was no way out, as we could not have driven up the section of road in front of the trucks, we turned around and headed for the main road. It’s a great track but the conditions after the big snow two weeks before meant it was not for us.

After lunch at Lake Rotoroa, we headed out over the Braeburn Track, a short rough bush road, with Beech bush on both sides and the power line.

The land changed to dairy farms as we headed south on Tutaki Road looking for an unexplored river crossing, and a track that may or may not exist.

On arrival at the Matakitaki River and, having obtained permission for access, we proceeded to the river bed across a very large dairy farm. The local farmer commented that “if the tractor can reach I’ll come and pull you out,” but he was unsure of what we would find lower down.

As we travelled down the river and off the farm, we met a couple of farm hands, who held the electric fence down, and advised us that we needed to get into the river bed, as the track we had been following now had a 5-metre drop at the end.

I noted that the farm ute had parked up as the guys watched our major river crossing. It was wheel deep as we crossed, with Orange Peel taking the wrong line to start and ended up in the soft sand, and needing a pullback, then it was all across and down the other side to find our way out.

After a few false leads, we finally found the track out. It had a bog at the bottom so Enterprise lead and then pulled OilPro through, Tigger drove straight through, and then pulled Orange Peel through, and finally, I just drove through, with both lockers on. The track was overgrown and muddy in places but had a hard bottom so we made good time to the farmland.

The track was not as long as we would have liked, but it was different and far better than the main road. A long drive through the farm brought us out on the Maria Saddle Road, by the Matakitaki River Bridge. After airing up it was a short drive to Murchison and our motel for the night….

Sunday was to be a long day, so after an early breakfast for both the body and the truck, we headed down the Buller Gorge Road to the Iron Bridge, at which point we turned right onto New Creek Road and our trip for the day to Denniston.

The track was in very good condition, due to the exploration work being undertaken in the area for new coal mines, and travels through South Island Beech Forest most of the way.

The area requiring caution is the river crossing at Blue Duck Creek and the Mackley River, which would require work to ensure a clear crossing, after a good flood, but a vehicle or two had been through some time before, so it was just a case of following the tracks.

The track out is well defined, and after crossing, we headed down river before turning up onto the track. The conditions could not have been better, clear weather, but still cold, as we climbed up onto the Mt William Range, topping out at 700m for a cuppa and a clear view of the surrounding area.

We had to be on the move, as we had an appointment in the afternoon for the Denniston Experience, but before checking in, we finished the drive through to Denniston, and along the ridge to Mount Rockford for lunch, and a view over the Denniston Plateau, with all its old and existing mines.

Back down the hill, the Denniston Experience is the opportunity to enter one of the original coal mines on the Denniston Plateau, and experience what it was like back in the 1800s, living and working in a coal mine

After a short train ride and talk in a safety bolt-hole in the mine, it was time for a guided walk around, with explanations of what it was like and how things had been done back then. Well worth the trip up to the Plateau, along with all the other items of history relating to the mining of coal in the area. Standing at the top of the Denniston Incline, what a great ride that must have been…

Dinner was Fish and Chips in Westport and an early night back at the local campsite as it had been a long day.

Story by Murray Taylor

This article first appeared in issue 101 of 4×4 Action Adventure magazine.

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