Off the beaten track at Manapōuri

December 14, 2019
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With condolences to the victims of the Whakaari / White Island tragedy

This is my second post in a series about getting off the beaten track in New Zealand, in terms of places and times of year. About catching the spring sunshine in the outdoors when things aren’t yet too crowded.

A while back, my father Brian and my editor, Chris, went on a tour of Lake Manapōuri and Doubtful Sound. This September, I decided to go there too.

A topographical map of lake Manapōuri and environs on a signboard
A local signboard map in Manapōuri township

I hired a campsite at a place called the Manapōuri Motels and Holiday Park.

I wrote in my last post that spring’s a good time to go travelling as there isn’t much pressure.

In fact, I was one of only three people camping there!

The sign for the Manapōuri Motels and Holiday Park

The Manapōuri Motels and Holiday Park is on the main street of Manapōuri. Well, there is pretty much only one street in Manapōuri township.

The main street of Manapōuri with the lake and Kepler Mountains behind

The office and camp shop are both in a sort of European chalet style, next to an old-style phone box of the kind that disappeared from New Zealand streets in the 1980s.

The office and camp shop with phone booth

Another view of the office and camp shop with phone booth
This photo courtesy Manapōuri Motels and Holiday Park (MMHP)

And it’s got all these little chalets for people to stay in.

A chalet with fireplace and chimney

Some very little.

A very small sleepout

There’s a row of classic English cars, Morris Minors, undergoing restoration at a spot within the camp called Mowog Creek. The collection’s mildly famous in New Zealand. Here are some photos, one by me and the others courtesy of the holiday park, which I call MMHP for short in the photo credits.

A row of Morris Minor cars

A row of Morris Minor cars in winter
The Morris Minors in winter (MMHP)

Morris Minor cars with eyes painted on, Pixar style
Pre-restoration, Pixar style! (MMHP)

The Morris Minor collection belongs to Aaron Nicholson, one of the sons of the surviving founder Joelle Nicholson, and his wife Pauline.

Mrs Joelle Nicholson and another person
Two Mrs Nicholsons: Joelle, in purple, and Pauline (MMHP)

Mrs Nicholson is still busy around the campground despite being in her eighties. She came to New Zealand in 1970 with her late husband Carl, sons Aaron and Erik, and young daughter Inger.

The Nicholsons emigrated from the USA in order to escape the Vietnam War-era draft, which might otherwise have scooped up their growing boys.

They brought out their worldly goods in a VW Kombi Van which they’d bought new in Europe in 1966 and travelled around in for a while, hippie-style. Here’s a photo of the Kombi, which still survives, next to the shop.

The camp office with the old 1966 Kombi van

The chalet style was inspired by the Nicholsons’ European travels. From time to time, roving apprentices in traditional guild costumes turn up to stay.

Two German apprentices in guild costume at the camp

As soon as they arrived at Manapōuri, the Nicholsons got involved in a campaign to stop the ancient, scenic and ecologically important lake from being raised for hydro-power.

A rock beside the main road, some distance above the lake, shows how high it might have been raised if there had been no protest movement.

Stone showing how high Lake Manapōuri might have risen
The Marker Rock

Plaque on the rock saying 'Manapōuri Saved'
The plaque in the centre of the last photo

Here are some photos from around those times.

1970s photograph of Carl Nicholson
Carl Nicholson organising the water supply (MMHP)

1970s photograph of camp office under construction
The first office building under construction (MMHP)

Here are some more, contemporary, photos. The chalkboard says ‘Modern science can not predict Fiordland weather accurately’, which looks like a joke but is actually good advice.

Photograph of the interior of the camp shop
The shop (and office) (MMHP)

A woman and baby at the beach outside the camp
The beach outside the front of the camp (MMHP)

They also have a great games room with table tennis and pinball machines. Well, it impressed me at any rate! Unfortunately the computer games don't work any more, as they were never intended to last this long.

The games room (MMHP)
Space Invaders and other games in the camp games room
Vintage space invaders! (MMHP)

You can read more about the amazing adventures of the Nicholsons on the ‘About’ section of their website, and in a 2017 Otago Daily Times article.

Things to do

Going to Doubtful Sound isn’t the only thing you can do from Manapōuri township, by any means. There are some local walking tracks south-west of Manapōuri township that lead past, and up, the spectacular sugar-loaf peak known as the Monument, which towers 290 metres or just under a thousand feet above the level of the lake.

Some would say that’s not much, but it’s quite steep and yields a good view. You have to be dropped off by boat in the Hope Arm of Lake Manapōuri to actually scale the Monument.

North of the town you can do the much longer Kepler Track, which is on the Kepler Mountains between Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau.

Map of the region on a sign board showing tracks
Track near Manapōuri, on a local signboard

Along with the tracks, the map on this signboard also points to the ‘Manapōuri Power Station’. So, the hydro scheme did go ahead in the end. On the other hand Lake Manapōuri was only raised by a very small amount, much less than originally proposed.

Looking northward, you can see the Kepler Mountains from Manapōuri township. Well, they’re hard to miss, really.

View of the Kepler Mountains behind the lake, from Manapōuri township

Looking westward, you can see the sun set over some other mountains.

View of a sunset over the lake from Manapōuri township

With everything then getting lit up again at dawn!

The mountains lit up by sunrise, as seen from Manapōuri township

If you’re good at reading topographical maps, the sort the British call ordnance maps, you can zoom in on all of these places on, which is surely a boon for planning the more adventurous sorts of holidays from overseas.

You used to have to pay for the CD or paper copies of these detailed maps. But now it’s all online for free on the Internet, supported by a New Zealand equipment firm called Bivouac Outdoor.

This was the second post in my southern-summer series about New Zealand. In the next one, I’ll be talking about crossing Lake Manapōuri to Doubtful Sound myself, and about how Manapōuri, though it’s a Māori name, was bestowed by a Scottish surveyor!

A photo of Mary Jane on a boat on Lake Manapōuri with hair being blown by the wind

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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