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Up to the Place of Light, down the Water of Tears

Published
January 24, 2020
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NORTH of the Pigroot, there’s another great South Island tour.

Background map © 2020 by Land Information New Zealand and Eagle Technology via the New Zealand Department of Conservation

It goes from Queenstown to Oamaru via the Lindis Pass and the towns of Cromwell, Ōmārama, Otematata, Kurow and Duntroon. Just before Duntroon, it passes by the Takiroa Māori rock drawings site as well.

The route I’m going to be talking about in this post skirts around the northern edge of a vast wilderness that’s bounded by the Pigroot to to the south. The wilderness includes the Oteake Conservation Park, a paradise for mountain bikers.

There’s only one automobile-capable route right through the heart of the wilderness. This is the scenic but also rather perilous mountain road over Danseys Pass. Apart from that you have to go around it, either through Cromwell or Oamaru.

The website dangerousroads.org says not to attempt Danseys Pass “if there’s any hint of bad weather.” But the Pigroot itself is fully sealed and good for all weathers these days, in spite of its name.

And so is the road around the northern edge of the wilderness, from Cromwell to Oamaru.

Between Queenstown and Cromwell, you go through the Kawarau Gorge, and then north along the shores of Lake Dunstan. Cromwell itself has quite an attractive historical district. After that, the first really notable thing you come to is the Lindis Pass, another lovely pass that I’ve blogged about already.

The Lindis Pass, as seen from the passenger seat

You don’t get the same sorts of views into great chasms that you get on Danseys Pass. But on the other hand, the landforms of the Lindis Pass have a certain abstract beauty.

Lindis Pass landforms

Near the pass, I got out of my car and explored the Lindis Valley.

That was at about half-past seven at night. An hour later there was a real nuclear-bomb sunset.

I drove on through Ōmārama to Buscot Station, my accommodation for the next few days. It’s a friendly place, run by a gent named Tony Gloag.

As you can see, it’s well signposted. In the middle of this collage of photos I took round that time, you can get a glimpse of the homestead.

Here’s a slideshow about Buscot, put up by another Youtube user:

The district around Ōmārama is one of the few places in New Zealand that’s dry enough for the most expensive grades of wool to be grown.

There are two kinds of sheep’s wool, fine wool and strong wool. Strong wool is the inferior grade: the kind that feels scratchy. Fine wool doesn’t feel scratchy.

Strong wool comes from sheep that live in wet climates. Fine wool comes from sheep that live in dry climates. The most famous fine-wool breed is the merino, originally bred in Spain.

Markets for strong wool got hammered by synthetics from about 1965 onwards. Here in New Zealand we hit ‘peak sheep’ in 1982 with a population of 70 million sheep. Yet today there are less than 30 million. Many country towns that once depended on sheepfarming have become ‘zombie towns’ as a result.

A lot of the sheep that remain are merinos. Natural merino wool still commands top dollar, and has helped to save places like Ōmārama from joining the army of the zombie towns.

New Zealand merinos are wrinkly. They’re built like a Chinese Shar-Pei dog with wool! They’ve been bred that way so that they have a better chance of surviving in the harsh local climate, which is dry like Spain but also a lot colder (the wrinkles reduce heat loss). In honour of the breed a popular pub-restaurant in Ōmārama is called the ‘Wrinkly Rams’, a ram being a male sheep of course.

‘Get Wet, Get Warm, Get Well’ proclaims the sign outside a hot tub place!

I spent some time wandering around Ōmārama, a nice little tourist town with lots of signs advertising places to stay and things to do.

The sign doesn’t show the tohutō or macron over the initial O (Ō) and first a (ā) in Ōmārama, a mark that indicates that the O is to be sounded for longer than the other letters: Ohh-mahh-rama or Aww-mahh-rama in other words, not ‘ommarama’. The missionaries who first wrote down the Māori language didn’t include the tohutō. It was up to the reader to remember whether a vowel was sounded short or long, a distinction that could change the meaning of words otherwise spelt the the same. The tohutō was added to the official Māori alphabet a few decades ago and it’s still not yet routine to add it to familiar Māori placenames long spelt without it.

One of the things Ōmārama is famous for is gliding. Westerly winds blowing over the nearby mountains create both updrafts and downdrafts. Gliders can remain aloft over Ōmārama for hours by returning to the updrafts. Several world records for distance and time aloft have been set over Ōmārama. And the area is very scenic as well, so it’s not as if the pilots or their passengers would get bored. You can see more about this rather special local attraction on the website of Gliding New Zealand.

Another must-see is the Cappadocia-like Clay Cliffs, which a recent newspaper article describes as being roughly ten kilometres from Ōmārama, “off SH83 onto progressively smaller roads . . . beside the impressively braided Ahuriri River.” Perhaps because the Clay Cliffs are up a back road, they’re easy to miss. But don’t miss them!

Also down a back road are the Wairepo Kettleholes, in the Ahuriri Conservation Park. Wairepo means ‘swampwater’ in Māori: a clue to why this area is interesting to the nature-lover, even if it isn’t quite as spectacular to look at.

Kettleholes, or kettle holes, are holes in the ground created by gigantic blocks of ice, like icebergs but sitting on the land, which occupied the site in the Ice Age and melted subsequently. When it rains heavily, the runoff from the land nearby flows into the kettle holes, which thus act as cisterns. Of course, these days, they’re also pretty much filled up with mud and silt. The holes now have marshes on top. The result is an ecologically significant system of permanent wetlands. A permanent oasis, in what’s otherwise a fairly arid region where the grass isn’t always green or lush by any means.

Kettle holes help to stop large areas of the ‘big sky country’ of the North American plains from drying out too much. This has been important for the ecology of the original prairie grasslands and for subsequent agriculture as well. One agglomeration of kettle holes spans three Canadian provinces and the Dakotas, and spills over into three adjoining US states.

Map of the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. From the US Geological Survey, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

And so Wairepo is a lush spot in an otherwise rather bony landscape.

Sign announcing the Ahuriri Conservation Park. Ironically, the prairie growing on its edges is something new in ecological terms, having been self-assembled from plants introduced by the colonist. The original ecology wouldn’t have been anything like this.

Wairepo Kettleholes sign. This is big sky country too!

Looking over a Wairepo Kettlehole Swamp to farmland beyond

The Department of Conservation has a great brochure on all the things you can do in the vicinity of Ōmārama: you can download it here.

The Place of Light

Ōmārama means ‘place of light’ in Māori. It’s a name that got a whole new significance in the mid-twentieth century when Ōmārama became a hydro village: a base for the massive Waitaki hydroelectricity/irrigation scheme.

From Ōmārama east to the sea, my road trip would run parallel to a massive river called the Waitaki, and to several dams and artificial lakes on its upper reaches.

Meaning ‘Water of Tears’, the Waitaki separates the historical provinces of Otago and Canterbury. The lower reaches of the Waitaki are so big and so difficult to bridge that two main roads simply run parallel to it, one on the Otago side and another on the Canterbury side. You cross from Canterbury to Otago well inland where the river finally narrows a bit, at Kurow.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme. Well, the Waitaki scheme was the New Zealand equivalent.

The Waitaki hydroelectric and irrigation system was built over a longer period: first on the lower Waitaki in the 1930s, then at Benmore in the 1950s, and finally on the Upper Waitaki headwaters in the 1970s. The Upper Waitaki Scheme was, for a time, the largest ongoing hydro construction project in the world.

All pretty epic for little old New Zealand! It’s fair to say we don’t do things on that scale any more. “Think big” was an expression coined for such projects in the 1970s; borrowed perhaps from a famous, if slightly apocryphal, quote attributed to the architect Daniel Burnham, who helped to shape Chicago in the days when it was still a frontier boomtown.

Daniel Burnham looking energetic, sometime around 1890. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Burnham, so the quote goes, would urge his fellows to:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

The Chicago-ites certainly knew how to think big. They even reversed the direction of flow of the Chicago River so that instead of transporting the city’s effluent into the lake, it transported it in the direction of Mississippi instead (the inhabitants of Mississippi didn’t get to vote on this).

From the 1940s onward, the main designer of the Waitaki schemes was New Zealand’s Ministry of Works, known from 1973 as the Ministry of Works and Development.

Just before the Ministry of Works got its new name, an agency called the Commission for the Environment was set up with the purpose of putting the brakes on ‘think big’ philosophies. An official named Richard Shallcrass, who worked for the CFE in its early days recorded, later, that:

Our enemy of choice was the Ministry of Works and Development, an infrastructure agency that used economic analysis to support projects that often seemed to entail bulldozing the countryside into a sterile playground suited to engineers with no aesthetic values.

That passage comes from a memoir called Family Silver: From the Provinces to Privatisation, in which Shallcrass then goes on to describe how he went to work for the New Zealand Treasury in the 1980s. The MWD was also the Treasury’s enemy of choice, albeit now for the reason that the Treasury wanted to save money. Environmentalists and bean-counters joined forces to achieve the abolition of the MWD, their joint enemy, in 1988. And so, nothing like the Waitaki scheme has ever happened again.

Down the Water of Tears

After Ōmārama, I headed down the hydro-rich Waitaki Valley.

On this display map by Meridian Energy and local Māori iwi or tribe Ngāi Tahu, Ōmārama is spelt in the proper fashion.

The wider display, describing some historic land grievances

It’s interesting what Shallcrass wrote about the land in this area being transformed into “a sterile playground suited to engineers with no aesthetic values.” Certainly the playground bit was correct, as the MWD engineers took the view that their new hydro lakes would be good for recreation, as well as power and irrigation.

Here’s a view from the Benmore Dam, looking down into the headwaters of Lake Aviemore.

I passed through Kurow, which is famous as the town where New Zealand’s 1930s welfare state was piloted by among the hydro workers by a group of local reformers that included Arnold Nordmeyer, a future leader of the New Zealand Labour Party.

The Waitaki Hotel: a colourful hydro-workers’ pub in Kurow

Heading on down further, I came to the Takiroa rock drawings site.

From there it was a short trip to Duntroon, where the main attraction is the Vanished World Centre, a geological museum with lots of exhibits of the way the Waitaki Valley used to be.

In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about the roads from Duntroon to Oamaru, and about the remarkable town of Oamaru itself. Meanwhile, there’s a great online article about the Waitaki in New Zealand Geographic, called ‘Waitaki: Water of Tears, River of Power’.

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