Sidetracked in Southland (Part 1)

December 17, 2022
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SOUTHLAND really is the place to get away from it all these holidays!

The Southern Scenic Route, which has a distinctive roadside logo, runs southward from Queenstown to Kingston at the foot of Lake Wakatipu. Kingston is famous for the Kingston Flyer steam train.

The Kingston Flyer, pulling into Fairlight Station

In the old days, when it ran all the way to Invercargill and Dunedin, the steam train used to meet the vintage lake steamer Earnslaw at Kingston. However, these days the steam train only runs between Kingston and Fairlight, and the Earnslaw only goes back and forth across the lake between Queenstown and Walter Peak Station.

From Kingston, the Southern Scenic Route continues southward to Lumsden, and then westward to Te Anau and Manapōuri, southward once more to the South Coast, eastward along the coast through Invercargill and the Catlins, and northward to Dunedin.

Of course, you want to do more than just drive or cycle along the main roads. So, in this post and Part 2 to follow, I describe some of the ways you can get sidetracked in Southland. And specifically, the western part, the gateway to the great lakes of Fiordland.

On this trip, you head south from Kingston till you get to Lowther, and then take State Highway 97 to Mossburn, and then west on SH 94 to a village called The Key.

The Southern Scenic Route from Kingston to The Key and beyond. Map data © 2022 Google. North at Top.

The Blackmount-Redcliff Road and the Rakatu Wetlands

At The Key, you head down the Blackmount-Redcliff Road, which seems at first like an invitation to getting lost.

Blackmount-Redcliff Road sign at The Key

But it saves time, assuming you’ve already been to Te Anau and Manapōuri, and you get a good view of the gnarly but little-known Takitimu mountains.

The Takitimu Mountains, from the Blackmount-Redcliff Road

Past Whare Creek, the Blackmount-Redcliff Road becomes part of the Southern Scenic Route. It isn’t long before you come to the Rakatu Wetlands, down a short gravel road on your right.

The road to the Rakatu Wetlands, as seen from the Blackmount-Redcliff Road

The Rakatu Wetlands are in the valley of the once-mighty Waiau River, which drains Lake Manapōuri and runs through Clifden and Tūātapere to the sea. The 1960s Lake Manapōuri hydro scheme reduced the flow of the Waiau, and the Rakatu Wetlands were recreated from former farms as part of an ecological restoration project to compensate.

The Rakatu Wetlands are a re-creation of lowland Aotearoa as it used to be, since just about everywhere that is flat in Aotearoa New Zealand used to be a wetland before being drained for farming purposes in the 1800s.‍

A small part of the Rakatu Wetlands, as seen from the lookout

The Rakatu Wetlands are quite colossal. There is a lookout on the east bank of the valley and hiking trails around the wetlands, which sustain masses of birdlife as well.

From the Rakatu Wetlands, the Blackmount-Redcliff Road carries on over some hills and down into a valley as far as Blackmount, after which it undergoes a name change to the Clifden-Blackmount Road.

The Southern Scenic Route through Blackmount and Clifden. Map data © 2022 Google. North at Top.

Blackmount, Lake Monowai, and the Borland Country

At Blackmount, where the main road changes its name, there is also a T-junction with Lake Monowai Road. Like the short gravel road to the Rakatu Wetlands, Lake Monowai Road is on your right as you are heading south. It leads to Lake Monowai, Lake Monowai Village, and the Borland Lodge.‍

Signs at the intersection of the Blackmount-Redcliff Road and Lake Monowai Road

There isn’t much at Blackmount. But there is a café at the T-junction, in case you need a cuppa by then.

The café at Blackmount

Just south of the intersection, on the main road, there is a shelter with lots of information panels about Lake Monowai and the region between Lake Monowai and Lake Manapōuri, a region that’s generally known as the Borland Country.

The Information shelter at Blackmount

An information panel on the roadside shelter. The Monowai power station was one of the first big hydroelectric schemes in New Zealand.

Map-type information at the shelter, with north toward the top

Another display map seen on an earlier trip, showing things to do in the wider Western Southland area. In this map, north is toward the right.

Here’s a map of the Borland Country.‍

The Borland Country lies between Lake Manapōuri (top) and Lake Monowai (bottom). The noticeable, apparently grey line through the Borland country is formed by superposition of the power lines from the Lake Manapōuri power station over the Borland Road and, at top left, the Wilmot Pass Road. Map data (2021) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0. North at top.

I had planned to hike around Lake Monowai but I didn’t do so in the end, as if you look at the map, the tramping tracks terminate at two points on the lake, with difficult country in between and no water taxi, though it is said you might be able to hitch a ride with a visiting boatie. Still, that could mean a long wait in the middle of nowhere.

Near the lake, on the other side of Monowai village, there is an Art Deco power station, the Monowai Power Station, which dates back to 1925.‍

The Monowai Power Station

A commemorative plaque from 1950

A huge penstock (power station water supply pipe) and old turbine wheels, at the Monowai Power Station

Here is a video I made at the Monowai Power Station:

There is a first-come first-served DOC campsite at Lake Monowai; but otherwise, it pays to book accommodation in the village.

The sign says 'Mountains Edge Cabins / Monowai, NZ'

At Monowai Village, a road called the Borland Road branches off to the northwest.

The Borland Road leads into what’s generally known as the Borland Country. This terrain was formed by what’s perhaps the biggest onshore landslide in recent geological times, 27 cubic kilometres from the Hunter Mountains some 13,000 years ago.

There are lots of interesting walks and tramps in the Borland country, And the road itself is incredibly scenic, apart from the fact that you are accompanied by high voltage power lines nearly all the way, for it was built for the purposes of hydro access back in the 1960s. It terminates at a campsite on the South Arm of Lake Manapōuri.

A short way along the Borland Road from Monowai village, you get to the Borland Lodge. This is a good-quality lodge with accommodation for over a hundred!

From the Borland Lodge, you can do the Borland Nature Walk just locally, the South Borland Track, the more adventurous-looking North Branch Borland River Track to the North Borland Hut, and, most famously, the Green Lake Track to the Borland Bivouac, just above a zigzag on the Borland Road.

From the Green Lake Track, you can also hike to Rodger Inlet Hut on Lake Monowai and, separately, to Monowai Hut on Lake Monowai,as well. But each of these is a side trip and they do not link up.

To do the Green Lake Track, you would normally want to have two cars or a designated driver, as nobody likes doing a ‘road bash’ on the return trip.

There is a DOC page on the Borland Country, which includes a PDF leaflet that has a section on the Borland Road. The road is quite gnarly and, as of the time of writing (April 2022) the leaflet advises ringing DOC in Invercargill (telephone 03 211 2400) to discuss conditions on the road before attempting it. The leaflet says that it is best attempted with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and that it is “NOT suitable for campervans, caravans or trailers.” The leaflet adds that “Vehicles are not allowed off the road. There is no fuel station, cell phone coverage or access to emergency services along the road.”

Which sounds exciting, and as though you should also check your insurance or car hire terms.

The Borland Road penetrates much further into ‘deep Fiordland’ than any other part of New Zealand’s ordinary road network, and yet not many people even know it exists. Though as I say, you do have to share it with the power pylons.

The address of the Borland Lodge is 347 Borland Road. But that is still in the vicinity of Monowai village, well before you get to the epic part of the Borland Road.


The next spot you get to is Clifden, which maybe gets its name from the picturesque, jungly, limestone cliffs that abound nearby.

Clifden cliffs


A tumbledown farmhouse near Clifden. You see a lot of old derelict structures in Southland.

Clifden has a very good campsite which I can definitely recommend, and a historic (1899) suspension bridge across the Waiau River.

Part of the Clifden Campsite

Here are some views of the Clifden Suspension Bridge (now retired) which is unusual for having a deck made of wood.‍

The bridge and a campfire site

Information panel

Tourists on the Clifden Suspension Bridge

Another view along the bridge, minus tourists

View from the bridge

The Manapōuri hydroelectric scheme, which I mentioned earlier in the context of the Rakatu Wetlands, drains Lake Manapōuri via the Manapōuri Power Station to Doubtful Sound at a rate that can exceed 500 cubic metres per second (cumecs). The Waiau of today only receives between 12 and 16 cumecs from Lake Manapōuri, though various tributaries boost the river’s flow somewhat by the time it gets to Clifden.

Information panel describing how the Waiau River lost much of its original flow to the Manapōuri power station

Another attraction near Clifden is the Clifden Caves. Like many cave systems in Aotearoa New Zealand, they are populated by glow worms emitting a bluish light.

Information panel about the Clifden Caves

Next week: I make the intrepid gravel-road journey to Lake Hauroko, travel further along the South Coast to Riverton/Aparima where I visit the historical museum, and visit a private railway museum at Fairfax, near Otautau.

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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