HANMER SPRINGS is a popular hot-spring resort that you get to by turning northward, off State Highway 7 between the Lewis Pass and Culverden. The town lies in a small plain just south of the Hanmer Range, which includes Mount Isobel and Jacks Pass.
The St James Conservation area to the northwest of Hanmer Springs, named after the old homestead, has a lot of variety of landscape. It is in a transitional zone between the beech forests of the Lewis Pass area, watered by westerly winds, and the more desert-like terrain due north and east of Hanmer Springs.
The St James Station (i.e., large, extensive, sheep-farm) was acquired by the New Zealand Government in 2008 and incorporated into a wider St James Conservation Area. New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) graphics, from press release 'St James Station', 8 October 2008. North at top.
In fact, many of the best features of the area are to the north and northwest of the town. As one blogger puts it, "North of Hanmer Springs exists a rugged, expansive landscape where few visitors bother to tread."
Closest to the town, on the northern side, is the Hanmer Forest Park, where there are a number of short walks, tramping tracks and walking tracks. These include the Mt Isobel Track, to the summit of Mount Isobel. According to DOC, as of the time of writing,
This is the most popular track to the summit. It starts from the Clarence Valley Road car park, located 2 km from the Jacks Pass Road turnoff. The track climbs through European and Japanese larch before entering sub alpine scrub. Climb onto an open ridge and continue to the summit for panoramic views of Hanmer Basin and beyond.
Here's a video I made which includes a glimpse of the Hanmer Basin (I wasn't quite at the top).
I took a photo from near the top of Mount Isobel, looking northward away from Hanmer Springs. Looking southward, you can indeed see the town and the now-domesticated vest-pocket of plains in which it is set: the Hanmer Basin, known in Māori as Mania Rauhea, 'Plain or the Shining Tussock'.
Yet in the direction of the photo below, to the north, you are looking into a total wilderness.
You can get into the wilds surprisingly quickly once you venture north of the town, and I'll have more to say about that below!
The hot springs at Hanmer have been popular for a long time. They were known to Māori, who accounted for their existence via a legend to the effect that a fragment of fire from the volcanoes of the North Island had landed in the area. According to the website of the springs resort,
Legend tells of the famous warrior Tamatea calling on the Ariki (chief) of the North Island volcanoes, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, to save his party from freezing on their return north, after their canoe was wrecked off the Otago coast. The Ariki answered by sending flames from Ngauruhoe’s crater down the Wanganui River and across to Nelson, where they rose into the air, a piece landing in Hanmer Springs. This gave rise to the hot springs, known as “Te Whakatakaka O Te Ngarehu O Ahi Tamatea – where the ashes of Tamatea’s fire lay.”
Parties travelling north and south along the coast, and to and from the pounamu (greenstone, jade) resources of the West Coast, would revive themselves in the springs, but perhaps as a reasult of the rather barren setting of the springs, there does not seem to have been a permanent settlement. The springs were eventually rediscovered by European settlers looking for suitable places to run sheep in 1859, and a small settlement was established, named after a Welshman named Thomas Hanmer who farmed in the region but never actually lived in the town, and who departed for Australia in 1867. No doubt, he must have been popular while he was here.
In 1883 a formal set of baths was opened, and by the 1920s they were a well-known tourist attraction, in addition to being the site of a government sanatorium where people went for varioius sorts of cures.
Here's the present-day website of the Hanmer Springs resort. It includes an excellent historical section with old black and white photos.
In spite of the impression you might get from the 1920s poster, trains never ran as far as Hanmer Springs, and you always had to finish the journey by bus. These days, there are still regular bus services, if you don't want to drive there by car.
On the other hand, if you do drive to Hanmer with your own car – or better still, high-ground-clearance four wheel drive (4WD) – there are a heap of other places you can visit in the area. A lot of the attractions outside the town are reached by way of two lengthy gravel roads known for tourism purposes as the Rainbow Road and the Acheron Road.
The Rainbow Road and the Acheron Road are joined by the Severn to Sedgemere 4WD road, which is only open to the public for a few weeks each summer. I've shown this connecting link as a dotted red line in the following map.
The Rainbow Road traverses a real variety of scenery, from the arid country north of Hanmer Springs to the far more verdant regions of Nelson Lakes National Park. It finishes at the lovely lakeside town of St Arnaud.
The Acheron Road, on the other hand, pretty much runs through desert all the way to Blenheim.
Yes, there are deserts in New Zealand! By the way, it pays to read the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) guides to these roads, linked under their names above, before you try and drive them. There's no cellphone, no fuel, and on the Acheron, not much water in places either. Long sections are 4WD only. You also have to fill in forms before proceeding.
Both roads run through the Molesworth Recreation Reserve, which incorporates the largest farm in New Zealand, Molesworth Station.
Rainbow Road and Acheron Road are tourist-route names. On the ground, sections of these roads are known by different names, such as Tophouse Road and Molesworth Road.
One of the main attractions to the north of Hanmer Springs is a wilderness of small desert lakes between the barren mountains, a wilderness quite similar to the Ō Tū Wharekai / Ashburton Lakes region much further south.
The lakes north of Hanmer Springs include Lake Tennyson, at the left of the map below, and the Sedgemere Lakes, toward its top right. This map also shows the Severn to Sedgemere 4WD road, as a dashed black line running through a locality called Tarndale and down the Alma River. Mount Augarde is at top right, too.
The most famous lake in this area is Lake Tennyson, seen below in early autumn and in winter.
Scrambling up the surrounding mountains you can get some magnificent views down over Lake Tennyson.
It's also possible to climb to a smaller, higher tarn called Princess Bath, which is quite attractive in its own right. Princess Bath is shown at the extreme left of the third map, above, and is in the mountains behind the lake, and to the left, in the photograph just above. It's in a basin below the peak to the left of the lake (Mount Princess).
To the northwest of Hanmer Springs, as I mentioned, you can enter the St James Conservation Area, named after the old sheep station. There are a lot of really excellent, little known hikes here, inclujding the one up the Edwards River to Scotties Hut and the Cow Stream Hot Pools.
This is about two hours in on foot, but the track can also be cycled, horse-trekked and even driven in a 4WD. This link from New Zealand Tramper gives the precise location of the Cow Stream Hot Pools.
In fact there are lots of hot pools in the St James Conservation Area. Sally James's Hot Springs of New Zealand lists five hot pools in the St James Conservation Area. A lot of people praise these for being far less packed-out than the well-known springs in the township itself.
I also took quite a few photos at the St James Homestead, including this one of the oldest building:
Though some other parts were newer!
The old St James Homestead was still being used as a base for horse trekking; which was far cheaper here than the horse-trekking operation I knew of somewhat closer to home at Glenorchy, near Queenstown.
When I visited, in March 2021, a firm called Pukatea Trails held the franchise at the homestead, under the leadership of a man named Gary Hebberd. The trek routes include the track to Cow Stream hot pools, among several others. I was told that they were also providing a specialist service by which male abuse survivors ride horses as therapy, a common method of treatment for many problems these days.
(There's a full list of horse trekking operators on New Zealand conservation land, here.)
When I was in Hanmer Springs I stayed at the local YHA, Kākāpō Lodge, which I really liked. You can also camp at the St James Homestead, as I describe in this video. The homestead is old, but the campground is new:
On the Acheron road, you can also stay at the historic 1863 Acheron Accommodation House. And use either as bases for walks and climbs.
As you can see from this sign, there are actually a lot of places to camp and things to do along the Rainbow and Acheron Roads. It really is not as if you would just be driving.
I've mostly described places in the wild country to the north of Hanmer Springs township. But NZ Pocket Guide also lists ten (or rather, eleven) things to do in Hanmer Springs and to the east and south of the township. I recommend clicking on the link just given. But briefly, these are:
+ Climb Conical Hill for the view over the town
+ Ride the Weka Pass vintage railway
+ Soak in the Hanmer Springs hot pools
+ Do adventure tourism via the Hanmer Springs Attractions Base
+ Look at Māori rock drawings at Weka Pass
+ Visit Motunau Beach
+ Visit the local markets
+ Hike the Kowai River Walking Track (two hours)
+ Visit Amberley Beach
+ Visit the Mount Lyford Skifield
+ Visit the Cathedral Cliffs, which NZ Pocket Guide also class as one of New Zealand's top 21 'Crazy Rock Formations'.
In a way, what's interesting about NZ Pocket Guide's list, as useful as it is, is what it leaves out. Its omissions of the attractions to the north and northwest really underscore the point about how obscure and little-travelled the St James Conservation area and the wilderness traversed by the Rainbow (Tophouse) and Acheron (Molesworth) roads actually are!
You really will have those areas pretty much to yourselves.
There is, indeed, more to Hanmer than springs!
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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