The overwhelming beauty of the MacKenzie Country is spectacular. Stark and barren the brown rolling hills with their undulating creases and folds change in shadowy designs as the land goes on and on before you disappearing into the high misty mountain peaks in the far distance.
Climbing into the region from the east on Route Eight out of Timaru or passing through the picturesque town of Geraldine via Route 79 offers the traveler opportunities to discover several very interesting places along the way. Driving via Geraldine a stop at the Berry Complex is a must for a coffee at the EasyWay Café and also some of Barker’s “just-too-good” Wild Berry jams.
The winding road that climbs through verdant green valleys toward the high country doesn’t hint at what to expect the first time you travel this way. One place of discovery is at the turn off to the Farm Barn Café, Mt. Michael, on the right just before Fairlie. Follow the dirt road for a few kilometres and you will find before you Opuha Lake. It’s not even on some of our maps. We have stayed the night there on several occasions.
Just past the Farm Barn on Route 79 there is a pull off where you can see the change from green rolling fields and valleys filled with sheep and deer to the mountains of the high country. Route 8 from the south via Timaru takes you through the small town of Pleasant Point.
One of our favourite places to spend the night is not too far out of town. Take Halstead Road to the right out of Pleasant Point to where it crosses the Opihi River. On the right is a small parking area called Hanging Rock. Real good chance to catch a trout on this river plus at twilight the small New Zealand brown bat that makes its home here can be observed. Another hidden treat you pass along the way is the small boutique Opihi Winery and Restaurant.
Both of these routes meld together in the town of Fairlie. The Old Library Café is worth a stop just at the east edge of Fairlie as you enter town. From Fairlie it is 43 kilometers to the heart of the high country and your first sighting of the milky blue glacial lakes. You will pass through the two small communities of Kimbell and Burke’s Pass worthy of a stop to visit their galleries.
From Burke’s Pass you pass between the Two Thumb and Rollesby mountain ranges. If you are lucky enough to be in the high country during spring the roads are lined and the ground is covered with a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours thanks to the mountain lupin. Almost impossible not to stop for a closer look. For Paula and I it is one of our most enjoyable routes of our South Island travels.
Caught up in the colour and the intense scenery you will come around a bend and all of a sudden before you is the vast expanse of smoky blue glacial waters named Lake Tekapo. At the head of the Tekapo River Valley it is the beginning of the Tekapo Canal system that cuts across to Lake Pukaki and becomes the Pukaki Canal and the Ohau Canal that links up to Lake Ruataniwha and Lake Ohah further west along this route.
The scene from Lake Tekapo, the country’s highest lake at 710m, is one of the most stunning in the world. Lake Tekapo in the foreground and the Mount Cook National Park with Mount Cook, Mount Tasman and neighboring mountain ranges of the southern Alps dominating the entire scenery before you. Awe-inspiring are the words created just for these startling locations.
Popular visitor attractions on the lake are the stone Church of the Good Shepherd and right beside it is the bronze statue of a sheepdog dedicated to New Zealand’s hard working sheep dogs. The lakes and canals provide excellent fishing in the region and a real bonus with two salmon farms. The High Country Salmon Farm is 3km south of Twizal on SH8 and Mount Cook Salmon is on the Tekapo canal. Guided tours are available plus fresh or smoked Chinook salmon are for sale. These are great places to try your luck at catching a salmon yourself in the canal by the farms. The drive along the Tekapo Canal is a must when cruising through the area.
A special treat, found in only a few special places on earth due to air clarity, is the tour at the Mount Johnson observatory on the southwest corner of Lake Tekapo on Godley Peaks Road. Visitors are welcome to drive to the top of Mount John where the views are beyond comprehension, $20 for a day tour and $48 for a night star gazing tour at the observatory.
Another exciting 2-hour trip available is a visit to the Pelennor Battlefield from the movie Lord of the Rings. Price is $65, information at the Twizal Information Centre.
The 55 km drive in the high country on Route # 80 along Lake Punakaki takes you to the Hermitage and the closest you can get by vehicle to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3754 metres.
If you want to get up front and personal with the Tasman Glacier the Glacier Explorers of Mt Cook provide a ½ hour walk to the terminal lake of the Glacier and then take you by boat to the very ice face of the Tasman Glacier. Summer only at $105 per adult, children 4-14 is $50 under 4 is free.
For those of you who enjoy walks Mount Cook provides anything from a 10 minute to an hour return along with those of you with more experience and energy a chance to go heavy duty tramping or world-class mountain climbing.
We like to stay at the White Horse DOC Camp at the head of the valley near the Mount Cook area where toilets and water available. Also available is the Glentanner Holiday Park with sixty powered sites nearby.
A good place to park your campervan in the region is the Huxley Lodge at $6 per night located up the Hopkins Valley at the head of Lake Ohau about a 40-minute drive.
Another large park is the Lake Ruataniwha Holiday Park off SH8 south of Twizal. You will find over fifty acres of beautiful high country and a well appointed camp for the traveler to stay.
For the freedom camper there are many places such as along Lake Punakaki, along the Lake Ohau canal, the Ahururi River by Omarama and a lot of spots along Lake Benmore, Lake Aviemore and Lake Waitaki. The high country is made for freedom camping. This is fantastic trout fishing country with the Ahururi River being named one of the top ten in the world.
Omarama, a small crossroads community, the glider capital of the world, has an unusual find. The Totara Flats Gallery provides a free display of many of the costumes and props from the Xena TV show. Outside of town on SH#1 also to be seen is the Clay Cliffs and further past them is a wonderful isolated DOC camp high in the hills to stay the night.
The circle drive to the high country begins or ends back on Route #One north of Oamaru by taking Route #83 from Omarama or you may be on Route #8 out of the Cromwell region. One of the truly great drives in the South Island is through the Lindis Pass between Cromwell and Omarama where you will be stunned by the stark beauty of the red tussock covered hills of the region that is a nature lover’s dreamscape.
One of the truly fabulous trips of New Zealand to experience is the MacKenzie Country with its golden brown hills; turquoise blue glacial lakes, waving tussock grass and a rainbow coloured lupin world. You will discover kilometers of easy driving roads where traffic is quietly scarce and the sky seems to be always a clear blue during the idyllic summer days. A not to be missed route when visiting the South Island the MacKenzie Country will be one of the highlights of your visit.