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The Branches - Skippers and Lochnagar                                                                                                  4th - 8th March 2015

Mustering the hills with the “Old Dog”

With the greatest respect, I title this report, “Mustering the Hills with the Old Dog”. “Dave”. To those who read this and do not know Dave, he is a musterer from way back and has worked on many well-known stations around the South Island. If it was not for his passion for the High Country and his desire to revisit some of his old haunts, the South Canterbury Tramping Club would not have accessed these places. In New Zealand today many areas are owned by overseas interests, big Corporate’s. Due to our Health and Safety rules, it deters owners from letting people onto their land. Well done Dave for your efforts to get us into the Branches. It helped having a family connection.

 The Branches is a sheep and cattle station situated at the end of the famous Skippers Road between Arrowtown and Queenstown. The Branches Station is to the right of the Shotover River. To the left is the iconic Skippers Bridge which you cross over to the Old School House and Mt Aurum Station, an area once visited by the S.C.T.C. The club has now bagged trips into both sides of the Shotover River.

For those who would like to learn more of this area check out the books by Terri MacNicol; “Beyond the Skippers Road” and “Echoes from Skippers Canyon”. These books tell you of life in the High Country and the notoriously famous road where your vehicle is not insured by some companies should you slip off the edge or get a scrap from side rocks as two vehicles pass. For me, this was a trip not to be missed. There is a lot of NZ early Goldfields history in this area. DOC has put signposts up and some very informative notice boards explaining what went on areas  and how the early gold miners lived.

Wednesday 4th March. 8am pick up time. Seven of us, Colin, Judy, Catherine, Dorothy, Dave, Lynley, John, set off in Dave’s and Colin’s four wheel drive vehicles. We left from Salt Water Creek. Our mission; to walk up alongside the Shotover River. Climb up aside valley to Lake Lochnagar, located on the Branches Station. A lake formed at the top of a valley after a landslip a wee way back in time. The general plan was one day’s travel into the station with a bit of sightseeing on the way. The following day walk up the valley to Lochnagar, camp out in tents. Next day explore the area then Saturday walk back down the valley and spend the night in a hut. Sunday, a short walk back to the vehicles and drive back to Timaru.

The first stop of the day was at the Cromwell Bakery. The health food eaten, it was on our way to the lookout before you go into the Skippers. The day couldn’t have been better, with panoramic views all around a must for all the photographers in the group.  After lunch, it was down the narrow, twisting, dust road, hoping not to meet anyone coming up the hill. We only met one vehicle on that bit of road, the driver had seen us, and stopped at a lay-by to allow us to squeeze past. Still some 20km’s to go before the well renowned Skippers Bridge. Here we were in the centre of NZ’s capital of adventure tourism, having our own wee thrills. One wrong move and it’s over the edge we go. Glad the bus stopped where he did. Let the motorbikes past and enjoy the views, absolutely marvellous, what a great day for all our ardent trampers. With time up our sleeves, it was a trip over the bridge to the Old School house. D.O.C. has done a great job here restoring the old buildings. One thing really noticeable, was back in March, 2014 the pine trees had been poisoned. It will be interesting to see in the nearer future how long they stand before the next strong wind blows them over. Don’t take shelter under them in the wind.

Going back across the bridge to the Branches Station is yet another narrow goat track of a road.  There is an old stone cottage where the lady of the house had 9 children and never went out of the area for 27 years. With the Shot Over   River on our left and massive hills above, the tight gorge opened up to this beautiful big valley. This was our playground for the next four days.

We stopped at the farm house and told our digs for the night was the Woolshed. DOC workers had the shearer’s quarters, they were flying up onto the ridges shooting goats. Dave’s stew went on the stove and we were all in bed by 9pm.

Thursday, advised the weather report will probably be correct. Rain, late Thursday night- Friday morning, and then again Friday- Saturday. We put our packs into the four wheel drives and headed off up the valley to Sixteen Mile hut, another bit of adventure tourism. Some people pay big bucks to do what we were doing. By lunch time we were at the hut. This is not a basic DOC hut, but a privately owned luxurious hut; running water, flush toilet, shower, gas hot water, beds. Here we watched one of the DOC shooters make his way down the hill to an open space, where he waited and the helicopter came in and took him off to another area.

Weather was fine, perfect for a stroll up the valley alongside the famous Shotover River towards 17 mile stream. Perfect day, sunshine and enough breeze to keep the sand-flies away. As rain was predicted, we had to take the four wheel drives back over the Shiel Burn creek. It doesn’t take much rain in these hills for the rivers to come up for a day or two. Four of us went back down the track over the Shiel Burn creek and left the vehicles on high ground. A two hour return hike saw us back at the hut in time for tea. Bed by 9pm again, moon out, perfect.

By 4am the rain had come. No camping or tramping to Lochnagar today. Just lie in bed, read the hut book, past issues off Wilderness magazines, drink coffee, tough life but someone has to do it. Oh no, 11am, the rain stopped. Someone had the bright idea after lunch we would walk over the terraces in the area behind the hut, so no one would get cabin fever. The sun came out again, the wind came up, the ground rapidly dried out. I wasn’t worried now if I didn’t get to Lake Lochnagar. Up on the hill, overlooking the river flats, snow covered high mountain peaks. We were in Gods own. Not a worry in the world, a picture perfect paradise, which very few kiwis get to.

Saturday morning, the rain came again and then the sun came again. You could tell the Old Dog was straining at the lead; he had spotted a hill that had to be mustered. He rounded up all the city pups and said we are going up there. Obediently, we obeyed, over the river stock bridge and straight up on all fours at time. Through the matagouri, rosehip bushes and spaniards, up we went. Over the ridge, holding onto rocks that looked solid but weren’t.

On a flat bit of rock it was time for a bite, but “not high enough” says the Old Dog, need to go higher to see if we can see into Lochnagar in the distance. The pack of city dogs split in two, three of us young pups followed. The other three decide to make their way back down a gentler route to the river and wait.

Now I’ve been using the phase the “Old Dog”. The way Dave moved around the hill, up over the rock as if he had glue on his boots, the way he used that manuka stick and stuck it into the hill as he sidled around the hill leaning inwards on his stick. It was worth while being there to watch his steps and him reading the track, even though there was no definitive track. Two of the pups broke away and went down; I stayed on for the upward haul.

 Eventually it came to an end. On more than one occasion this city pup had to whimper, give me a chance to catch up. It was easier to follow his footsteps than rip my way through the matagouri. Though now retired, he has not lost that agility in the hills. Good on ya mate.

On the way back down the valley the dark clouds were building up to the south. If it rained tonight then the Shiel Burn could be up and the 4WD track very slippery. The decision was made to break camp, head out to the vehicles, drive back to the Station and spend the night in the woolshed.

As we walked down the valley the cattle seemed to keep in front of us. Not moving aside to the big spaces that were either side so we could go past. No, they just bunched up and stopped at a gate with no easy escape. We didn’t want to spook them and have them push the fences down. With advice from the “old dog,” Colin and I got to play cowboy’s and herd them back towards the others where there was open space for them to get past and back to where they came from.

By this time it was 9pm and dark, Judy got her head light out. The river was fordable, not too swift, just above my knees and for those a little bit vertically challenged got a little bit damper. Using proper H&S procedures we linked arms and crossed at the widest point. River crossed, packs off into the back of the waiting vehicles.

Hmm, where’s the track? Found it, not easily spotted in headlights. Now for another bit of adventure tourism, night time four wheel driving. It becomes interesting when you are going back the same way you came but cannot see the surroundings for land marks.

The track does a fork, which way? Go the wrong way and there possibly no way of turning around. Torches in hand we did a wee rekey on both tracks. That way. Not long after, shapes at the side of the track started to look familiar and we were soon back at the woolshed, sleeping bags out, a quick cuppa and lights out just after11pm.

The next day there was a bit of early morning high country mist. The sun came up and a nice leisurely drive back along the Skippers Road to Arrowtown. There some of us stopped at the pub for a cooked breakfast and coffee while the others enjoyed the sights and sounds of one of NZ great tourist destinations. The town was busy as the day before had been the Motatapu Bike race.

Thanks Dave. A trip enjoyed by all that were on it.


Looking down on the Mt Aurum homestead, the Old School, the dead pine trees.

Looking up the valley to Lochnagar to the left and Dave's hill to the right