In between the town of Monowai and the South Arm of Lake Manapouri is a 45 km 4WD road across the Hunter Mountains that was built in the late 1960s to install power pylons connecting the Manapouri Power Station to the National Grid. At the far end is a campsite from which we hoped to launch our kayaks.
At the end of the tar seal there is a sign warning that the road is not suitable for caravans or campervans, and that 4WD is recommended. The section up to Borland Saddle at 900 metres above sea level was pretty straightforward, and would be quite possible in a 2WD vehicle if the conditions were good. We stopped at the top to admire the view, and to drink some coffee to keep the driver alert.
It wasn’t too bad for the next couple of km down to the Grebe Valley lookout, but from then on it got pretty hairy as the road descended steeply down a series of hairpins to the valley far below. I realised immediately that I wouldn’t be able to rely on the brakes lasting the distance, so for the first time I switched into low-range 4WD, and was relieved to find that the engine was quite happy to keep our speed under control.
We made it all the way down without undue stress, but at the 33 km mark we came across a washed-out culvert with a small creek flowing across the road. I could see that at least one vehicle had made it through the ford, but the approach angle was very steep and I quickly decided it would be a very risky proposition in our relatively long motorhome.
I might have faced a long reverse to a suitable turn-around point, but right near the river we found a spot that only required the removal of one big boulder. As this area is very remote there is no cellphone coverage so we were very pleased to be able to drive back with no issues.
I was pretty tired by this time, and the area up on the saddle was very scenic so we parked for the night there. To our surprise another vehicle arrived soon afterwards, and we learned that they had spent an hour of so digging out the ford and driving across, only to discover an even more impassable washout further on.
There was a smaller camper with a couple of older guys who were also staying for the night, so after dinner Felicity invited them over for a drink. It was pretty chilly up on the tree line, so we appreciated our diesel heater. One of our guests was an ex-DOC worker, and the other a doctor, so we had an interesting conversation until we discovered that it was after 11.30 and way past our normal bedtime.
In the morning we woke to a beautiful clear day. All around us we could see snow-covered peaks. As I walked to the long-drop toilet three kea flew past noisily greeting me.
Although our plan for the day was to go for a kayak, the fact that the summit of Mt Burns was only a 45 minute hike up through the tussock proved irresistible, so we chucked on our packs and set off. It was stunningly beautiful – mountains stretching in all directions. Even the morning sun glinting on the rows of power pylons was pretty.
We were back at the vehicle by mid-morning, and set off back down the easy side of the hill to visit Lake Monowai.