Omarama Saddle to St Bathans – Offroad in The South Island.

It’s probably about time I acknowledged some of the wonderful things we have done whilst living here in The South Island. Of course there are the usual suspects that make anyone’s list of things to do, but these things make everyone’s list for a reason. They are probably the most accessible things to do. I want to acknowledge the things that are a bit more off the beaten track – things that take a bit more effort to plan but are memories that will stick for a lifetime.

Kitting out the Nissan with a rooftent and kitchen just before winter set in I will admit was not ideal timing and everytime I mentioned some offroad adventure, Doug would paint a picture of us clinging to the roof of the truck whilst we floated off down a river. Hence I’ve had a few excursions up my sleeve for some time!!

The Mighty Nissan

A few weeks ago, after a fairly dry spell of weather – we always have this “where are we going this weekend” conversation EVERY weekend and the decision is generally ALWAYS left up to me. So this particular weekend I had a plan already in place. We packed up the Nissan, loads of blankets, woolley hats, wet weather gear, some firewood and a chillybin full of supplies and off we went. (I still managed to forget the alcohol!!) It is pleasing to note but unusual for us, we actually let somebody know where we were headed beforehand and even discussed the route with a DOC Ranger prior. Many years ago we went on an adventure with our children when they were younger after a period of torrential rain and got half way through a 4wd track only to discover the farmer had blown up the track access to his property and we were stuck in the middle of a raging river with an impossible uphill climb on one side and a farmer with a gun on the other. As no one had any idea where we were headed, it’s luckily a story we all lived to remember.

The Omarama Saddle track is located off Broken Hut Road just out of the township of Omarama, heading toward The Lindis Pass. I’m sure there’s a story to tell here as the road is dotted with rows of ramshackle huts hence the name. At the end of the road is a gate with a DOC sign acknowledging that you are in the right place and then a kilometre or so further past the gate is the official carpark to enter The Oteake Conservation Area. Now you have a choice here – there is the East Manuherikia Track or the West Manuherikia Track. I’d done my homework here and because staying in a DOC hut is one of my bucketlist things to do, I choose the West Manuherikia where there are two huts located along the way.

West Manuherikia Track

The  track was actually more muddied than we had anticipated however it was an easy meander through some Farmer’s property, past paddocks loaded with spring lambs feeding on the best pasture, until we slowly started our ascent over the Saddle. It’s a pretty steady climb toward the summit at 1357 meters. The view back down towards Omarama is outstanding and I wish I had a better lens to have captured it. From there its quite a steep climb down to Top Hut which is found in the valley next to the river. I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned these before but this route has many river crossings, most of an average depth, some climbing over the Nissans sills. This was in November after as I say, a fairly dry spell bit with snow melt and all I guess there’s quite a bit of water coming out of the mountains.

Top Hut is a recently renovated 8 bunk Hut and its in great shape but as it’s early in the day, we opt for a quick picnic before heading off to the next Hut.

Boundary Creek Hut is such a letdown. I can barely contain my disappointment. Right outside the front door of this immaculate Hut is the road with a humongous puddle right smack bang outside the front door. It’s blowing a gale and quite frankly I feel depressed at spending the rest of my day here just to fulfill my bucket list goal of staying in a back country hut.  After quite a lot of indecision I finally decide to push onto St Bathans where we have stayed at The Domain before.

Top Hut

Just a few kms up the track is where the track joins the East trunk and remnants of an old goldmining town appear. Perfectly manicured stone retaining walls indicate a road into the area and it’s times like these that I wish there were information boards telling us the history of the area. I love imagining Mrs Brown with her 7 children living in the Post Office which was the grandest building on town boasting two bedrooms and a parlour.

The track now becomes less of a track and more of an unsealed road through backcountry Stations. The odd head of cattle roam through the barren landscape and you begin to understand the extent of what lies between these mountain passes. It’s truly a beautiful place to be.

We come to a sign that says Homestead Camp but it’s through a non accessible fence and it appears to be just for trampers so we carry on until the road forks and we discover the vehicle access to the Campsite. The Homestead Campsite is a beauty, I wouldn’t take my Motorhome there but it’s a perfect 4wd access Campsite set in a large treed paddock complete with a DOC hut. I can’t believe my eyes. It’s a wee bit more rugged than the other two along the track and there are no bunks in it, but it’s just the most romantic little set up with a wee lounge and fire and an adjoining kitchen. I just knew that firewood would come in handy. Now by this stage the wind had kicked in so we practically parked our rooftent on the front doorstep with the hope  that no one else would want to use the hut and luckily no one else did!!

Don’t you just love a hut that comes complete with a full set of Monopoly including instructions? So our night was spent losing money over hotels and buying up streets, curled up infront of a roaring fire, eating burgers cooked in our mobile kitchen and it was perfect. I get such a rush of joy from experiencing simple things like this. You know you can dine at Amsfield in Arrowtown and it’s amazing and unforgettable but eating a burger in a shack in the middle of nowhere huddled around a fire with candles for light is just as special and unforgettable and best of all free.

Now this is something I can’t promise you all, but we awoke in our rooftent, thankfully snug as a bug, to fresh snow on the surrounding mountains – in the middle of November!! After a breakfast of champions we headed off in search of St Bathans and were quite confused when we got to the end of the road as there was no signpost to say which way to go so we turned right and it turns out right is right. Sadly for us the  historic Viulcan Hotel at St Bathans was being renovated that day so a 10 o’clock morning beer was out of the question but I’m sure any other day it would be a great end to a fantastic adventure.

Snow on the mountains

For those wishing to head back to Omarama, you can infact do the loop, just take the East Manuherikia track home. On this particular day there was a deep river crossing near the start of he track that Doug had visions of standing on the rooftop again, so we headed back the road way.

This 28 km track is open from Labour Weekend to the 30th April but I would recommend contacting DOC Twizel or Alexandra before heading over the Saddle just to be aware of any hazards on the track.


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