Many laughed at Tom O’Brien when he said he’d build 27km of track through iconic Otago landscape using just a pick and shovel. But two years of hard slog have silenced his critics. Matthew Pike checks out his handy work
What’s that in front of me? I don’t believe it, it’s the sun – I can finally see the sun! Wait, there’s more. Tussock. A ridge. A track winding up the ridge. This is unreal!
A breeze swept the remaining cloud from the ridgetop and, after a few moments, I enjoyed one of those special occasions trampers experience once every blue moon; standing above the cloudline during a temperature inversion.
Trapped in the valley, the cloud has the appearance of a white ocean floor with mountains poking through like islands. I could see the upper peaks of the Eyre Mountains, which looked all the more glorious being the first landmarks of any kind I’d seen for more than 24 hours.
Since I began the trail the previous day, a thick fog had scuppered my view to such an extent that it was hard to imagine anything beyond three metres in any direction. My world was one in which the ground quickly blurred and vanished. Beyond that was a hanging grey nothingness dropping beads of water so miniscule I failed to notice my hair becoming saturated until I scratched my head and my face received an unwelcome shower.
“This hardly ever happens – it’s never like this,” exclaimed an aggrieved Tom O’Brien in the dense fog. O’Brien had every right to be aggrieved. He’s spent the last two years forming the Roaring Lion Trail on his family’s farm, bit by bit, armed only with volunteers and a pick and shovel.
He finally opened the trail – the first of what he hopes will be several Welcome Rock trails – for the first time in December last year.
O’Brien’s family have owned the 2000ha farm since 1911, retiring half of it into a conservation covenant in 1991 to protect endemic rare species such as the carabid beetle, powelliphanta snail, skinks and other large species of lizard. It was on this covenant land that O’Brien dreamt about building a trail for walkers and bikers since he was a kid, when he would roam the tops hunting for rabbits and hares. Thanks to a chance meeting with a cartographer with experience in trail design he was given the technical know-how to turn this dream into reality.
However, due to the land being protected, he wasn’t allowed to use machinery.
“When I told people I was going to build a 27km trail by hand, many laughed at the idea.”
But with hard work and a good dollop of vision, O’Brien’s dream has now been realised. He lives and breathes the trail which made it particularly heart-breaking for him when my ‘day one’ was a grey-out.
“Normally, there’s a beautiful view from here over the Garvie Mountains,” he said forlornly, staring at the blank wall of grey from the campsite. O’Brien’s been careful to ensure each of the three tent sites are spread far enough apart to be truly separate. It’s consistent with his policy of making the trail one that embraces privacy as well as encouraging visitors to take time to absorb the surroundings.
For walkers it’s an easy trail; the gradient barely rising above five-degrees at any stage. But the purposefully narrow, winding nature of the track combined with the odd drop to the right makes it a grade three intermediate bike ride and one that can’t be ridden at speed.
To emphasise the point of taking it easy, there are two huts along the way, as well as the campsite. One of these huts, Mud Hut, has as much charm of any I’ve seen in the backcountry. It reminds me of the type of croft you’d find in the north of Scotland but is, in fact, a replica of a sod hut which housed Chinese water race keeper Lee Lum.
The original building stood for more than 100 years though, latterly, in a very derelict state. Chinese workers were employed to manage the water race, which was built in the late 1800s to bring water to the goldfields in the Nokomai Valley below. It’s the second longest water race in New Zealand and it took 30 men three years to build it, as O’Brien has done, with pick and shovel.
“Working on the trail has given me a real sense of what these workers went through,” says O’Brien. “The water race was an extraordinary achievement.”
After starting at a semi-derelict ski lodge, the first day of the walk, if done clockwise, is mostly spent following the path of the water race and there are frequent reminders of the past, including fluming pipes (one of which you need to duck under), clay brandy bottles, the stack stone walls of the race itself and, of course, Mud Hut.
Inside, Mud Hut has the appearance of a basic DOC hut – it’s small and dark with four bunks and around a dozen candles. Yet it has the facilities of a serviced hut with gas fuelled hobs and all the firewood you could ever need.
Its real selling point though, other than its quaint charm, is the outdoor bath, fed by hose from the stream that trickles past. After cooking a hearty spaghetti bolognaise I filled the bath to a quarter full and transferred the gas bottle to the stove sitting underneath.
In just over half an hour the bath was warm enough to take a plunge. It took me a short while to work out which parts of the base and sides were too toasty to touch (for future reference, when you get in, keep the middle hob on and turn off the other two, meaning the only hot bit of bathtub is under your knees, which are easy to keep off the surface). It was a thoroughly relaxing experience even when shrouded in cloud so I imagine lying there looking out over valleys and summits must be nothing short of bliss.
After my dip, it was time to start the fire and spend the next couple of hours gawping at the flames and befriending two rather brave little mice.
The first day had been fascinating for listening to O’Brien’s train of thought. It’s difficult not to become absorbed by someone’s passion for a project; his desire to cut everything by hand to keep the experience as natural as possible; his determination to stick with it for two years, often completing as little as 10m a day, without any guarantee of success; his vision for every detail of the experience. “The thought of only having this half finished haunts me,” he says.
The plans don’t stop here. Another Welcome Rock trail will be the Braying Donkey Trail, connecting the current trail with the Nokomai Valley. There’s also talk of more accommodation and the possibility of incorporating the likes of glamping, trail running events or even ski touring.
The following day, O’Brien needed to work on a section of track, so I continued alone – at first through the same dense fog as the day before, then along the top of the ridge, clouds hugging the sides of the hill beneath me in all directions.
Still, the gradient was so gentle that, though continually uphill, the ascent was barely noticeable. It wasn’t long before I could see the summit of the trip – Welcome Rock – a tor protruding handsomely from the dome-topped ridge.
I was surprised to stumble upon Slate Hut, well hidden behind a crag but with a breathtaking view and a deck out front. It’s a very different animal to Mud Hut. It’s new and wooden, but it also has a bath overlooking the surrounding valleys. This would have been a particularly enjoyable morning to have bathed, gazing at the sea of cloud.
I pressed on up to the summit and was rather impressed by the way the track, without ever becoming steep, wound its way right to the top, weaving between rocks. It was just a short hop onto the summit rock from the highest point on the track, from which there’s very nearly a 360° panorama.
Welcome Rock used to be a trading post, it’s name deriving from the joy of reaching the top. In years past, a whisky bottle was hidden somewhere in the rock for those who could do with a wee dram. Take note – O’Brien is keen to start that tradition again.
From the summit a gradual descent led back to the derelict ski lodge from where I began.
After completing the trail I had little doubt that this is one that many walkers and bikers would love to do. Any new land becoming available for recreation is an exciting prospect, particularly in a landscape so close to Queenstown and the Central Otago highlands. The walking is as easy as you could hope for and, so long as you don’t choose a fog-ridden day as I did, there are views throughout.
But the experience doesn’t come for free. Anyone wishing to walk or cycle the trail needs to pay $40. Camping is an additional $15pp, staying at Slate Hut an additional $100 for two or Mud Hut an additional $120 for two. Compared to the prices associated with staying on DOC land, these figures may make the eyes water. But there seems to be a market of those willing to pay extra for privacy and charm.
“Our business plan is based around two or three people doing the trail each day,” said O’Brien. “This summer, even though we’ve just opened the trail and spread the message through word of mouth, we’ve been getting around 1.7 people a day on average. We opened Mud Hut a few years ago before the trail existed and have had 1500 people stay there.”
Being so close to Queenstown, O’Brien admits, really helps the business. But it’s not just tourists who venture to the farm. Many come from Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin for a weekend away. “We’re far enough from Queenstown to not see the 737s. You can access the place easily, and quickly find yourself in a very remote setting. You get a real sense of isolation up on the tops.”
One significant advantage of these huts over DOC huts is that you’re guaranteed to have the place to yourself. And, as many of those who stay tend to be on a romantic weekend trip, their reasons for walking or biking the trail may be different to those on an overnighter in a DOC hut.
For whatever reason, the location appeals to a steady influx and has captured the interest of businesses wishing to work with the O’Briens for the likes of ski touring and glamping. It’s early days, but there’s already been enough interest to suggest more accommodation and tracks could be built in years to come.
O’Brien’s pick and shovel work is far from over.
Access: Start/finish at a derelict ski lodge on Nevis Rd, off SH6
Time: By foot 6-8hr, by bike 4hr (must be ridden anti-clockwise)
Accommodation/costs: Mud Hut $120 for two plus $30pp (max 4), Slate Hut $100 for two plus $30pp (max 4), campsite $15pp, luggage transfer to hut or campsite $40, to walk or cycle the trail $40pp.
Further information: www.welcomerock.co.nz