Pick of the peaks
A short drive north of Wanaka, Isthmus Peak features grandiose views of both Lake Wanaka and Hawea, but with a fraction of the company
of the popular Roys Peak Track
The most dangerous part of the walk is crossing SH6 at the start. The parking area is on the right, just before traversing The Neck between lakes Hawea and Wanaka. This is a hotspot for oblivious drivers, concentrating more on the scenery than the road.
The track is marked through Glen Dene Station (check closure dates with DOC, as it is often closed for lambing and fawning in spring). Merinos graze in the shadows of the schist cliffs taking advantage of the dry climate, akin to their native homeland in south-west Spain. Fences, gates and stiles keep the cattle at bay.
On the steady climb through the paddocks I admired the schist pillars and exposed outcrops on the ridges. The Otago schist started forming around 500 million years ago, as sedimentation on the eastern edge of Gondwanaland laid down multiple layers at the coastal margin. These layers metamorphosed into schist, after being heated to temperatures of over 300° at depths of over 10km, around 160 to 200 million years ago. Later post-metamorphic processes sometimes split these layers and wedges of superheated water saturated with silica intruded. These inter-bedded quartz layers form striking patterns today, like the French pastry mille-feuille.
Towards the summit, occasional gullies drew my eye to the glaciated valleys stretching to the snowy peaks, protruding above the foreground ridges. Schist pinnacles sat like bishop’s mitres above the tussocks. Crickets, cicadas and a plethora of other insects hummed in the background. My entomologist friend had described how many Otago ranges contain storehouses of biodiversity, often unique to those mountains. I wondered if any of this insect percussion was unique to the Matatiaho Conservation Area.
A right turn at the signpost on the ridge leads to the summit at 1386m. From here, the previous courses of the Hawea and Wanaka glaciers are evident. Near the zenith of the last Hawea advance, terminal moraines built up, which now form the southern dam at the end of the lake. The glaciers scoured the valley floors to below sea level (making today’s lakes nearly 400m deep) and sculpted the characteristic U-shaped valley walls. At The Neck, the two glaciers joined.
The Waitaha ancestor, Rakaihautu, left many descendants, of whom Rokotewhatu is said to have conferred the name ‘Hawea’, meaning ‘doubt’ – a reference to his forebear’s indecision about which way to travel when he visited. Thinking back to the well-trodden tracks and sanitised amenities on offer nearby, I felt gratitude for the chorus of insects and eye-catching glaciated landscapes, which grounded me back in the real world – the world less touched by human footprints.