Into the tundra
The barren, tundra-like high country of Kopuwai Conservation Area in Central Otago offers views from The Remarkables to Aoraki/Mt Cook and an alpine experience like no other.
Encompassing a rolling plateau rising to 1869m, the 20,000ha park protects the stark landscape of the Old Woman and Old Man ranges, punctuated by snowdrifts and large schist tors.
The Old Woman Hut offers an accessible overnighter to explore these conjoined ranges. Just over an hour’s walk from Duffers Saddle on Nevis Road, the highest public road in the country, it sits at a lofty 1420m with the tops of its namesake range literally on its doorstep.
The track to the hut starts at a DOC sign just below Duffers Saddle and descends via a 4WD track before climbing steeply for 20 minutes. As height is gained, expansive views are revealed, encompassing all of the main ranges of Central Otago: the St Bathans, Dunstan and Hawduns to the east, the Pisa to the north, the Old Man to the south, and the Hectors and The Remarkables across the Nevis Valley to the west. In the distance, the rugged peaks of the Southern Alps are also clearly visible in an unbroken chain, including the tooth-like Mt Aspiring in the north-west, and Aoraki/Mt Cook on the horizon in the north. Large weather-beaten towers of schist stand in clusters, framing the vista.
After about an hour, the track comes to a signposted junction. The Old Woman Hut is a five-minute walk down the right path.
The hut is in a shallow valley beside a stream, facing north-west towards the Nevis Valley and The Remarkables.
Popular with 4WD parties and ski tourers, the six bunk corrugated iron hut was well stocked with kitchenware and even a range of condiments when I visited. The spacious hut also features a fire and a couple of tables.
Ditching my pack and claiming a bunk, I headed further up the range, following a fenceline to a pronounced tor. The flora changes with altitude.
Spaniard and tussock giving way to a barren landscape of lichen and mat-like alpine plants. I came across a large snowdrift near Pt1607, which had been curled by the wind into a wave-like shape more than 3m high.
Surprisingly, the area was also home to a number of seabirds. Black back gulls circled above, while pied oystercatchers and dotterels foraged, sounding alarm calls as I approached.
Despite being December, it was near freezing and I retreated back to the hut for an early night. The following morning, I retraced the route along the 4WD track to my car.