Tales of the Temporary and Unexpected – Central South Island

Twizel is the first ‘temporary town’ that we have stayed in. Ruth was kind of relieved when I quantified the term “temporary”, i.e. it would not disappear while we were on one of our cycling or walking expeditions.  I suspect she does not place much weight on any reassurance that I provide given the number of towns that do seem to vanish when I am trying to find them during a walk or cycle expedition.

The sequence of images below attempt to portray as well as pictures can, the varied landscape that you can experience around Twizel – the stunning ‘Aqua’ colour of the lakes – this is Lake Pukaki
The barren expanse the Mackenzie Country – cycling between Twizel and Lake Pukaki – Ruth friendly country – very flat.

Twizel is simply not meant to exist. There was no town prior 1968 and, it was supposed to have been erased from both the land and maps it occupied by the late 1980’s. It was a town built for a specific purpose; to house construction workers and their families for the surrounding Upper Waitaki Hydro Power Scheme and once that was complete the workers would move on and the town would be decommissioned and returned to farmland or more particularly, the barren tussock land that dominates the ecology up here in the ‘high (or MacKenzie) country’.

That ‘disappearing act’ almost happened but, enough of the residents elected to make a permanent home here to stop the bulldozers and it is now reinventing itself as something of a tourist hub for the Central South Island. At its peak, over 6,000 people lived here and it boasted the biggest primary school roll in Australasia. At its ebb, around 300 hardy souls remained. The population is now back into four figures although most of the houses we saw had the look of being holiday homes.

At times it was easy to imagine that you were in the Himalayas – walking the Hooker Valley Track
Icebergs in the Hooker Lake – What is left of the Hooker Glacier is hidden under the rock rubble that covers it.

We decided to stay so that we could explore the some of the off-road sections of the Alps to Ocean cycle trail (A2O) as well as walk some of the tracks in the Mount Cook/Aoraki region.

We agreed that we could understand why the town was only meant to be temporary. It is around 140km to the nearest larger settlement, one that you would need to visit for services that we normally ‘take for granted’. The climate and overall environment are harsh but if you like to look at mountains, or lakes (if you are prepared to live in an even more remote spot), maybe do a spot of salmon or trout fishing or hone your skills for conquering Everest, then this is your place.

The harsh environment is building it own castle and cathedral at Clay Cliffs (images above and below)


We noticed that the sheep are hard to spot in the landscape because their wool is coloured with the fine dust that most of our cycling gear is now covered in. After each ride the shower was the first place we headed too. It was like that in Central Otago but somehow the dust here is even more invasive.

But the times are a changing. Something that has stunned us in our travels south is the dramatic change in the farming landscape since our last very quick visit. The difference is large scale dairy farming. Land that was once only deemed suitable for sheep, maybe forest or just left to nature, is now sporting large herds of dairy cows. We even saw the odd one up here. How? Well massive irrigation contraptions slowly pour millions of gallon of water onto the land to deliver the grass growth necessary for this type of farming. We cannot help but wonder that if water was given a realistic monetary value whether this development would be occurring.

Man made green contrast with the natural colours of the area

While the survival of Twizel looks assured we do wonder if this farming trend will be sustainable for a number of reasons. But for now, what was once an unbroken sea of golden grasses is now starting to sport unnaturally green patches. As you move closer to the coast onto the Canterbury plains, it is now almost an unbroken sea of green.

Some of the things that we assumed to be permanent are now very temporary. We spent one day up in the Mt Cook / Aoraki (“Cloud Piecer”) area walking in the Hooker and Tasman Valleys, both of which sported serious glaciers not that long ago. In 1999 The Tasman Glacier was 27km long with and overall area of 72 square kilometres. We clambered up the massive terminal moraine, the information board suggested that we could have walked out onto the ice back in 1999 – now you almost need binoculars to see the glacier face. The large lake we could see (7km long) did not even exist n 1970. I suspect that as soon as 10 years from now the still impressive glaciers tumbling down out of the mountains will be but a memory, and so will much of the water that feeds the lakes that drives the power and feeds many of those irrigation schemes.

The Tasman Glacier lake did not exist before the 1970’s, in the 1990’s we could have still stepped out onto the ice from our vantage point – the Glacier is 7km distance (for now).

Enough on the temporary subject. Now a story about the unexpected.

On our one expected rain effected day it stayed unexpectedly dry so we decided to potter around the town and explore the walking track that skirted the town. It was around 8km and we did not hold high expectations give the dry and flat terrain. However, as we walked alongside the small stream we noticed a lot of fish, resting in the deeper pools but very active in the shallower and faster flowing water. We probably walked close to 2 kilometers up the stream and it was full of what we eventually decided to be spawning salmon, some locals confirmed that they were salmon but commented that they had never seen so many. A little further on we spotted, in a expansive field of golden grass, what Ruth thought were Himalayan Tahr. They normally hang out on less hospitable mountain terrain but these looked domesticated. As we walked further along the track we saw a whole herd of them in the shade of some pines. ‘Domesticated’ they were, but again, like the spawning salmon, we never expected to see these things on this walk.

The fish were having a breather in the slower water
But the objective seemed to be the gravel in the shallows
An inquisitive Himalayan Tahr


  1. Very sad about the glaciers receding so quickly and very strange to see a Himalayan tahr (which we had never heard of and glad to know about). Change is upon us – whether we want it to or not.


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