Oteake Conservation Park
We discovered the delights of the Oteake Conservation Park during a three-day, two-night tramp over the ranges and high plateaus. It was essentially a hut bagging mission that introduced us to this beautiful part of New Zealand. The area straddles Canterbury and Otago and is a great place for tramping and other outdoor activities.
The Hawkdun range is probably the most photographed of the mountain ranges (and recently the backdrop for the movie The Power of the Dog), and the nearby villages of Naseby and St Bathans are lovely scenic destinations too. Check out the Central Otago website for more information about the area, and the DoC website for other activities.
Getting There Oteake Conservation Park
Our road trip took us west from Oamaru via Enfield and Ngapara and up to Danseys Pass. It was a beautiful drive that could easily warrant its own blog post. We dropped down from Dansey’s Pass and headed towards Naseby. The night before our tramp we van camped at the Danseys Pass Campsite in the ‘Kyeburn Diggings’ historic gold mining area.
The following morning we drove North up the Little Kyeburn Road and Mt Buster Road 4WD track (which involves a couple of river crossings) and parked close to the Little Kye Burn, one of the entrances to the conservation park. The unsealed road was in good shape, but I imagine the river crossings might get a bit hairy after rain, so do your research before you go.
Day 1: Little Kye Burn to Hut Creek Hut
The excellent DoC brochure for the area gives timings for some tramping and 4WD tracks and a great overview map, but we walked the 4WD tracks, so I’ve only included our times (not DoC driving times).
- Car Park via Little Kyeburn Track to Buster hut – 2 hours 10 mins
- Buster hut to Brown hut – 2 hours 20 mins (including lunch)
- Brown hut to Tailings hut – 1 hour 35 mins (around 35 mins to junction 1 hour to Tailings)
- Tailings hut to Hut Creek hut – 1 hour 50 mins
We enjoyed our breakfast at Danseys Pass campsite on Christmas eve, which also happened to be Rich’s 50th birthday. Given this was a van-camping/tramping road trip, there was no special breakfast but there were a couple of small gifts. Formalities over, we headed across to the Oteake Conservation area and parked up at the end of Mt Buster Road.
Little Kyeburn Track Oteake Conservation Park
Without any effort at all, we bagged the Little Kyeburn huts adjacent to the car park. The track continued for around 1.5 km along an occasionally boggy and mostly flat track through tussock and low bushes to the start of the Little Kyeburn Track. Already we had excellent views of Mt Kyeburn ahead and the Ida Range and Mt Buster to our left.
Twenty minutes after leaving the car park we were at the start of the Little Kyeburn Track. We easily crossed a couple of low streams and followed the well-marked track sidling up into the gorge on the true left of the Little Kye Burn. Almost immediately we came to a beautiful waterfall.
The track was easy to follow, and a little overgrown. We were well and truly poked, spiked and scratched within the first half-hour, after which it was fine. We met a girl coming down wrapped up in her full warm and waterproof layers and felt a little underdressed in comparison, but we soon got stuck into the 500m climb and were glad to be unencumbered.
At around 11 am we rounded the big right-hand bend and by 11.20 am started climbing up the steep zig-zagged track. We took a couple of micro-breaks and enjoyed the great views that were opening up around us. We were up on the golden tussock in no time and spotted some water races from the gold mining days. The track was a little wet and boggy in places but nothing we couldn’t walk around. We reached the very windswept Buster hut at midday.
Buster Hut Oteake Conservation Park
Perched alone at around 1200m 2-bed Buster hut offers incredible views, but nothing in the way of luxuries. There are no mattresses or toilet, but there is water from a little stream nearby. We took twenty minutes for a break and took in the views of Mt Kyeburn. We agreed we’d love to stay there in a storm.
Buster Hut to Brown Hut
We set off from Buster hut at 12.20 pm and headed across to the Buster Diggings. This area was once New Zealand’s highest alluvial goldfield and was worked from the 1860s to the early 1900s. It supported a population of 700. What is left today is an extraordinary scarred landscape of white quartz gravels. Given the area’s history, we were surprised to see the extent of the vehicle tyre tracks all over the place and that it wasn’t protected.
We took the 4WD track which headed past Clarks Creek down to Robertson Creek about 4 km away. This is a reasonably popular track and was in good condition. Over the last kilometre or so to the creek we dropped around 300m and the track was pretty rocky and gouged.
The creek was an excellent spot for lunch, so we took our boots off to cross and enjoyed a sunny break lounging on the grass. We headed off at 2 pm and shortly came to the junction for Brown hut. Unfortunately, it was also straight into a 200m climb. This was just a short stretch, so we dropped our packs not far from the Brown hut sign and walked the 2km with the breeze on our backs.
Brown Hut Oteake Conservation Park
Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the 3-bunk Brown hut, another excellent historic hut close to some historic gold workings. The Hut Baggers website describes it as “a usable hut but a bit grim with an earth floor and solo window. It was built by the Peart brothers, Hector & Roderick for their sluicing operations post-war. The hut is clad & roofed with riveted steel sheets”. I couldn’t describe it any better, and even on a beautiful sunny Christmas eve, it was indeed a little bit grim, but it did have mattresses. It scored points for us on its stunning setting.
Brown Hut to Tailings Hut
We left Brown hut at 2.50 pm and were back at the signpost and junction at 3.30 pm. The walk along the 4WD track to Tailings hut along Guffies Creek was wonderful. There were plenty of river crossings and I abandoned the effort to maintain dry boots a couple of river crossings before Rich did. It was quite amusing to watch him perform a particularly extravagant detour at high speed involving much boulder hopping and some minor cliff climbing. He returned with dry boots and a nonchalance that was betrayed only by a bleeding leg and moderate breathlessness.
There were many large black and white dragonflies along the track to Tailings hut, in fact we encountered heaps of them over the few days tramp. It was mating season apparently, as we discovered when a couple joined end to end landed on us for a close-up inspection.
We reached Tailings hut at 4.25 pm and took a 15-minute break. The 12- bed Tailings hut was slightly more modern, with a main room and two bunkrooms separated by a covered area. It occupied a perfect spot on a bend in the river. It would make a great base to explore the area. We passed through a few times.
Tailings Hut to Hut Creek Hut (Pig Shit Inn)
We left Tailings hut at 4.40 pm and headed down Gullies Creek for 500m or so until we picked up the 4WD track on our right. The track led up, over and down a little spur before launching into a long straight fairly steep 100m climb followed around the next bend by another long, straight 100m climb, which was less steep but seemed like it carried on forever. To be honest I think we were both a little bit over it by now.
The stretch from Tailings was probably about 4 km and after the climb, things levelled out and we were up on the tops at 1050m again. The views across to the St Marys Range were spectacular with clouds rolling down the peaks towards us. The wind got up and whipped up the clouds behind us. All of a sudden it was very cold! We hurried on, down and up another creek.
The final part of the track downhill to the hut was probably the worst section we walked today – deeply rutted, rocky and gouged. We thought you’d have to be pretty confident in your 4WD skills to attempt it. Finally, we reached Hut Creek hut, built beside hut creek almost on the park boundary, at around 6.30 pm.
Hut Creek Hut Oteake Conservation Park
The 4-bunk Hut Creek hut was formerly known as Pig Shit Inn, which doesn’t reflect its many qualities at all. We rounded the corner in a gale-force wind, smelled the fire, saw the beautiful stone hut and couldn’t have wished for anything better. For the first time in my 15 years in New Zealand (from the UK) it was so cold and wintry, that it actually felt like Christmas eve.
We couldn’t have shared the experience with nicer hut buddies. Ciara (Ireland) and Tom (UK) had walked in from the other direction and had arrived a couple of hours earlier and got a fire going – goodness knows how, there was hardly anything around to burn. The hut was toasty warm. I immediately got changed into my warm hut clothes and Rich braved a wash in the stream. Thankfully there were camp chairs in the hut so we could relax properly. Soon after we arrived the rain came down, and we were glad not to be walking or camping in it.
For Rich’s birthday dinner we enjoyed some wine and canapes (cheap red wine from a small plastic bottle, and a small packet of chicken crisps) followed by a perfect homemade dehy venison stew, a mince pie **see below ** and a Ferrero Rocher each. We managed to stay awake long enough to have a quick Yahtzee challenge before fatigue got the better of us.
Day 2: Hut Creek hut to Ida hut
- Hut Creek hut to Tailings hut – 2 hours
- Tailings hut to Ida hut – 5 hours (including 20 mins lunch)
- Ida hut to Chimney hut – 1 hour
- Chimney hut to Otematata River – 1 hour 45 mins
We did something new this morning… we started walking before breakfast. I can’t really remember why we had that idea, but we were retracing our steps back to Tailings hut and I think we fancied taking a decent break after the first stint. Usually, I get pretty hangry if I don’t eat immediately in the morning, but it worked out just fine. We applauded our own courage and creativity in changing the habit of a lifetime and left the hut at 7.30 am.
Towards Tailings Hut
It was straight into the short uphill slog of the rutted, rocky 4WD track – up onto the tops, down and up the dip, back on the top, then thankfully the long downhill and the little up and over to Tailings. We left Hut Creek with coats and gloves on but took them off within ten minutes. The walk back seemed so much easier than the walk in yesterday, but took us 10 minutes longer. We arrived at 9.30 am.
Tailings Hut to Chimney Creek Junction
Tailings hut was empty again and we got busy arranging our boots and socks to dry in the sun. After a long, leisurely breakfast we headed off up the track at the tail end of Long Spur at 10.50 am and dropped down the zig-zags on the other side. Today was an absolute corker – hot and sunny, and we enjoyed wading across Boundary Creek/Otematata River. We went to investigate the beautiful stock bridge a little way upstream.
Leaving the river at 11.40 am we began the 500m long climb up the 4WD track to the tops. The first part of the climb was pretty steep and zig-zagged. We cut some of the corners, heading straight up the tussock slopes instead. After the initial 300m climb the views were fantastic, with rocky outcrops dotted here and there.
The uphill continued at a gentler gradient. By Pt 1387 the views were splendid. The chasm of Rambling Gorge revealed itself to our left, and ahead were the undulating golden tablelands of the Oteake Conservation Park. To the right, we could see all the way to Aoraki /Mt Cook and behind us was the beautiful St Marys Range. We managed to get a brief phone signal to check the weather.
Chimney Creek Junction
We stopped for lunch at 2.10 pm close to the junction of Chimney Creek hut. We took our boots off to dry our socks and I taped a couple of hot spots on both feet at my toes and heels. The combination of two days of wet feet and the hard 4WD track was giving me a bit of grief. I also thought I’d felt a tiny stone under the pad in the middle/underside of my heel for a while (which I was ignoring until we sat down) it turned out to be a deep blister forming. I was wearing the same trusty, lightweight Salomons as I always do and had nicely hardened feet from a great season’s tramping, and here I was getting blisters!! It was like 90-mile beach all over again! There was nothing to break/pop yet so I slapped on some Compeed plasters.
With the foot inspection and lunch complete, we set off at 2.30 pm towards Ida Railway hut. The track was gently undulating and crossed a couple of little creeks. A couple of kilometres before the hut we stashed our packs in the tussock near a side track and enjoyed a fast, light walk to the hut.
Ida Railway Hut Oteake Conservation Park
I love exploring our backcountry huts, so I’m always excited to see a new one. The 12-bunk Ida Railway hut is exceptional for so many reasons. It was 3.15 pm as we rounded the final corner and there she was. Painted mint green this beauty is nestled by a small creek, complete with a tiny swimming hole, and at 1340m is surrounded by great views of the Oteake Conservation Park. Ida hut used to be a railway station in the Ida Valley before being moved here. It was restored by DoC in 2013 and has a bunkroom and separate kitchen. We wished we were staying here. It’s always difficult to call a hut your favourite, but this is up there with mine.
Chimney Creek Hut Oteake Conservation Park
Our original plan was to visit Wire Yards hut after Ida Railway, but that was another several kilometres away. We were pretty tired, and my feet weren’t thanking me for the continued walking, so we abandoned it and at 4 pm headed back the 5 km or so to Chimney Creek. By 5 pm we were pushing open the door of the 4-bunk Chimney Creek hut. This was another rustic one renovated in 2016, with a gravel floor and bunks, but no mattresses.
Chimney Creek to Camp
Like yesterday, the weather took a bit of a turn in the late afternoon and a dark cloud bank formed across the sky above us. We were heading back over the tops and down to the bridge at Boundary Creek/Otematata River to camp. Just as we were right on the tops we heard a couple of rumbles of thunder and were a little worried that we were the highest point, on the highest point for miles around. A few spits of rain came our way, but luckily the cloud bank moved south of us and dropped some pretty heavy showers in the Danseys Pass direction. We thought of Ciara and Tom who were heading that way today, and hoped they hadn’t been caught in it.
It seemed to take forever to get back to the river, and my feet weren’t thanking me. We cut most of the switchbacks off on the steep final descent and were happy to drop our packs into the grassy flat near the bridge at 6.45 pm.
We set up the tent and enjoyed a wash in the river while the sun was still out. Just like yesterday, as soon as we had washed and set up for dinner some rain showers came in. Just light sprinkles without the force of yesterday. When we got our dinner going we realised it was Christmas day today and we still had some chippies, wine, mince pies and chocolate left – perfect!
Day 3: Boundary Creek / Otematata River to Mt Buster and Out
- River to Tailings hut – 40 minutes
- Tailings hut to Robertson Creek – 55 minutes
- Robertson Creek to Buster Diggings – 1 hour 20 minutes
- Buster Diggings to car park via the Mt Buster Track – 2 hours 25 minutes (including 30 mins lunch)
Before the trip, we thought we might climb the appropriately named ‘Long Spur’ to lead us to Mt Buster road, bagging a couple more huts along the way, before heading towards Mt Buster and down. My feet were having none of it. Instead, we backtracked and nipped over the Long Spur to Tailings, then back to Buster and along almost to Mt Buster summit and down.
We packed up and left camp at 9 am, taking the bare feet option to cross the river. When we reached Tailings hut forty minutes later we chatted with a lovely family packing their vehicle to head out. We had a quick break and headed off at about 9.50 am.
To Robertson Creek
As we had a reasonably long walk again today, so I had spent quite a bit of time protecting, padding and taping my feet. The river crossings from Tailings soothed everything nicely, but every step was painful. We reached Roberston Creek at 10.45 am, the final creek crossing for a while. A large rock on the opposite bank provided some welcome shade, so we stopped for a quick break, took our boots off, wrung out our socks and let them dry a little.
Robertson Creek to Mt Buster
Fifteen minutes later at 11 am we started the couple of hundred metre climb back up onto the plateau and at 12. 20 pm we were back at the Buster diggings. The Mt Buster Track was in good condition and lots of 4W drivers were out for a boxing day mission, slowly bumping along enjoying the incredible views. We were surprised that apart from Ciara and Tom, we didn’t see any other trampers.
One thing we did note along the Mt Buster track was the abundance of Speights bottle tops welded into the dirt (apparently if you’re drinking beer in your truck you must throw your tops out of the window and not take them home with all your other rubbish). We also found several bits and pieces of plastic, cords and junk that we suspected had been ‘rattled off’ vehicles.
Down the Buster Track
It was another very hot day tramping without any shade. By the time we got to the left-hand turnoff to head down the Mt Buster track towards Little Kye Burn and the car, I was really flagging and my feet were absolutely killing me. It was time for another break, and in the absence of any real shade, we found a spot amongst the huge tussocks off the track and settled into the grass for lunch.
The shoes and socks came off again and we covered up the bits where the sun hit us. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite possible to make a roof for shade. After a half-hour break, we made our way down the track to the Little Kye Burn.
At the river, there was one more hut left to see – the beautiful (private, not DoC) Kokonga Railway hut, another ex-railway station hut that was moved to the area some time ago.
We took our boots off and crossed the Little Kye Burn. I took a look at the short bumpy hill opposite and knew I couldn’t walk up to the car. Instead, I sat down in the grass with my First Aid kit, washed my feet and dealt to the now fully-formed blisters beneath the hard layer of skin of my trotters, with a needle. Thankfully, Rich brought the car to me, bless him. I have never been so pleased to get my jandals on.
Following our walk, we drove into Naseby and bought a well-deserved ice-cream. Then it was off to St Bathans for a night in the DoC domain campsite – a giant field just outside the village, with a couple of loos.
Despite the feet, we had a great time in the Oteake Conservation Park and will certainly be back for more adventures. Three days was just a small taster. When we flew to Rakiura Stewart Island recently for the North West and Southern Circuits, we sat on the right-hand slide of the plane from Christchurch to Invercargill. We flew down the eastern side of the park and got an amazing birds-eye view, and an appreciation of just how much area there is to cover.
** Mince pies
To us Brits, a mince pie means only one thing – a small tart made with sweet pastry which contains a (preferably booze-laced) dollop of a fruit concoction e.g. raisins, currants, chopped fruit, peel, cinnamon, nutmeg etc. called ‘mincemeat’. They are generally only eaten at Christmas. In New Zealand, these are called ‘fruit mince’ pies or Christmas pies, so you don’t confuse them with a ‘mince pie‘. Mince pies in New Zealand are the ultimate savoury treat, made from minced beef ‘mincemeat’ and most often, with a dash of cheese. Thankfully, you can eat a Kiwi mince pie at any time of the year.