The Pisa Range – Pisa Conservation Area
Over the new year 2021/22 we crisscrossed the Pisa Range in the Pisa Conservation Area on a three-night tramp full of excellent views, interesting landscapes and fascinating ecology. The Pisa Conservation Area is an area of Otago high country which covers parts of the Pisa and Criffel Ranges. It lies within a rectangular stretch between Wanaka and Gibbston (north-south) and the Clutha River/Lake Dunstan and Cardrona River (east-west). If you haven’t been before it is definitely worth a trip for tramping and mountain biking in summer, or skiing in the winter.
Not all the land on the ranges is DoC Conservation land, and only some of the non-DoC land is fenced and signposted. If you need help, the maps on the Walking Access Commission website are a useful guide to what’s what.
You can access the Pisa Conservation Area from numerous different points, and we chose to start our walk from Swann Road, Lowburn about 10 km north of Cromwell. We finished at Queensberry, about 22 km south of Wanaka. If you wanted to leave a vehicle somewhere, it would be really easy to hitch back to it via the SH6 (Clutha side) or along the Cardrona road to the west. Alternatively, you could investigate leaving it at the Snow Farm (which has a $20 road toll).
Day 1: Lowburn (Swann Road) to Meg Hut
- Lowburn to Deep Creek hut, 10 km. DoC time: 4 to 5 hours — Our time 4 hours 20 mins (including 2x 10 min breaks)
- Deep Creek hut to Meg hut, 8 km. DoC Time: 3 to 4 hours — Our time 2 hours 45 mins
Today’s walk followed the Cardrona to Cromwell Pack Track. If you start the track in reverse from Lowburn, it climbs up the face of the Pisa Range from around 350m up to 1350m. We were dropped off at the sile on Swann Road at 9.25 am and followed the markers through the bush and trees and over some undulating farmland for a short while.
As a warm-up to the main event, we climbed up and over a little hill which took us through a paddock of llamas – an early highlight. The track fell very steeply to the Low Burn near an old stone hut which I crossed boots-off, while Rich rock hopped.
Up the Pisa Range – 1000m Climb
By 9.30 am we were on our way up the mountain. We followed the markers up the zig zagged farm track which was generally in good condition with a few muddy bits here and there. The climb was fairly steep and steady, with new views opening up at every corner, over the farm paddocks to the Clutha river below and the Dunstan Mountains across the Clutha. We were glad for the cloud cover – this would be a hot slog in full sun!
As we climbed up to a huge boulder we saw a native falcon (karearea) watching us slowly make our way up. After watching each other for some time, eventually, we had to pass, and it flew off to another spot. Our next animal experience surprised us somewhat when we came across a giant bull and a group of cows on the track. He stared us down, making it known which of the parties should move away, so we clambered up off the track into the prickly bushes, giving them a wide berth before dropping back down again.
As we’d been following the markers, we hadn’t looked at a map all morning. It was around the 750m mark when I thought I’d see how high we’d climbed. There were a couple of tracks on the topo map leading to the top of the range and we assumed we’d be following one of them, but we were on a track to the north of Tongue Spur Creek. I had that moment of slight panic when you realise that you’re nowhere near where you thought you’d be 400m into a climb. We reasoned that we were still following the markers, so this was ‘the way’… and continued to follow them. In the end, we climbed to around 940m where the track swung left (south) and we crossed the face for a kilometre or so.
A Quick Break
We took advantage of the break in the climb to have a break ourselves at around midday. We could see the farm track was turning into more of a steep tramping track after a little creek and sat down for a rest. The views were incredible across the face of the Pisa range.
After ten minutes we were off again. We crossed the creek and scrambled up a small steep section which took us up to a fence line. The track was still marked and we followed the fence line up. By about 12.30 pm we’d turned fully uphill again and continued up through a more rocky area full of speargrass. This was more like it! As we climbed, a network of creek basins opened up ahead of us, and it felt like what we’d come for. We walked beside a lovely bubbling water race before reaching a 4WD track at around 1340m at 1.10 pm.
The Pisa Range
It was pretty windy on top of the Pisa Range and we put our warm layers on and had a bit of a break to admire the rocky tors amongst the grassy landscapes. We checked the map and followed the track to a turnoff where we headed left towards Deep Creek hut, and passed an old woolshed. Deep Creek hut appeared in the distance and by 1.40 pm we were making ourselves comfortable at the table.
Deep Creek Hut
The 6-bed, Deep Creek hut was built in 1891 and was home to musterers working with the merino sheep on Mt Pisa Station during the summer months. It was renovated by DoC to maintain its original form and sits on a distinct slant. When it was renovated, some graffiti from the 1900s was discovered on the wall, which is now protected and displayed behind a panel for visitors.
Deep Creek Hut to Meg Hut
We didn’t really warm up over lunch, so left Deep Creek hut with all our layers on, including coats and gloves, at 2.25 pm. We climbed the 120m or so out of the adjacent creek and sidled along the beautiful track with excellent views across the ranges and down upon another water race. Around 3 pm we traversed a valley with rocky outcrops on both sides, which was a little boggy before climbing to around 1400m.
For the next 4.5 km or so to Meg hut we followed the track down the ridgeline. We could see all the way down to the back of the Remarkables and across to Cadrona – absolutely stunning! Finally, a right turn took us down a steep bank of golden tussock and we crossed the deep, narrow Colour Burn. We found ourselves on a little island between a number of creeks and made a couple more crossings.
We arrived at the 8-bunk Meg hut at 5.05 pm. A lovely hut with great views of the valley. We’d warmed up a bit and the valley was bathed in sunshine, so we had a splash in the Roaring Meg. Our hut buddy was a lovely Kiwi girl who was walking an in-and-out from the Cardrona Road. We were surprised no one else came along. As we got our dinner going we realised it was New Year’s Eve! We celebrated with numerous rounds of Yahtzee and were in bed by 10 pm.
Day 2: Meg hut to Kirtle Burn hut
- Tuohys Saddle to Snow Farm – 2 hours 10 minutes
- Snow Farm to Kirtle Burn hut – 3 hours 25 mins (including lunch and detour to huts)
Our hut buddy left before us and we took our time over breakfast. As we went to get water from the creek closest to the hut we saw what we assumed at the time, were a couple of long leeches, and decided to take water from the river instead. We since discovered via inaturalist, that they were horsehair worms, which live in pooled water. When they are in their larvae stage they are parasitic on some types of bugs (but not humans).
Meg hut to Tuohys Saddle
It was a bright, fresh morning and shaping up to be another great day. We left Meg hut at 8.50 am and got straight into the climb up to Tuohys Saddle and a four-way junction of tracks. Arriving at the junction at 9.30 am, we thought we’d go down to take a look at a hut we’d seen on the map about 1.5 km downhill on the Cardrona – Roaring Meg Pack Track. The track was a little muddy but nothing serious, and we enjoyed our quick there-and-back, returning to Tuohys Saddle at 10.50 am.
Tuohys Saddle to the Snow Farm
We headed up the track towards the Snow Farm on the Criffel Range. It was an easy climb of 400m or so up a great track over around 5km. The views were great – across to the Cardrona ski field, down to the eastern side of the Remarkables and back over the conservation area. Looking back towards the Remarkables we could see a shining white something on the landscape in the far distance and couldn’t (and didn’t) work out what it was – if you know, please leave a message in the comments below 🙂
Nearing the top we crossed a couple of old, derelict mountain bike tracks and jumps before reaching the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground (SHPG) at 12.30 pm. The SHPG is a large centre for testing vehicles on snow and ice over winter. It was quite surreal walking through the huge, empty complex and very difficult to imagine what it must be like here in winter.
We arrived at the main road, which links the Cardrona Road with the Snow Farm at 1500m. At 1 pm we arrived at the Snow Farm – again, all very strange. Here we were in the middle of nowhere on a hot summer’s day walking through a huge facility for cross-country skiing (and other winter activities) with a massive lodge, car park, tons of signage and miles of fences. We looked at their map of routes, and our topo and made our way to the river. When I researched the facility for this write-up I saw that we’d successfully found the DoC Access route. Note if you’re driving up here there is a $20 road toll to pay.
Towards the Roaring Meg
Once away from the lodge/activities area we found the DoC trail markers beside the creek which we followed towards the Roaring Meg. Away from all the fences and signage, it was rather lovely. The Snow Farm has several bookable huts. We arrived at Meadow hut at 1.40 pm and had a quick peek through the window. It was beautiful! We imagined they probably even had wine glasses too!
Even though there was a very inviting picnic bench outside Meadow hut, we thought it best not to use it and toddled off upstream to look for a lunch spot. It was another baking hot day, but there was no shade in the rolling hilly grasslands, so we picked a grassy cushion, covered up as much as possible and ate lunch.
Towards Bob and Daisy Lee Huts
After lunch, we headed upriver towards the start of the Kirtle Burn track, dropped our packs by the river and popped up the track towards the Bob and Daisy Lee huts for a quick look. A huge friendly dog came bounding towards us at high speed followed closely by his lovely family, who were staying at the huts. They didn’t mind us going up for a look, and after a nice chat, we went our separate ways.
We were back at the junction and heading up the Kirtle Burn (valley route) by 3.25 pm. The few kilometres walk up the gentle climb to Kirtle Burn hut was absolutely beautiful if you looked up the valley. The short alpine grasses were every shade of golden and the valley almost never-ending. Looking down the valley the views of the bare Cardrona ski field weren’t all that flash.
Kirtle Burn Hut
The 7-bed Kirtle Burn hut is set in a stunning location at 1670m. We arrived at 4.25 pm and sat in the shade to cool off and admire the views. The terrain around the hut was really different to anything I’ve seen before. Presumably, it is snow-covered for many months of the year and alongside the short grasses were raised lumpy patches of cushiony vegetation with eroded channels between them. It made fascinating patterns on a large scale. At the front of the hut was a beautiful green, spongy cushion leading down to the small, bubbling Kirtle Burn.
The door to the hut was open when we arrived and the hut book recorded several people’s frustrations with the broken door. Rich fixed it with a minute of wiggling and poking and we closed it to trap the warmth. The hut remained lovely and warm until bedtime. We were delighted to see there was lots of excellent reading material on the shelf and did our best to get into it, whilst trying not to fall asleep before dinner.
Day 3: Kirtle Burn Hut to Lake McKay via Mt Pisa
No one else came to the Kirtle Burn hut, so we had it all to ourselves! We had a great sleep and woke after 7 am for a leisurely breakfast and a late start at 9.40 am. It was pretty chilly at 1750m so it was warm layers on, at least for the first 10 minutes. We had a pretty leisurely day ahead of us so we were in no hurry as we headed up the 2.5 km or so up to Mt Pisa at 1963m – the highest point on the Pisa Range. The Track was on a gentle gradient and easy to follow, occasionally following various fence lines.
Mt Pisa Pisa Range
It was like walking in a moonscape with the patterns and beautiful colours of the humps and shallows, and a magnificent sun halo formed ahead of us as we walked up to Mt Pisa. As the track levelled off, we went over to investigate long arcs of snow still clinging to some sheltered hollows on the tops. We see snow so rarely that we couldn’t resist making a couple of snowballs.
We strolled up to the high point and scrambled up the rocky outcrop at the top of Mt Pisa at 10.45 am. What views! The upper Clutha, Lake Dunstan and the Dunstan Mountains and Central Otago beyond, the Pisa Range and conservation area, the Remarkables, across to the Harris mountains beyond Cardrona and up the Southern Alps – superb.
There was a slight breeze and we dug into our packs for our warm clothes and something to eat. We were very glad we had the good weather window, as it is extremely exposed. If you’re coming, pack for all eventualities and bring plenty of water, sunscreen, warm and waterproof layers.
If you are short on time when visiting the Pisa Range, a walk along the ridge track is an absolute must. The Tinwald Burn Ridge Track, a couple of kilometres south of Mt Pisa, would be an excellent (gut-busting) 25km 10 hour return day walk up and down the 1600m climb.
At around 11.30 am we started walking again and headed down to Sally’s Pinch a picturesque little saddle dropping away to our right down a steep face to the upper basins of the Tinwald Burn and into Cliff Burn to our left. The track rose up again to 1956m and from there it was a slow downhill to Lake MacKay.
Lake McKay Pisa Conservation Area
Lake McKay sits at 1700m in a wet little basin with snow on the upper slopes. We took our time to find a flat, dry spot to pitch the tent and found the perfect place close to some rocks, beside a babbling stream above the lake.
We made a hot drink in the kitchen area (the rocks) and ate our lunch with lake views. Our little basin provided plenty of opportunity for exploring and we spent the afternoon bimbling around the little tarns.
In the early evening, we lost the heat when the sun dipped below the ridge. We were glad we’d brought so many warm layers. That night, it took us a while to get to sleep. Our tiny babbling stream next to the tent suddenly sounded like a mighty roaring river. We hushed the sounds of nature with our earplugs.
Day 4: Lake McKay to Queensberry
- Lake McKay to Queensberry – 5 hours
Imagine wandering down a beautiful moonlit track under a sky full of stars to finish off your final day’s walk in the Pisa Range. I’d never tramped in the dark before, so that’s just what we had in mind when we went to bed last night. The alarm went off at 3 am and we poked our heads outside the tent for a look. It was overcast with no moon and pitch black. But we were awake, and we figured we may as well make the most of it and walk down to Queensberry anyway.
Wrapped up in jackets, gloves and hats we left at 3.45 am, our head torches casting their glow on a small, round section of track in front of our feet. I found it a bit spooky at first but soon got into the swing of it. The track was easy to follow and in good shape, apart from the odd rutted and lightly muddy section.
We had been wondering for the past few days about what wildlife lives up at this height. Turns out the answer is lots of wētā (a large New Zealand cricket) which glinted in the light of our headlamps. You don’t often see them so it was a real treat. Large moths fluttered around us, drawn by the light.
After about a kilometre we reached a slightly boggy section of track with some small tarns. It was still pitch black at around 4 am and several birds were calling. We weren’t sure if it was the usual routine or whether we had startled them. Facing east, where the ranges dropped down to the upper Clutha River, the darkness was pierced by hundreds of twinkling lights – the agricultural irrigators on the farmland towards the river. It had never occurred to me before now how much light pollution they created.
Locharburn Track Junction
At the junction with the Locharburn Track, we turned left and climbed up to Pt 1444m staying on the ridge track. From there it was straightforward, following the track to Queensberry. The Dunstan Range became bathed in pink light around 5.30 am as the sun rose. We stopped for breakfast for about 45 minutes at a rock outcrop at around the 1000m mark, before continuing down the track to the road. It was around 8.40 am when we intersected Catalina Way at Queensberry. We walked down the road towards the SH6 and were eating a second breakfast with Rich’s family who lives nearby, about 20 minutes later. The SH6 is a busy road, so I have no doubt you could easily hitch into Wanaka or Cromwell if you needed to.
We really enjoyed wandering the tracks of the Pisa Conservation area. If you have a few days up your sleeve around Wanaka and Cromwell and love a climb with lots of open tussock, I would certainly recommend it.