The High Road to Central

There is gold in these here hills…

West of Duntroon, beyond the limestone caves with their Maori rock art, beyond the fertile river flats where sleek cattle graze and sheep stare stonily from boggy paddocks, the Danseys Pass Road enters the gorge of the Marawhenua River. The hillsides, cloaked in scrub and pine trees, close in until there is only enough room for the river and the road.  The Danseys Pass Holiday Park stands on a sunny bend where the river flows through a deep rocky pool, then the road steps across the river on a Bailey bridge and begins its climb up the flanks of the Kakanui Mountains.

Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass.

There is gold in these here hills.  Side creeks, descending in steep gullies, show signs of sluicing from olden days when gold rushes were a regular occurrence in these parts.  Prospectors still fossick in the riverbed, looking for traces of colour in their gold pans and clues to the ever-elusive Mother Lode.

The road, surfaced with the fine pink quartzite gravel of North Otago, undulates along a ridgeline past woolsheds and farm buildings. There are rows of baled silage, wrapped in long plastic sausages, and muddy tractors parked in fenced enclosures.  Snow posts mark the edges of the road and big, bushy snow tussocks wave in the constant breeze blowing down from the tops.

The Danseys Pass road began life as a stock route for sheep and cattle being driven over into Central Otago from the stations of the Waitaki Valley. Gold miners followed, their pots and pans clanking on the sides of their bullocks as they crossed the ranges en route to the goldfields of the Maniototo. Today, a steady stream of tourists travel the road which is well-maintained and perfectly safe for 2WD vehicles. 

Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies… 

The road crosses a dozen small streams – some bridged, others with concrete fords – and rattles over a similar number of cattle grids set into fence-lines which traverse the road and climb the hills on either side.  Gateways open onto steep 4WD tracks which zig-zag up the mountain-sides, providing access for shepherds to the high tops. The hillsides – “as steep as a hen’s face” is how shepherds describe precipitous country – fall right to the river.  Sheep scuttle off the road at the sound of your approach, leaving piles of poop where they have been sitting. A battalion of power pylons marches across the landscape.

High Country shepherds and their dogs in the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
High Country Shepherds and Their Dogs.

Finally, the road climbs across a vast tussock-clad face towards the pass, winding in and out of narrow gullies and sidling around the muscular flanks of the hillside.  Encased in your cocoon of twenty-first-century technology, it’s easy to forget how harsh this environment is. You need to be tough to live up here. Late snows, baking summer heat, floods, landslides, fire: farming in the High Country is a constant struggle with the elements.  

…and light takes on a life of its own.

Dansey’s Pass itself occupies a wide saddle slung between shingly peaks.  Bare slabs of stone lie scattered amongst the tussocks and traces of winter snow cling to the hollows of the mountaintops all year round. Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies.  

From the pass, the road dips steeply into the catchment of the Kyeburn River.  Fangs of black rock protruding from the hillsides, giving the landscape a slightly menacing aspect.  It’s the sort of place you would expect a troll or an elf to live. Water seeps from the gravel surface of the road which is hewn through slabs of solid rock in places.  The sky up here is dazzling, and on summer days, streaks of tinsel nor’ west cloud stretch out from the distant Southern Alps.  

Fangs of rock protrude from the tussocky hillsides of the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.

The Kyeburn, another river full of gold, twists out from the hills, beginning its long journey to the coast where the water of the snowfields will be swallowed by the sea. Hereford cows peer at you over rusty fences of flat standards and barbed wire as you pass by. In this landscape of stone and gold, every view is back-dropped by the snowy spines of mountains and light takes on a life of its own.    

The Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, deep in the valley, offers superb food and coffee, and overnight lodgings in unique gold rush-era rooms. Travel is always a vanishing act. From the Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, you could get into your vehicle and drive back to the top of the pass, with the world spread out at your feet, and watch the sun set over the hills. Perhaps you could take some other long straight back road and see where it leads, like a prospector following a new reef of gold. Or, you could simply order another cappuccino instead.

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