Report four: Southern excursion a second coming

It’s the big one – taking the long term test Outback back to where it all began lands us right in the schist.

Mileage on arrival: 3706km.

Mileage now: 14,896km.

NOT a road paved with gold, certainly one created because of it.

In pre-European times, the low saddle over the Dunstan Mountains was rarely explored; Maori preferring to reach their summer camps at Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka via the Lindis Pass.

All changed in late 1862. Miners crossing over from the Manuherikia Valley found alluvial ore in the upper Bendigo Creek about the same time as prospectors who’d made their way up through the Upper Clutha also struck it lucky.

The east-west traverse they took became a regular trail and then the track it is today; unsealed and narrow, wide enough for horse-drawn wagons then early horsepower, not as perilous as other century-old routes through this rugged and spectacularly beautiful schist country but still demanding respect.

These days hitting Thomson Gorge Rd provides a gold strike of a different sort; the ore has gone but the old workings, even the remains of a stamping plant, stone huts long given back to Nature and two bone fide ghost towns along the route - Matakanui, once also known as Tinkers, near the site of a very rich 1864 ground strike, and Bendigo – are rich pickings for those who enjoy history, solitude and desire to be closer to the heart of the country.

Trekking through here would have been the highlight of our just-completed quick flit down South; a fantastic test, certainly, for the long-term Subaru Outback. Such a shame I didn’t get there.

In hindsight, I was so close: Probably less than 15 minutes from the start point. Fatally misreading what were, on re-reading now, very precise instructions provided by my good friend David Thomson (no relation to the road maker) and finding on the day that the car’s sat nav was, for once, unreliable because, it seems, the roads were too remote to be listed on the mapping data, I took a left rather than a right at a crucial road junction.

By the time the error was realized, I was too far gone in the wrong direction and had too little time in hand to backtrack and put things to right. So there you go … a six-day trip that put 2200kms’ on the clock. All for nothing.

Except it wasn’t.  The rest of the trip more than made up for this boo-boo. Chance to visit David, Margaret and their son, Alex, in Dunedin – I’d recommend a fantastic restaurant, Scotia (David’s single malts are pretty good, too) – and other old friends, Dave and Allie in Ashburton, was fantastic; but so was just breathing that great Southern air and seeing that wonderful scenery.

It was a homecoming, too. Not for me, but the car. JCP753 and I first met at the national launch of the new model in Queenstown in December, 2014, and next day it took media colleagues safely through another classic goldmining-era trail, the Nevis. A link between Bannockburn and Garston, it usually closes around this time of the year; rising river levels make the 28 fords too dodgy and, beyond that, it’s inevitably snowed in.

Anyway, day-breaking rain and fog didn’t diminish the brilliance of the route or the car.

Even though Fuji’s elevated wagon has a well-established reputation as a genuinely adept off-seal hiker, that first encounter with the latest nonetheless left me astounded and impressed. I figured that torque-rich diesel especially would be up to the task but this was our first experience of that mill in marriage with Lineartronic. How would a constantly variable transmission stand up to the slog? Perfectly well, actually. The gearless gearbox never ran short of talent and, anyway, there was also the x-mode to get it through the spots requiring extra care.

From the moment the car came to reside with us last October, I knew we had to take it back South. Finding the time was the challenge. December and January were never likely anyway, too many people in the region then, but February onward seemed right. Three times we found a promising period, only to be forced to abandon. Something always seemed to crop up. When the business my wife works holds an important role with announced an impending ownership change seemed to put the kybosh on.

That, though, came about just after I’d treated the Outback to a crucial item of equipment: The pod.

Actually, there wasn’t any particular reason for bunging a luggage capsule atop the roof rails beyond the thought that the car would simply look more rough road-ready with one. As well as being a kind of crowd conformity – I’d seen a lot of other Outbacks with these – it also signaled we were ‘serious’ owners. Whether it would ever contain any outdoorsy equipment, like a tent or even fishing rods, was highly unlikely: We’re not the camping, hiking, skiing types.

So, a bit of a white lie, though that didn’t inhibit me from going to extremes: Thule’s Atlantis 780, at almost two metres long and 700cm wide, is the pod of pods. Lockable dual side openers, dual force lid lifters, 480 litres’ capacity and a 75kg maximum load capability, nothing, I suspect, comes larger or grander. While only weighing 18kg, it did require the two of us to get it onto the rails, but once up there, locking on was a piece of cake. Going to park the car in the home garage that day raised an issue I hadn’t given much thought to: It looked so big, would there be enough clearance to avoid snagging the door mechanism? There was, just. Phew.

Inevitable jokes from friends about whether we’d become sales reps for a coffin maker followed, but the pod did seem to trigger fresh thought about The Trip. All the same, when the opportunity finally arose, a couple of weeks ago, it was all very last minute: The missus had a Thursday work assignment in Christchurch and could be away from the office until the following Wednesday. She’d fly down but, if I could get the car there, we’d have at least a long weekend and could travel home together.

Suited me. Ferry bookings were made – full-blown easy change fares seemed prudent, given there was lingering potential for having to make last-minute changes. The pod elevated the Subaru to ‘high car’ (1.8m plus) status, so it was $707 all up, including ugrading to the premium plus area.

The trip became an adventure the moment I departed our Manawatu home. I’d chosen the 1.45pm sailing because it’s a lot easier to get through to Wellington then. It also allowed time to pack the car on the day. A pod/wagon plus point mentioned to Mrs B about having capacity for as much luggage as she cared to bring was taken seriously; all up, I had three soft bags up top, plus some brollies and a pair of boots, all bungied down neatly (there are handy internal tiedown anchors). The dogs were walked, I went into town to the bank … I thought I had plenty of time up my sleeve, and had just departed Palmy city limits heading to Levin when the 11am news came on. A weather bomb had hit the Kapiti coast and the whole place was flooding.

Cripes. Would I get through? The best option, I thought, was to u-turn and try via the Wairarapa, where conditions were far more favourable. Suddenly every minute counted – I made the ferry just two minutes before the check-in supposedly closed … to discover the sailing had been delayed slightly anyway, presumably because everyone else was, quite literally, in the same boat. Ah, well, a good brisk starting run was probably good for the engine after a couple of months’ mainly low-speed domestic driving.

Picton to Christchurch was hugely pleasing, too, reminding why this car appeals in a long-distance role.

Nightfall had arrived before the Aratere docked, and though the road was dry and traffic relatively light; getting past the usual convoy of south-bound trucks as expeditiously as possible then cracking was always going to be a challenge and I figured I’d be lucky to reach our hotel by midnight.

That I beat that ETA by a good 90 minutes, arriving early enough for dinner, was down to the good fortune of latching onto a good pathfinder; a BMW 5-Series wagon driven by someone who clearly knew the route very well indeed.

The German job had rounded me up before Seddon and was happy to accede leadership. Basically his/her lines became mine and before long we were on the Kaikoura coast, with most of the big Macks and Kenworths behind us, running well and me glad to be behind a pro on a moonless night, so dark that even when the sea was just metres off to the left I could only smell, but not see, it. The area is a vast seal colony, surely they wouldn’t be on the road?

The excellent strength of the Outback’s headlights at least assuaged that concern and the car felt comfortable otherwise. Sure, there’s a lot of compliance in an Outback, so it’s hardly WRX nimble, yet it has a planted, grown-up, quiet and comfortable feel that makes the kays just slip by. Plus, of course, the diesel is clearly in the zone at an easy 100kmh or so. Rarely going above 1800rpm, it was drinking modestly; an average of 7.9 litres per 100km after the brisk North Island race progressively to 7.3, 7.1 then, finally, 6.9 – basically matching figures I’d achieved before fitting the pod. Clearly it couldn’t be called a drag.

Poor radio reception was, however. Implanting the aerial in the luggage compartment side glass does away from having to fit an external antennae, but it seemed all soon before options were quickly dropping off the station list. Fortunately, for moments like these, I have podcasts to listen to: Motorsport magazine, How Stuff Works … thanks for getting me through. I know a lot more about John Surtees and Megalodon, now.

Next day was an easy one; across the hills to Akaroa. Our overnight accommodation was potentially stretching in self-describing as boutique – well, unless 1980s’ bathrooms are now rated as such – and I think we could have done better with the restaurant, but I did get it right taking Akaroa Dolphins’ daily harbour run to spot local wildlife; seals, penguins and, especially, the Hector’s dolphin population. Even though the frisky wee locals were more interested in catching fish than performing for the camera, we spotted a few on a very professionally-run, but friendly, outing.

I’d topped the half-empty tank in Christchurch first thing Friday morning, figuring (correctly) that this would be the cheapest place to do do, yet even after the 160km Banks Peninsula return run the needle had yet to drop below ‘full’. The day’s drive to Dunedin was a biggie, but stops broke the SH1 monotony. My wife’s a great one for impulse buying – another reason for keeping the boot free – and I was surprised it restricted to some nice ceramics from a closing down sale in the Oamaru historic quarter. I was sure the tail gate was going to be lifted at least one hefty items of garden art from further up the road at River Stone – yeah, the place with the castle.

Dinner that night in Dunedin simply further cemented my affection for this place. Everyone tends to rave about the quality of Auckland, Queenstown and Wellington eateries and pubs, but when you downtown to the Octagon area … well, I lost count of the opportunities for decent drink and food.

Before heading into town, David and I had spent time poring over what I took to be ordnance maps of inland Otago, to sort out some must-see stops for the next day’s trip, which had to culminate in Ashburton since we were staying with the other Dave that night.

Basically, we figured a big sweeping drive through central would be possible; with an early start I could achieve lunch in Tarras then head up through the Lindis to the lakes for a view of Mt Cook, then cut across to Geraldine and onto Ashburton. A long day in the car, yes, but also a fulfilling one.

It started well enough. We were up with a glorious sunrise and on the road by 7.45am. Filling up in Mosgiel – a 40 litre hit, the second bigger slurp of the trip  – then cutting inland toward the heart of this impressive region, a fantastic drive on any day but all the more special on a quiet Sunday morning. Running over those beautiful rolling hills, then into the valley to run parallel with the central Otago Rail Trail, another bucket list must-do, I marveled how much quieter the car seemed to run on the smooth schist-enhanced surface. A brief stop at the memorial to the 1943 Hyde railways disaster, one of our country’s second-worst after Tangiwai, then a welcome breakfast coffee and savoury scone at the Kissing Gate café (another of David’s good tips).

Next stop was Oturehua, where I wanted to show Carol Gilchrist’s store, where the shelves are stacked with nostalgic Kiwiana products bearing long-gone brands, however, when I sought to plot the route into the sat nav, this town name – nor any for Ophir – the stop beyond, wasn’t showing. Fortunately, it did give me Wedderburn (which is even more a fly spot on the map) so I had the general gist of where to go.

By 11pm we were in Ophir, a beautifully historic backwater where, after sauntering the main street – Carol stopping to buy scented soap from an honesty box-provisioned stall (gotta love small town NZ) – I introduced her to one the hidden gems of the region: The amazing Daniel O’Connell Bridge. Constructed between 1879 and 1880, this attractive structure is a characteristic example of Central Otago suspension bridge with schist masonry towers.

And then … well, after that is when I messed up. Instead of turning right on the junction with SH85 toward Omakau, just minutes up the road f’r chrissakes, I went left toward Alexandra, cutting across to Clyde. Which is where, about 20km upriver from the dam, I realized I’d got it all wrong. What a dolt.

But I think the mapping has to cop some of the blame, too, because it simply hadn’t been much help whatsoever, identifying only the main roads and little beyond. Part of my error was, when seeking Racecourse Rd – which leads directly to the gorge – I’d found and determined to plot in Old Racecourse Rd, which is also apparently in the general vicinity by which, I know, now, is the wrong one.

So, anyway, we not only missed a great trail but also didn’t get to Tarras, another wanna-see (and not just because it is home to a museum to Shrek, NZ’s wooliest sheep). We did, of course, sweep north through the Lindis, and on to Twizel, a section that at least provided a good look at the autumn colours for which this region is so famous. A spectacular view of Mt Cook from the bottom of Lake Pukaki was unexpected – every other time I’ve been through here the great peak has been hidden by cloud. As always, there seemed to be a lot of tourists around – either that, or it was an outing day for the Toyota Highlander and Corolla clubs – but, blissfully, though some of the rental vehicle traffic we caught was being driven woefully slowly, everyone at least knew what side of the road they needed to be on.

The last couple of days were basically a retracing of my southward route, but with a night in Kaikoura (shout out for the Anchor Inn Motel, chintzy name but a great spot) so that Carol could at last get to experience something I’d massively enjoyed here a couple of years back; a helicopter whale watching ride. Not cheap, at $220 a seat, but well worth it, with a great view of one of the resident male humpbacks. Funnily, it’s a great place to see Hector’s Dolphins, too.

We were booked on the 2.15pm interislander and, as we didn’t leave Kaikoura until 10.45am, there was little leeway for making it, according to the sat nav. However, I figured we should still check out the final must-see, the seal pup nursery at Ohau stream and was glad we did. It’s amazing. We hit Picton two minutes ahead of the check-in cut-off and, 20 minutes later, were in the Kaitaki’s premier lounge, Carol enjoying a nice sauv, me the first of several ginger beers.

And that was that. Wellington was wet and traffic-congested, but we were home at 8pm, marveling that a trip that had put, in six days, more kays on the clock that on the clock I’d usually add in in a month. All for less than $200 in fuel and reinforcing, too, what you hear so often about diesels: the further you go, the better they feel. The Outback’s 2.0-litre freed up noticeably on this journey and, ran smoother and quieter.

And now? Well, obviously, this is still an unfinished business. I really have to try again. But next time I try for Thomson Gorge, I won’t bother with the sat nav. Instead, I’ll take a Thomson. Much more accurate.