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Southern Wilderness Camping Trip

One of the great things about running the 4x4Explorer Adventures guiding business is the people that we meet and the fantastic experiences that we share together. With a return rate of nearly 90%, many of our guests, who come back year after year, become good friends. When Stephen booked to come on the Southern Wilderness Camping trip with his family, I knew that we were in for a fun week and some exciting exploring.

I think that we are unique in running a “guiding only” model, where guests are free to choose their own accommodation. Some people come away and are keen to camp, while others prefer a little more luxury. Because of this, the majority of the trips that we run are based in one place, Reefton, Ranfurly or Cromwell and we run day trips, returning each evening to the accommodation. All our other trips run Monday to Friday, but because of the distances involved, this trip runs from Sunday to Saturday.

Many of you will have read my articles about my European “wanderings”, and I was really keen to offer a true “Overlanding” experience in New Zealand, and that is what this trip provides.

Originally, I had envisaged a trip running over two weeks, starting in Picton and finishing in Queenstown. Unfortunately there was not sufficient demand to run a two week trip, so I effectively cut it in half and began offering the Sothern Wilderness Camping trip.

This trip really has it all and includes river crossings, wild open river valleys, Alpine scenery then down to Central Otago, up into the Oteake Conservation area and then finishing up at Macetown. The majority of our guests are North Island based, so riverbed work and the Southern Alps are a special treat.

View of the Southern Alps from Hopkins River.

Each night we camp in a remote place, surrounded by total wilderness, as the name implies.

So that’s the outline of the trip and I met up with Stephen, his wife Sian and son Jack at Sheffield on Sunday, outside the famous Sheffield pie shop. Fully “pied up”, we set off towards Lake Coleridge and the Harper River. They were very well equipped with an FJ Cruiser, driven by Jack and a modified Ranger. Sian switched between the Ranger and the FJ depending on the terrain. The FJ was much more comfortable on the bouncy bits!

The original plan was to spend the night at Bassins Hut up the Avoca Valley, but having seen the weather forecast, which was for a strong “NorWester” with gale force winds and heavy rain, I decided that we would go up to the hut but spend the night at the Harper Outlet, close to Lake Coleridge. The weather forecast was accurate and at about 9pm, the wind picked up and the rain started. There’s nothing better than camping in the rain and despite the noise, we all had a great sleep.

The next day it was calm and we packed up, ready to head down to Lake Tekapo, with the day’s objective being the Macaulay Hut (Hilton). The drive up Lillybank Rd was great, with majestic views over the lake.

The main crossing of the Macaulay River was quite deep, so we headed up stream a few hundred meters and crossed without difficulty. The track up to the hut, following the true right of the valley, was quite straightforward and within an hour and a half we had the Macaulay Hut to ourselves. This is one of the advantages of running trips mid-week.

An excellent evening was spent with Sian cooking up a storm and maybe one too many G&Ts drunk.

Crossing the Hopkins River.

The next day we headed out and down to Lake Ohau and the Hopkins Valley. I had explained that we were intending to head to Red Hut for the night, but Stephen and Jack had TopoGps and had noticed Cullers Hut on the map. “We want you to test us”, said Stephen. “Why don’t we go all the way to Cullers tonight?”

This wasn’t on the plan, but Stephen and Jack had demonstrated that they were capable drivers with capable vehicles, so who was I to refuse. I did explain that I had only been there once and that it was going to be a bit “rough going” beyond Elcho Hut and it was.

I’m not sure exactly what time we got to Cullers, but the sun was definitely over the “yard arm” and once again, Sian cooked up a storm while we reminisced about the day in the hut.

The next morning was stunning, with Kea in the sky and the sun coming up over the mountains, creeping ever closer to the camp. We were in no great rush, so waited until the sun had dried the tents and we were full of coffee and Marmalade on toast before departing.

Now there are different opinions on how far up the Hopkins that you can drive and I don’t want to incriminate myself, but let’s just say that you can drive a lot further than Cullers Hut.

This was going to be another big day. We headed out of the Hopkins and down to Omarama to restock on fuel and other essentials. From Omarama, we hit the West Branch of the Manuhekeria, crossing over the Omarama Saddle, with fantastic views over the Main Divide and Mount Cook/Aoraki, past Top Hut and down to the Homestead Campsite. If you haven’t stayed at Homestead, it’s well worth a visit with its proximity and great views of the Oteake.

Heading south from Omarama.

Because we were a small convoy and travelling quickly, we decided on another big day, setting the evening’s objective as a spot between the Old Man and Old Woman Ranges that I had passed on numerous occasions but where I had never camped.

The Oteake was as stunning as usual and with the weather holding, we had great views over the Main Divide, whilst getting glimpses of the Mt Buster diggings. I had to “air up” when we got to Naseby and the others carried on to Alexandra to drop off rubbish, fill the trucks and the fridges, where we met up later.

15 minutes down the road to Roxborough, we were at Fruitlands and on our way up to the Old Man Range. We had all been to the Obelisk, so we hung a left and headed to Hyde Rock, where a sharp right turn saw us on our way to the Old Woman Range and our evening’s campsite.

Rock formation up Old Man Range

The weather was starting to turn and we had 70km winds and were in and out of the cloud with intermittent rain. I was just praying that the campsite would be sheltered enough to stay. If it wasn’t, we would have pressed on to Old Woman Hut, but, on arrival, it was fine. Nice and calm with only light rain.

We set up camp and, as soon as the tents and awnings were up, the rain stopped and we enjoyed a very pleasant evening. For everyone and especially me, this was awesome. I pass this spot on nearly every trip that I run and had always told myself that I should come back and camp. Now the dream was reality and it didn’t disappoint!

Each evening, we discussed the possibilities for the following day. Normally we finish this trip in Macetown, but Stephen really wanted to camp at Skippers. Jack had never been to Macetown and I explained that the two were not mutually exclusive, so the next morning we headed down to Cromwell, resupplied and then set off for Macetown.

Despite the recent rain, the Arrow was low and within three hours we had been in and out and back at Arrowtown.

A quick drive and we were on the Skippers Road and off to our final night’s camp. It had been a few months since I had been to Skippers and I had forgotten just how stunning the drive in is. We were the only people staying there and the tranquility was overwhelming, as were the sandflies.

We enjoyed a great evening together. Sian cooked up a fantastic chicken stir fry and we talked until far too late, but what a great week!!!!

The following morning, our tranquility was blown away with eight tour buses full of tourists arriving. To be fair, they were very friendly and, staying at the Hilton, were surprised to find us camping in such a remote place. If they only knew.

The last day of a trip is always a bitter sweet moment for me. It’s sad to say “au revoir” to clients, who have become great friends over time and the last trip, but it’s also time to decompress and have some “me time”. Whilst guiding is enormous fun, I only realise the subconscious stress of being responsible for people, when they leave and I am alone again.

After a trip, I normally book a room, have shower, a good meal, a glass of wine and go to bed early, fulfilled but exhausted. That’s exactly what I did that night.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the read, that I haven’t got myself into trouble and most importantly that I have inspired you to get out there doing it!

There’s so much in New Zealand that you can do on your own or with friends. If what you’ve read sounds like fun and you would like to join, please check out what tours we offer


We look forward to meeting you out on the trails!!! One life, live it!!!

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