It's a icy Marlborough winter morning in Blenheim as I drag myself out of bed to a cloudless azure sky and a white lawn of prickly ice crystals from a chilling frost. Looking across the valley to the saw-toothed peaks of the Richmond Range, I think I spot traces of white on the highest mountain tops.
Though it's a frigid start, it's a beautiful day, and I feel the mountains calling, so I hastily pack a picnic lunch, a Thermos of hot water, and dress in multiple layers of thermal protection against the cold. New Zealand's beauty can be lethal if you're not prepared for it.
I drive out to Renwick via Fairhall, surrounded by leafless vineyards in all directions waiting to be pruned by armies of RSE workers who have come from considerably warmer climates to tend to the thousands of hectares of vines that have steadily crept up Marlborough's great river valleys. At Renwick, I turn north onto State Highway six till I cross the Wairau River. The mountains are looming closer now as I turn off onto the Northbank Road.
The Northbank Road
The Northbank Road is something of a curiosity. As it heads westwards, at first amongst the vines, it could be any rural highway in NZ, with good seal, and long straights, and it gives a strong sense of being a road to take to reach a destination. To be sure, there are narrow stretches of road as it hugs the bottom of steep hillsides in places with the mighty Wairau River threatening to devour the very land the road is constructed on in places, held back only by giant willow trees festooned in old man's beard, but in general the road is well formed, and feels like plenty of New Zealand highways I've driven. In the shadow of the hills the roadsides are white with frost, so I take my time. It's a couple of years since I've last travelled this road, and as I approach Pine Valley, a popular entry point to Mount Richmond Forest Park, I'm astonished to see land I've associated since childhood with grazing sheep covered in newly planted vineyards. I guess they must be counting on global warming or something, as the altitude here is above 150 metres, and far from the moderating effects of the sea breeze, so winters and even spring can be bitter here, and ice-cold wind can blow straight down the valley from Mount Fishtail, looming stark to the north.
Pine Valley isn't my destination today though, and I continue west along the straight, but slightly narrowing Northbank Road. After another five or six kilometres, I cross a single lane concrete bridge over Top Valley Stream, and any illusion that this is a major highway comes to as an abrupt end as the asphalt. About a kilometre past the bridge on loose gravel, I turn northwest onto Top Valley Road, at a small community of rural mailboxes of assorted shapes and sizes.
I remember coming here as a kid in a tour bus with my school classmates, back in the days the New Zealand Forest Service was responsible for the area, and proudly held open days to the public. The Forest Service is long gone, and the forests are privately owned, but rising above them are the high peaks of the Richmond Range which still boast a good amount of indigenous beech forest, as the terrain is simply too rugged for economic activity, and has been consigned to the Department of Conservation to administer. Mount Richmond Forest Park is huge at 166,000 hectares, and is larger than all but three of New Zealand's thirteen National Parks.
I drive along the narrow, gravel Top Valley Road past roadside scrub and pine forest on one side, and the Top Valley Stream on the other, except in a place where there is a wider area where there is a field of grazing cattle. Prolific piwakawaka dart out from the vegetation chasing insects as I drive past.
To the top of the Richmond Range
Several kilometres up the road, I reach a signpost to Staircase Road, and Lake Chalice. I begin what seems like an interminable climb through pine forest on a narrow, muddy, winding road, where in the odd place where shafts of sunlight filter through the beautiful but hazardous glint of ice crystals on the ground remind me to proceed with caution. With all the twists and turns of the road and periodic large stones, even at the best of times, this is not to be taken in a hurry, but it's in remarkably good condition considering its remoteness. On one turn, a startled keruru launches itself from a roadside broom bush, and flaps away heavily in front of me.
Eventually, at over 700m of altitude, I break out of the pine forest, and not long after, a sign announces that I am in Mount Richmond Forest Park. The road continues to climb, but now there are signs of native vegetation such as beech, hebes, mānuka, and occasionally mountain flax. As the road creeps along following the ridge, an expansive vista of wilderness with deep valleys and rugged mountain peaks stretches out around me, and the white glint of ice becomes somewhat thicker on the ground so that I know I'm no longer looking at just frost, but a dusting of snow.
Parts of the road, or perhaps track, as that's more what it has become, are quite muddy, so I proceed cautiously, as I don't have a four wheel drive, and I don't really feel like a long walk home, or a drop hundreds of metres down to the bottom of the valley.
After some minutes of negotiating this somewhat adrenaline inducing drive, I arrive at a clearly signposted carpark. The sign reads Enchanted Lookout, and with icicles hanging from the foliage of trees and shrubs and a gleaming white dusting of ice crystals on the ground it seems as though I've just stepped out of the eponymous wardrobe from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe into Narnia. Everything is still and almost completely silent, although if I listen intently, I think I might be able to make out the occasional bird song.
I make my way up a path, white with a light dusting of snow and frost, between trees that I could easily imagine as coats if I were to close my eyes, although that is not really a good idea on an icy path on top of a mountain range. At the end of about five minutes walk, I reach the end of the path, and a wooden picnic table coated in white. From here I'm afforded a view to the south and east over the Wairau Valley, and to the distant snow-capped peaks of the Inland Kaikōura Range.
The vista before me with the proliferation of introduced conifers on the mountainside around me reveals something of the paradox of the former New Zealand Forest Service. While the Forest Service had a conservation and recreational mandate and was well funded to support this through proceeds from its commercial operations, sometimes conservation, commercial operations and forestry experiments could conflict. Experiments with planting a variety of exotic trees to stabilise erosion prone areas sometimes had unintended and undesirable consequences. The road I've just driven would probably never have been made if it wasn't for the Forest Service, however experimental planting of various conifer species worked too well, and now the pristine indigenous alpine flora is being smothered in all directions that I look by flourishing introduced conifers. While the view is beautiful, it could just as easily be from somewhere in Europe or North America. It is not the uniquely New Zealand view that could justify travelling half way around the world to see.
With the abolition of the Forest Service in the late 1980s, and the sale of commercial operations to private operators, it could be said that the result was the worst of both worlds. The newly created Department of Conservation has suffered from chronic lack of financial resources and staff, while commercial forestry owners have no obligation to fund operations on public conservation land. Certainly, the Forest Service made plenty of mistakes in regard to conservation, but they were also perhaps in the best position to remedy some of their errors.
I walk back to the car after admiring the view and taking some photos. I feel ambivalent about what I've seen, both beautiful and sad at the same time. I wonder what this mountainside might have looked like in its pristine state, but I'm also well aware that I might not have the privilege of being able to drive here had it had been left untouched.
I continue onwards, climbing less now, as I'm already above 1100m altitude. Although the steep zig-zagging road through the pine forest is known as the Staircase Road, I've also often heard it referred to as the Patriarch Road after the 1656 metre peak, Mount Patriarch beyond where the road finally peters out as a rough track. I know the south face of Mount Patriarch well enough, as its imposing form is unmistakable from State Highway 63 in the upper Wairau Valley. I come round a bend in the road, and looking northwest, I can see down in the bottom of a deep valley the blue glint of water from one of the handful of Marlborough's lakes. Lake Chalice was formed by a giant landslide thousands of years ago which permanently dammed the Goulter River. Given the geological activity that has formed the Richmond Range, it was quite likely as the result of a major earthquake.
I drive to the Lake Chalice car park, where I cautiously inspect the icy ground to determine whether I will be able to drive out again. On deciding that the ground will afford enough traction for my car, I stop for lunch. I'm glad that I have a Thermos of hot water, although the day is surprisingly mild in spite of the ice crystals hanging off every twig on the vegetation all around.
Today I won't be descending to the lake. It is an easy descent, although jarring on knees, however it is a steep climb back to the carpark, and I'm not feeling like seriously exerting myself today. I'm happy to wander around the road and take photos for a little while after lunch, before proceeding. To the north and west of the lake the forest looks different, and I recognise pristine native forest, although I can see many steep slopes with the tell-tale Christmas tree like forms of invasive conifers.
The road continues on some kilometres past the Lake Chalice car park, following the ridge line at about 1200m before eventually reducing to a rough four-wheel-drive track, however I don't quite make it to that point, as the road begins to get increasingly muddy, and I worry about traction, so when I find one of a handful of areas wide enough to turn a vehicle, I reluctantly turn around, spending a few minutes admiring the view over the lake, before directing my attention to the road for the journey home. At over 1200m, I've been higher than any of the South Island's alpine passes, or even the Crown Range road between Queenstown and Wanaka, yet I've travelled less than 70 kilometres from home in Blenheim to this road to nowhere on top of a mountain range.
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