A Welcome Return
Welcome Rock Trails
Our Trail Story
I was welcomed to Welcome Rock long before the trail of the same name appeared on the high country hills behind Garston. It just so happened several years ago that our neighbour was the sister of the Station owner, who invited me to their farm after I returned from overseas cycling adventures. I soon learnt from meeting Tom and Katie O’Brien (the owners) that his father Des had the vision to destock a thousand hectares of their high country land for a conservation reserve over 30 years ago. Their family had a dream that one day they could share their scenic highlands with others. After brief introductions, I was driven up the hill in a trusty old Landrover to assess the recreational potential … and potential it had in droves.
Initially, I was almost literally blown away by the gales on the tops, as well as figuratively by the grand views west over the Eyre Mountains. Then, upon cresting the State Range, I became even more excited by the snaking arcs of the historic water race, the original raceman’s sod hut, and the potential of connecting these features with a grand loop track. In Queenstown, the downhill bike trails were more numerous than my digits, yet I could not point to a nearby purpose-built cross-country ride. I was hooked by the cycling potential of the O’Brien’s vast highlands. My head reeled late at night with the amazing possibilities of this tussocky clean slate.
I was not alone in my late night pondering and within a few months the O’Brien’s committed their all to the project. After working through the necessary consents, the pipe dreams of a couple of lads were unbelievably becoming a reality. So on one autumnal day five years ago Tom parked up the trusty tractor, gathered hand tools from the shed and headed for the hills. We were really starting!
Looking back now it seems a ludicrous plan; a farmer with no trail building experience deciding to use a shovel for two years to form a private 21 kilometre walking and cycling trail.
What were we thinking? Sure, I could help out where I could every week or so, but the reality of the enormous job was in the hands of my mate and a few willing workers. On ‘Day One’ of the build, I seriously wonder what Tom was thinking after managing to grub out just 40 metres of a 20,960 metre half marathon mission. His persistence in the days, the winters and years ahead to bring life to the Roaring Lion trail is legendary.
The build was both tough and rewarding work with plenty of laughs along the way. Early on I remember using a clinometer to measure the trail gradients. We agreed the trail slopes would be no more than five degrees (1:11) and soon realised that Tom for the past few weeks had been looking through the device at the percentage indicator. In parts the track is slacker than planned and these mishaps offered comic relief during the hard yakka of pick swinging.
Readers may be wondering why we slaved away manually without the use of an excavator. We decided early on that handcrafting would give more time to determine the line, reduce the impact of the benching on the land, and offer respectful care to the historic water race berm. Like generations before us, we worked and walked in the footsteps of the original race builders. We wielded pick and shovel as they did 120 years ago, while way below us the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail was taking shape; they too hard at work but with wheels, tracks and roller machines.
Whatever way a trail is built - it should convey a story. Whether you are on foot or pedalling the journey, the tale should reveal itself as it might unfold from the pages of a good book. In time one may not remember the track itself so much, but lasting memories can reside with a good setting, great characters and well-crafted storytelling. Like any good story, this ride starts with immediately gripping one’s attention; it’s a small hill climb to reach the highest point of the trail to Welcome Rock.
The Rock is a prominent schist outcrop at a thousand metres altitude on top of the range. Regular stopping points (or breathing points for some) like the one at The Rock are like the introduction of a new chapter with the narrator, in the form of interpretation panels, telling us of the characters that once passed by here. The trail winds around the actual Welcome Rock’s base and you can clamber up to a rock turret to overlook three river catchments. The outcrop was once a known trading post for prospectors and travellers and if you look closely you can read the words of Clement Davis who said that:
“it took me one hour and a half from the Saddle to the Welcome Rock, so-called because of a small spring of water that issues from it. On either side, the ranges rose above and below me. I arrived at the Rock and was forced to have a spell, but the lovely scenery well repaid me for my exertions. On my left hand was the East and Centre Dome; to the South, I recognised several old friends in the Mts Hamilton and brown of the Takitimos; the West Dome also showed its top while the base was enshrouded with a nasty vapour.
Turning westward I counted six distinct ranges towering skywards, one above the other, their bold rocky peaks clearly defined against the blue sky; at the same time the setting sun adding to their beauty by bathing them in many different colours. Below, in the valley of the Mataura, were many homesteads surrounded with golden grain. Everything was so peaceful and quiet that not a sound was to be heard” (Clement Davis, 1886).
History like gathering clouds blankets the tops here. Legend has it that a bottle of whisky was placed under the Rock to warm those traders that were left out in the elements; we have kept this tradition alive for trail users who can scavenge for the bottle for a wee dram before descending.
Riding the trail, I drop from the top of the range and my wheels pick up pace. The ride just gets better as I squeeze between the natural rock gateways, tussock turns and past a hut aptly fitted with an outdoor bath from which to enjoy the intimate glow of dimming sunsets. At the end of the range, the trail gradient eases and turns east towards the Nokomai, here I stop at the next chapter of this classic.
A hollowed out log lies longways, it is joined by a pick, shovel, tin bucket and the narration of the mining heritage of the Nokomai. It was one of the country’s longest running gold fields and it is all laid out before me. I cast my eye down the valley and pick out a dark shadow cast by Victoria Gully. There three prospectors from the Victoria Australia goldfields discovered gold in 1862. With limited tools, the prospectors improvised by hollowing out a river log to sluice the wet gravels and extracted the coarse nuggetty loot. After the ensuing alluvial gold rush, water races were built to service the sluicing guns to open up the valley floor. More recently opencast methods have been employed.
There is no more of a lasting legacy in the landscape of these mining endeavours than that of the Roaring Lion water race just around the corner from this hollowed tree trunk. Here the trail is on the water race itself and traverses the folds of the landscape often disappearing into small guts in the slope before reappearing ahead. Cycling the curves of the race has a precious allure, there are no straight lines here as mirrored in my widening smile.
I ride along on the high and dry berm wall, it’s as if the race builders had cycling in mind. My tyres weave between tussocks - this is riding bliss. After about a couple of kilometres, the soddy form of the Mud Hut is reached; it’s a restored raceman’s hut and it’s as authentic as the day the racemen left. This is an ideal spot for lunch or optionally overnighting, but I pedal onwards to unearth more of the plot.
After a small climb the trail curves back above a vast basin of beech forest into the area known as ‘The Flumings’. Here there are massive broken steel fluming pipes flung around the uneven terrain like pickup sticks on the floor of a child’s bedroom. There is no more obvious place to witness the past struggles of men shovelling along 47 kilometres of tough high country to build the water race. In 1898, 30 men painstakingly took three years to cut this deep trench that eventually allowed water to flow at 800 litres/second to the sluicing guns. At the time there were reports of the impossibility of taming the Roaring Lion Creek, to bring it over the Nevis Saddle to the lower Nokomai goldfield.
In this exact spot, workers made several attempts to stabilise the water race but were hampered by subsiding gravels. Finally, the water was funnelled across the landslip in the same large and now rusting pipes which the Welcome Rock trail passes over and under. I stop for a moment to get down and open a chest of relics on the side of the trail. As I look up 30 heads are staring back at me. These are the heads of shovels, upturned with their handles in the ground, the row of them weaving along the berm of one of these abandoned races – it’s an arty way to represent the toil of the 30 men, who made a living in the ditch, all sweaty and dirty.
The trail leads north along the water race, ducking under bluffs, and rising high along stone stacked revetments that bind together keeping the race as one. After I pass a cascading waterfall I arrive at the former residence of Lee Lum – the remains of a raceman’s shack still visible amongst the scrub. Four raceman’s huts were located along the Roaring Lion water race at an ideal interval for maintenance works.
The racemen constantly made repairs the waterway to maximise the flow to the sluicing guns far below. Life as a raceman on the Roaring Lion was a solitary existence for the Chinese men. Far from their homeland of the Canton Delta of southern China; they lived alone in the high country for months on end hoping to improve the lives of their families upon return to their homeland.
The racemen’s quarters were small and dark, most had gardens to grow fresh produce during the warmer months. In winter wood for cooking and heating was delivered by floating it down the race. Rice sacks were painstakingly carried in, rice cooked with fowl, and the hessian sacks reused as sarking for the hut ceiling. Lee Lum lived in this hut until 1925 and every second day he would meet up with fellow raceman Jimmy Long from the hut we know as the Mud Hut. One day Lee failed to meet with Jimmy, so Jimmy strolled along the race wall to Lee’s hut to investigate. He opened the hut door to find Lee sitting in a corner on his bed. The next thing Jimmy knew he was six or seven miles away reporting to the mine manager the following:
“Me look at him, he look dead, me speak to him, he no answer, me shake him – one eye open, me get fright me run all the way to Nokomai.”
The police and a local farmer gathered a horse and cart to bring the dead man out for an inquest and burial. They got him outside the hut door and looked up at the impossible task of getting him up the very steep and untracked hillside. Only one way they reckoned. They got a horse and rope and proceed to drag the dead man up the hillside to the cart waiting on the Nevis Road!
I leave poor Lee Lums ruined quarters and continue the circuit to the Nevis Road and then back to the start of the trail at the historic Southland Ski Club hut perched just below the welcoming rock. Legend has it that the ski hut was located at this site some distance from the ski field because that is where the truck dragging it up here broke down. It’s one of the oldest surviving ski huts in the country, a monument of sorts for those that enjoyed the first recreational pursuit on the Slate Range.
Finishing the ride and coming full circle I reflect on the time we spent creating our dreams. For me, it was a time of building both a friendship and a track. For trail users our efforts allow them to delve between the wrinkles of landscape and time, it’s an opportunity for walkers and wheelers to hear yesteryear’s whispers in the deepest recesses of the water race bends, to glory in the scenery and escape to another time. Those that share in this story, create their own narrative path. It’s a welcoming journey not taken at pace, but gently like the flow of distant waters reaching riches in the fullness of time.