Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cowans Hill Walkway, Lake Tekapo

Map ref: BY17 983234. Two summit, Cowans Hill Walkway is a circular walk 6-8 km return, depending on one's start & end points & detours. At the time of writing, confusing DOC signs were at the bottom & some way up Cowans Hill alongside SH8. In places DOC marker poles were obscured by pines.

Much of Lake Tekapo village is built on the lower slopes of Cowans Hill overlooking Lake Tekapo & Southern Alps. Cowans Hill is terminal moraine of the ancient Godley Glacier. The terminal moraine continues across Tekapo River to an unnamed hill on which The Cairns golf course is built.

One can start / end Cowans Hill walk at Lake Tekapo dam control gates by SH8, opposite Pioneer Rd turnoff to Church of the Good Shepherd. A DOC sign by a concrete path shows the way past housing above Tekapo River. That route will give a quick return walk through pine forest to Cowans Hill 793 m summit, about 1 hour's duration. 

Alternatively for a longer circular walk through Lake Tekapo village, Cowans Hill tussock grassland & pine forest, one can wander along SH8 past housing & stockyards to the lakeside track beyond another Pioneer Rd turnoff to Pines Beach tracks in Lake Tekapo Regional Park.

Given the confusing signage for Cowans Hill Walkway it seemed that Mackenzie District Council, DOC & NZ Transport Authority were at loggerheads as to which organization was responsible for Cowans Hill tracks.

The most logical way around the base of Cowans Hill was along SH8, but NZ Transport Authority didn't provide pavements or footpaths beside SH8 for walkers / MTBs to use. The dam road / SH8 across Lake Tekapo outlet & Tekapo River was a dangerous bottleneck for vehicles, pedestrians & MTBs, as it was narrow & only had one footpath.

SH8 on the road to Fairlie, beyond Pioneer Rd turnoff, one joins a lakeside walking track marked by green & yellow DOC poles going to Lake Tekapo Regional Park. Across SH8 are stockyards by a Lake Tekapo lookout & tourist car park, with Lochinver Run development behind, going up Cowans Hill to the cemetery road & beyond to pine forest tracks going up to Cowans Hill 793 m summit.

Opting not to wander up SH8, if one follows the lakeside track, walkers are forced by means of locked gates & fences to enter the Regional Park forest where one crosses stiles by Lilybank Rd & detours through pine forest around a forester's house beside SH8. Above the forester's house one crosses SH8 by another stile to reach a closed-to-vehicles track going up Cowans Hill beside SH8. The track leads to a closed car park lookout & beyond to a heap of sand blocking traffic beside SH8, by Oregon pines & birches.

Near the top of Cowans Hill, beside SH8 one passes through a farm gate by a DOC sign marked LAKE TEKAPO WALKWAY. Cowans Hill is mentioned as an afterthought. After crossing a metal stile one enters tussock grassland overlooking a private observatory, Lake Tekapo & Alps.

In tussock grassland, above Lochinver Run, the 360 degree lake & Alpine views are worth the hassles of confusing DOC & Regional Park signs. Following the DOC marked, shared use track for walkers & MTBs, Cowans Hill hilltops, 783 m & 793 m are a lesson in how forestry & logging can destroy pristine Alpine grasslands & wetlands. From the 783 m grassland summit a Lions bench gives 360 degree views over Mackenzie Country. The grasslands are windy, so all-weather, hoody gear is necessary.

Pinus radiata pines are planted in the grassland & wetlands on top of Cowans Hill. The 783 m summit has new pine plantings, the 793 m summit has mature, logged pine forest. The pines may stop soil erosion, but will dry out the tarns on top. Some of the tarns are already dried out. A black swan pair & ducks swam a half filled tarn.

Having survived 3 years of Christchurch quakes, 2010-2013, it would be interesting to see the effects of big quakes on Lake Tekapo village, between topside tarns & wetland drainage on Cowans Hill & Lake Tekapo below. Given the close proximity to Alpine ranges & faults, like Coal River Fault below Richmond Range, I expected disastrous shaking & liquefaction. Hopefully expensive developments like Lochinver Run, Mt John Village & The Cairns have quake resilient housing?

Following the shared MTB / walker track going up to the pine forest on the 793 m summit, one crosses a metal stile into the pine forest. A PINDONE sign on a pine warns about rabbit poisoning - useless as Lake Tekapo village & forests are riddled with rabbits & rabbit warrens. So much for farmers boasting about secretly introducing calcivirus into Mackenzie Country during 1997. All that did was kill some rabbits with rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) & toughen up surviving rabbits' immune systems, giving offspring rabbits immunity to rabbit poisons.

Beside a pine forest fence, a farm track in the grassland goes down to a locked gate above Lochinver Run development.

From radio & TV transmitters at the 793 m summit, one has views of Lake Tekapo village sewage farm & refuse dump. Following Tekapo River down stream view, after an S bend, one sees Tekapo A power station.

E of Lake Tekapo one sees Alpine peaks rising from S to N: Mt Edward, Mt Maude, Tekapo Saddle, Mt Dobson, Mt Hay, Mt Ardmore, Richmond Range, Round Hill & ski field, Two Thumbs Range, Braun-Ewart Peak, Mt Hope, Stag Saddle, Beuzenberg, Mt Toby, Captains Peak, Mt Gerald.

N of Lake Tekapo, E of Godley River, one sees The Thumbs, Mt Electra, Mt Chevalier, Mt Ross, Mt Ajax, Razor Back, Mt Erebus, Mt Sibbald.

W of Lake Tekapo one sees Mt John, Braemar Dome, Mt Stevenson, Hall Range including Haszard Peak & Mistake Peak & Gammack Range obscuring the view of Mt Cook & associated peaks.

Further W, Cowans Hill gives grand views of Mt Stafford, Barrier Range, W of Twizel & Ben Ohau Range - Backbone Peak, Mackenzies Peak, The Razorback, Kaimakamaka Peaks, Dun Fiunary, Glentanner Peak & other peaks going to Mt Sealy & Mt Sefton.

Doing a S detour from the top of Cowans Hill pine forest, one follows a forest track to the end of the pine forest & passes through a farm gate, where a stock track follows a cliff top path above Tekapo River. Vegetable sheep, Raoulia australis, on rocks indicate harsh Alpine winds sweeping up the cliff top. Many rabbit warrens showed rabbit pollution & solid mats of hawkweed, Hieracium, showed plant pollution. Rabbits didn't chomp hawkweed. I saw some rabbit carcasses, successful poisonings, but also saw rabbits hopping about, immune to Pindone. Beyond the clifftop, a farm track went down to Tekapo River by Tekapo A power station.

The way down from the pine forest summit offers various forestry tracks, a couple with DOC marker poles. The shared use MTB / walker track goes through a logged out section of forest, about 200 m x 1000 m, full of pine branch windrows, thistles, wooly mulleins, briar roses, sparse grass, new pine plantings, testament to wetland & tussock grassland destruction by foresters. The pines also obscured Lake Tekapo & Alpine views. All that pines offered was firewood, wind shelter & erosion salvage. Erosion was caused by pioneers' stock overgrazing.

The shared use track passes behind housing above Tekapo River back to the concrete path at SH8 by the Lake Tekapo dam control gates, a DOC sign there too.

Cowans Hill Walkway takes about 2 hours walking time return, or more, depending on detours.

Copyright Mark JS Esslemont.

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