Timaru to Tekapo - Dogs, Passes & Dark Skys


I first saw Fairlie and the country beyond in the early 1960's. With my two brothers and baby sister, we were holidaying with Mum and Dad in a large and lovely old house in Beverley Road near Caroline Bay in Timaru. The sky blue Morris Oxford station wagon was the people mover in our day and we were loading up for a day trip to Fairlie and onto Tekapo.  Back then I'd draw my maps of different places we'd visit, as for a long time I imagined I might be a cartographer one day.  Though the vastness of the land out the window this trip, was simply overwhelming and far too much for a little scribbler to comprehend.

Lupins at Lake Tekapo

Where is Timaru? How Big is it?

Timaru (Māori means shady place of shelter) is a city on New Zealand's South Island and is roughly near halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin on State Highway 1, give or take 40kms. A pretty city spreading back into gullies and rolling low country from it's central point at the popular and very safe Caroline Bay bathing beach.

With a resident population of a little under 50,000, boasts a busy sea port, some beautiful old Victorian and Edwardian buildings and a good shopping precinct on its main street. 

There're are lots of motels and excellent private accommodation options, while the rural hinterland is rich in farming and the gateway to the central inland lakes of the South Island, stunning mountain scenery and all manner of recreational choices.

I cut my teeth in broadcasting in Timaru in the late 1970's, as an announcer on the then 3ZC, which became Radio Caroline. They were memorable, times as I was never short of things to do.
The city's always had a great museum, art gallery and a central focus on the natural attraction of Caroline Bay. The annual Bay carnival over Christmas and New Year is a cracker and up and running after Covid and is still in the not to be missed category.

Most Popular Things to do in Timaru

Famlan Farm Park, the glorious Centennial Park and Botannical Gardens and the little Blue Penguin retreat are other things to diary. For those with an interest in the anceint - explore the ancient Māori rock art sites nearby. Summer is a great time to visit as winter can be cold here, though if looking for snow sports further inland, Timaru is an excellent base.

The pubs are pretty darn good too, from what I remember...

Maori Rock Art

Through the hinterland to Fairlie, Tekapo and the Dark sky

Just north of Timaru on the main highway, is the industrial area of Washdyke. Here the State Highway No. 1 intersects with State Highway No. 8, in a special roading intercourse, with the left turn taking you inland to Fairlie, Burkes Pass, Tekapo and the famed Dark Sky Reserve.

The route takes you west and onto the farming planes heading towards Pleasant Point.
Alongside the highway it's still possible to see the raised bund of the old train train track, that used to run as far as Fairlie. It famously carried the steam locomotive AB699, known as the 'Fairlie Flyer', which made it's last official run in the late 1960's. Though as you approach Pleasant Point township, a fully restored and maintained length of track, railway station, sheds, carriages and AB699 itself, comes into view.

The Pleasant Point Museum and Railway is stunningly authentic and this heritage railway is well looked after by a passionate bunch of supporters and enthusiasts. Trips are available and are an incredible experience. An old, late radio mate of mine famed in Timaru in his day, Bill Timmings, loved this place. He had amazing stories and a swathe of historic photos of the 'Fairlie Flyer', so it came as no surprise that he had a small house at the train's junction in Fairlie, that was also stood as a memorial to the railway's history. I remember watching old movies there of all sorts..

Beyond 'Point' the road bends though continues it flat line to small town Cave. The hills are a little closer by now and further on is another small rural centre, Albury, with both these places on the old railway line. 
The last run of the 'Flyer' was on a sweltering early March day in 1968 and according to Bill Timmings, there were people all along the route to celebrate the event. The long time, legendary owner of the Albury Pub, Mrs Gibson, also got into the swing of things..and Bill reckoned she'd poured enough jugs of beer early in the day to cover a couple of large tables..and there they sat, in the warming sun..

From Albury, the road and old rail route head towards the Winscombe cutting, before bursting out into a glorious avenue of trees and the straight run into Fairlie township itself. 


You'll be hungry by now, fancy a pie ?
The Fairlie bakehouse in the main street, is legendary and there's often a queue at its front door.
Using mainly local ingredients, each pie is lovingly hand filled and is a taste explosion. The menu is vast and the experience a 'must do', so you've been told, ok ?
Apart from the pies, Fairlie is essentially a service center. The population is just short of a thousand people, there's every resource you'd expect and while handy to swimming rivers and nearby man made Lake Opua, it also doubles as a ski town in winter. 
Twelve months of the year though, it's the gateway to the Mackenzie country, Tekapo and beyond..

Leaving Fairlie and continuing west, you travel through Kimbell, passing a great pub that is the Silverstream Hotel, before passing the Mt Dobson ski field turnoff and on into Burkes Pass. 
It's cold and often snowy through here in winter and while the road is good, be warned, it can be icy.
Burkes Pass is a cracker of place. The pub's gone now, though the eclectic indoor / outdoor 'historic-sort-of-museum' that's sprung up there is well worth a browse.

The summit of Burkes Pass itself at a little over 700 metres, though benign enough as a climb in a car, opens you up to the broad and expansive largely barren vista of the Mackenzie country and the impressive and rugged mountains that range beyond.
Dropping off the pass easily, you're quickly past an almost insignificant intersection known as 'dog kennel' corner. The name is from early times, before roads and farms were fenced and farmers would place a dog in a kennel here, to keep stock from wandering.
The road is now a generally straight run and just over 14kms, to Tekapo village itself.

Burkes Pass - SH8

Tekapo, the Dark Sky and the Mackenzie Country

Tekapo, or Lake Tekapo Village is an awesome destination.
The town rests at the side of a large glacial fed lake which is generally cold and can be dangerous to boaties, given the winds that can rage through the area. Though it's safe enough if you follow the signage about the place. Tekapo is 710 metres above sea level.
The town is very well appointed, with excellent accommodation options of all sorts. Although only a permanent population of around 600 people, it's appears busy all year round. You can stop here and stay over, cos there's plenty for everybody.

Things to do in Tekapo

Air Safaris

Names like Simpson, Murray, Scott, Rayward, Burtscher and Empson, are iconic in the area for different reasons. Richard Rayward for instance, was a driving force behind the local Air Safaris. Apart from radio I'd also  worked with TVNZ and with Richard being an excellent camera man as well as a superior alpine pilot, I've fond memories of holding the controls of his Pilatus Porter at several thousand feet over mountains while he recorded footage for television. His daughter was prominent in the NZ Ski industry.
Air Safaris, just minutes outside the village offer truly marvelous scenic flight opportunities.
George Empson is another, with the television news programmes having often featured his most excellent pictures as weather backdrops.

Mt John Observatory

Now that you're here, check out the attractions. Mt John Astrological Observatory sits atop the hill of the same name overlooking Tekapo. It's renowned as one of the best places in the world for this sort of activity. You can book a session. With it's unobstructed view, Mt John and its official recognition as a Dark Sky area, offers a unique experience.

Tekapo Springs

The all year round Tekapo Springs is enormous fun. Hot pools and water slides, changing to ice skating and tubing depending on the season. These under the guidance of all round good bloke, Karl Burtscher Jnr. His old man, the late Karl, was a long time operator of the popular local Round Hill Ski field. The family name is till in the mix.

'Tis here I've a confession to make. 'Twas about 45 years when with a couple of mates, I talked a friendly chairlift operator into allowing us to take a some crates of quart sized bottles of beer to the top of the hill. What a typically gorgeous Round Hill day as we soaked up the sun and the beer and how cool we thought we were..
Even though that part of the mountain isn't too challenging, getting down that day, will live long in the memory..

Tekapo Springs

Why is it Called Mackenzie Country?

The Mackenzie country and how it so called, is a story in itself. 
Note the spelling for starters, as the area is named after a Scottish drover, James McKenzie. In the early 1800s he emerged as one of NZ's most infamous folk heroes. Sometimes known as Jock, the original spelling of his surname was debatable, though these days Mackenzie has become the preferred option.
In 1855, shepherds searching for a flock of around a thousand missing sheep, found them in the upper and relatively nearby Waitaki Valley. Mackenzie was fingered as the rustler who'd stolen the sheep and along with his dog Friday, had ushered them from near Timaru, inland to the area that now bears his name.

Statue of Friday sheepdog of Mackenzie

There was widespread admiration for Mackenzie and his border collie Friday, though the law saw it differently. Mackenzie denied charges, escaped his captors and set off on foot to Lyttelton port 160kms away, only to be recaptured.  He was sentenced to 5 years hard labor, though on re-investigation was pardoned and then apparently disappeared in Australia, never to be heard from again.
Though the farming fraternity had noticed the man, the dog and the breed..hence the herding skills of Friday and sheep dogs as we now know them, stands in statue form, on the waterfront at Lake Tekapo, not far from the equally iconic and photographic Church of the Good Shepherd.

What's the best thing about this routeway, State Highway No. 8? You can simply turn around..and do it all in reverse !!

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 13 Feb 2023 (Last updated: 13 Feb 2023)

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