Tom Hoyle maps out your perfect itinerary for your South Island climbing road trip
New Zealand is beautiful. Everyone who has watched Peter Jackson’s nine hours and eighteen minutes of Tourism New Zealand advertisement that was the Lord of the Rings trilogy knows that by now. Numerous foreign visitors to New Zealand have made the point to me that there is no one particular type of scenery in New Zealand that is better than other places – we don’t have the most stunning mountains, the bleakest deserts, the lushest rainforests, the most spectacular beaches and so on. But what they think is cool about visiting New Zealand is that we have, as Kiwis say, ‘pretty good’ examples of all of this scenic stuff and it’s all in one not-very-big country, so you can see mountains in the morning, go to a winery for lunch followed by the beach in the afternoon and go Kiwi spotting in the bush at night. This is what makes New Zealand, and especially the South Island, a great place for tourist visitors, you can pack in a lot of variety in a short period without too much time lost to travelling in between.
This same logic can be applied to rock climbing in the South Island – it doesn’t have the best limestone, the best basalt, the best schist or the best granite in the world. Neither can it claim to have the best trad climbing, the best alpine rock, the best sport climbing or the best bouldering. But it has all of these, much of which is ‘pretty good’ and you can drive from one tip of the island to the other in pretty much the same time it takes to drive from the Blueys to Mt. Arapiles. Ok, it is actually less distance than that voyage but will take you slightly longer. That isn’t just because the roads aren’t very good, but because there is so much to stop and look at along the way. There aren’t many things better than a rock climbing road trip and in my view, the South Island is a ‘pretty good’ place to do it.
Let’s run through a possible itinerary of the attractions on offer. My advice, whether you’re coming off the ferry from the North Island or have flown into Christchurch, is to first make your way to Golden Bay and Paynes Ford, in the northwestern tip of the island. From the ferry this is a quick trip through the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson, both very pleasant, scenic areas. From Christchurch you drive the Lewis Pass through the northern section of the Southern Alps, a beautifully scenic trip with hot pools to stop at along the way, just in case those climbing muscles need a little loosening.
Paynes Ford is the social hub of New Zealand climbing, there is nowhere else with a scene that matches it and the Christmas/New Year period at Paynes Ford is New Zealand’s equivalent to Easter at Mt Arapiles.
What makes Paynes a great destination is the dedicated climber’s campground adjacent the crag, ok so it isn’t right next to the crag, you have to walk past the swimming hole to get to the crag. Luckily, for those climbers easily distracted by swimming, sunbathing and rope swings, there is climbing at the swimming hole also. There is also the town of Takaka nearby, complete with markets of hippie trinkets, excellent cafes, a small cinema, tame eels to stroke and a day spa – literally all your rest day needs met right there. Ever so slightly further afield you have the legendary Mussel Inn, brewing its own beer since way before this whole hipster boutique brewing craze started and with frequent live musical acts through the summer. You can drive to the western edge of the stunning Abel Tasman National Park for a pure beach experience. If you want a bit more adventure, there is caving and the massive free-hanging abseil into Howard’s Hole. All this adds up to a very enjoyable hanging-out-on-a-rest-day experience, something that a lot of crags lack and a solid reason why Paynes is so popular.
Another reason Paynes Ford is popular is the climbing is excellent. Its water sculpted limestone cliffs make for a unique experience of faces populated with an endless array of sloping edges so that while the climbing sometimes lacks length, it makes up for in concentrated pump factor. The limestone is for the most part very good quality with a blue-grey bullet outer layer and excellent fine-grained friction. This, combined with the sloping holds, means it is really skin friendly. It is, in my opinion, some of the most pleasant rock to climb on I’ve encountered anywhere. Paynes offers a good mix of routes, mostly sport and with good beginner options, but it best caters for the intermediate climber with loads of high quality routes in the 19-28 range. While the crag is mostly in a continuous line, the angle changes in the walls and the varying bush at the base of the crag means you can usually find shade or sun, depending on your preference.
The only danger with starting your road trip at Paynes is that Golden Bay famously has a ‘vortex factor’, you might get sucked in and find it hard to leave. You innocently decide to go climbing there and the next thing you know you’re five years older, haven’t shaved, showered or cut your hair in that time and are dressed entirely in clothes made from hemp.
If you do manage to drag yourself away from the fireside chatter at Hangdog Camp my recommendation is to next head all the way to the southwestern tip of the island and the Darran Mountains. This might seem crazy, driving past all the other spots and going from one end of the island to the other, but hear me out. Firstly, those who regularly read VL should know from my previous article on the Darrans area that it is absolutely unmissable. However, it always seems a long way away no matter where you are, so my advice is to go there early in your trip, while the road trip part still seems like a novelty. It is also a place worth visiting with a solid weather window, as it is prone to periods of heavy rain, and you can time your arrival there easily by stopping off at a number of lesser destinations along the way. Finally, this is a road trip after all and the journey from Paynes Ford down the West Coast of the South Island is unbeatably scenic, offering glaciers stretching almost to the ocean, stunning ancient forests, wild desolate beaches and the grandeur of Haast Pass. All of this before you even reach the Southern Lakes region with the fantastic mountain scenery and adventure tourism havens of Wanaka and Queenstown. In short, you might want to allow a couple of days to see the sights, though it can be done in one day if your appetite for rock makes you blind to all other attractions.
To assist you with timing your run to The Darrans there are a few climbing spots to stop at along the way. Firstly is the Charleston area, which offers a smattering of quality routes, mostly climbing on gear, on gneiss sea cliffs. This is either your thing or it isn’t, but if you haven’t figured that out yet, stop and find out. The climbing definitely has an adventurous feel, so it is a good warm-up for The Darrans if some of your goals there are the alpine multi-pitch routes.
For the more sport-orientated there is Bullock Creek within the Paparoa National Park. This area is more newly developed, due to some historical access issues, but offers similar rock and surroundings to Paynes Ford, so the style should feel familiar and help your coming down from the Golden Bay vortex effect. I personally haven’t climbed in this area yet, but I’ve heard really good things and expect it only to get better as continuing access and permission to develop new routes now seems certain.
South of Haast Pass you leave the rugged wildness of the West Coast and arrive inland in Central Otago, where the dry climate gives the impression you are now somewhere much more continental. Mountains still tower overhead but lush greenery is largely replaced with golden grasses and tussock. The town of Wanaka sits on the edge of a large alpine lake popular with holiday makers in summer and serves as a base for skiers in winter. It is an idyllic spot and there is a large collection of sport climbing across many crags mostly in close proximity in the Matukituki Valley. This is a great place to base yourself while waiting for a Darrans weather window, and those thinking the Darrans climbing is too adventurous, or the sport climbs there beyond their level, might find they are quite content staying in Wanaka instead. Like the Paynes Ford experience, Wanaka lays on plenty of rest day ambience, from lake or river swimming, scenic walks or just hanging out in the lake-front cafés and eateries.
While the rock in Wanaka isn’t always spectacular, the local developers have worked hard to create a really good collection of facey sport climbs at a range of grades to challenge all but the most hardcore. There is definitely plenty here to keep you busy and a collection of crags for any weather, the long shady routes at Al Cap if it is hot, the classics at Sunnyside or Riverside if it’s cold, Mt Iron if it is raining. Wanaka offers long endurance climbs, short, steep bouldery climbs and much in-between. There’s even some bouldering if you’re really desperate. In places the rock is quite crumbly, especially between the hard quartz features, a little similar to the Blueys sandstone that can be sandy in places around the harder ironstone features. Like the Blueys, once you’ve gotten use to the at-times-imperfect rock in Wanaka, you’ll find it to be a scenic location with plenty of accessible crags and many routes to choose from.
Queenstown is a bit closer to The Darrans than Wanaka and offers similarly spectacular scenery. It is better suited to the more well-heeled climber, less camping friendly and more about hotels, casinos and restaurants. I don’t want to pigeonhole climbers all into the impoverished dirtbag stereotype, so Queenstown may well appeal to some and the million or so tourists that pass through Queenstown every year suggests it has plenty to offer visitors. The town itself sits nestled against the edge of Lake Wakatipu and has amazing views south to the aptly-named Remarkables range. On this range and hanging above the lake is the spectacularly-positioned cragging area Wye Creek and nearby Jardines bouldering.
Wye Creek is schist climbing much like in Wanaka and while it is not as extensive, it does offer a good variety of terrain and difficulty but without as much for the beginners. The Wye suffers from similar rock issues in places, but also has great rock character, as on some walls the quartz veins are so big and warped the climbing is more like that on extremely featured tufa limestone or chickenheads. Wye Creek also, despite it being a not over large area, offers a remarkable array of exposed sunny crags and smaller bush-shaded crags as it is spread across the northern and southern slopes of a west-looking valley. You are unlikely to spend as many days here as in Wanaka, it is just not as user-friendly, but is certainly well worth a visit for the views and some very high quality and memorable routes.
The best thing about Wanaka and Queenstown cragging for the road tripping visitor is they are nice spots to spend time and do some climbing, while staying close enough to The Darrans to head in when a dry period shows up. You can even head in and out again a few times, if you get really sick of the rain in Fiordland.
I’ve already written extensively about my esteem for The Darrans as a climbing area in VL#4 so I will try and be brief and to the point here, for an expanded look at the merits of this destination, please refer to that issue of this illustrious publication. As the past part of this discussion has all been shepherding you towards this place, it goes without saying that it is an essential place to visit for the full value South Island experience. The area distills everything the South Island has to offer, good and bad, into a few glacially carved U-shaped valleys of granite, rain and sandflies. A place to visit with a sense of adventure, a raincoat and insect repellant. Driving south from Queenstown through the farming country of Southland you might wonder if you’ve gone off track, but as soon as you head out towards Milford from Te Anau there is no mistaking you are entering a majestic landscape seemingly made for climbers.
There’s more than a lifetime’s supply of alpine rock to climb in the area, from the well established walls on Barrier Knob and the Mate’s Little Brother to the more isolated and intimidating Kaipo wall and Sinbad’s Gully, to the remote and largely unclimbed walls lying even further from the Milford Road access points. My advice is to come to the area with the ambition of doing at least one of these outings when the weather allows. What has really made this area worthwhile for rock climbers though is the largely weather-proof sport and trad cragging developed in the Cleddau Valley at the Chasm and Babylon areas. These crags don’t have hundreds of routes, but what is lacking in quantity is made up for by quality – this is some of the nicest stone you’ll ever climb on. When I said in the intro to this piece that we don’t have the best granite, I was pulling a swifty, I haven’t climbed on better.
The only real drawback, besides the aforementioned weather and ravenous insects (which generally aren’t an issue when you are at the crags) is a lack of real beginner terrain. The intermediate to hard climbing is the best quality and for relatively small crags there is an impressive density of hard climbing, with Babylon in particular being home to New Zealand’s only 9a route, as well as a whole swag of projects, 33s and 32s. This isn’t to say there is nothing on offer at the easier grades, but these are obviously less weather-protected due to the lower angle of the terrain.
The next thing to do is to head back north up the east coast. If you got lucky with a good weather period in the Darrans straight after leaving Paynes, you might want to hang around in Wanaka for a while first, you never know, another dry spell might come through and you could go back! I’ve met at least one climber who came to New Zealand specifically to go to Castle Hill, went to The Darrans first because he heard it would be a bit hot at Castle Hill and liked it there so much he never even made it to Castle Hill. He wasn’t even a route climber! Nevertheless, Castle Hill is New Zealand’s only other world class area so you’d better go there and have a look around. You could go through Dunedin first, it is a charming city and has a couple of good crags, Lovers Leap especially offers committing and technically demanding climbing in an outrageous zawn location.
Whatever you decide to do, you will eventually find yourself in Christchurch, home to New Zealand’s largest population of active rock climbers and as close to a climbing centre as New Zealand has. The devastation of the earthquakes is still evident in Christchurch, but it is mostly up and running again and offers only a slightly reduced array of services that you’d expect from a city of its size. Castle Hill is just over an hour from Christchurch, so you can base yourself here, but if you want to camp and spend most of your time at ‘The Hill’ then it is probably best to buy up some supplies and head into Castle Hill for extended blocks with little forays to Christchurch in between.
Unlike most of the areas described here, Castle Hill is ‘on the map’ for climbers from around the world, so I won’t patronise readers with a basic introduction. Having said that, I’m often a bit bemused with the reputation of Castle Hill amongst foreign climbers. Sure, it is predominantly slabby and the rock is relatively low in friction, but that doesn’t mean every boulder problem is a friction slab with holds as slippery as Donald Trump’s definition of truth. Castle Hill is a massive bouldering area, with a density of problems to match Hueco Tanks and Fontainebleau, there are all types of problems and all types of holds. If you are the type of climber who relentlessly trains power problems on a 45-degree woody and want only to find identical outdoor climbing situations, Castle Hill isn’t going to be your favourite destination of all time, but there are still problems to suit you. If you are a rock climber who enjoys the variety of challenges that activity presents, then you’ll love Castle Hill, it is a magical place.
If the challenges of bouldering at the Hill become a bit much for you, there is also plenty of sport climbing on offer in the Port Hills of Christchurch. There are a range of basalt crags all of which have their own character and appeal. Unfortunately the historical trad bastion that was Castle Rock fell down in the quakes while, somewhat ironically, the outdoor gym that is The Cave, didn’t. The Cave offers the greatest concentration of hard sport climbs in the county and while many of them overlap and fail to match the quality of the hard routes at Babylon, it remains steep, pumpy and challenging, which is enough to satisfy a lot of sport climbers. At the more moderate levels the crags at Mt Pleasant and Lyttelton Rock offer a good grade range with the odd steep route amongst a predominance of face climbing. Elsewhere there is bouldering on a rope at the short and steep Church Bay or the hidden gem of the Port Hills, Jane Fonda Workout Wall. The exposure and occasional run-out at Jane Fonda keep the punters away, but the routes there are some of the finest in all of the Port Hills and well worth a visit by the adventurous. If the name isn’t a big enough clue, expect ’80s style routes.
Christchurch is likely where you’ll end your trip, but it is also neatly in the middle of the island, thus allowing you to return to any of the aforementioned spots with relative ease, should you need another burn on that unsent line. My remaining piece of advice concerns the timing of your trip. The most significant factors are that Castle Hill is a bit hot in mid-summer and The Darrans only an option in mid-late summer. My advice then is to start at Paynes either in the middle of the busy New Year season, or if you are shy of the crowd, late January. It can flood in Golden Bay in early January, or be perfect, but late January and early February are usually more reliable. This gives you good timing for The Darrans, which again can be hit and miss in January but is more reliable in February-March. Depending on how long you spend in each area, you can then hit Castle Hill outside of peak summer temperatures, the closer to winter the better the friction gets. When there is snow all around the boulders but not on them, it’s pretty good.
A short collection of the most iconic routes.
R For Ranger, D For Danger, 21, Stone Symposium Wall, FA Rob Gray
Dave’s Arete, 24, Globe Wall, FA Dave Fearnley.
Send A Gorilla, 23, Right End of Globe, FA Al Mark.
African Head Charge, 26, Fish Wall, FA Paul Rogers.
Shark’s Breakfast, 18, Cathedral Wall, FA. Paul Woperis.
Naked On The Neve, 20, The Diamond, FA Clinton Beavan and Allan Uren.
Falcon Steep, 22, The Cutting, FA Guy Cotter.
Lollapalooza, 25, Riverside, FA Clinton Beavan.
Komatsu, 26, Far Horizons, FA Jon Sedon.
Ultrasound, 26, Little Big Wall, FA Ed Nepia.
Continuous Play, 27, Al Cap, FA Bruce Dowrick.
The Mission, 16, Main Wall, FA Mark Whetu and Russ McRae.
Aratika, 22, Main Wall, FA Russ McRae.
Eat Yourself Fitter, 25, Project Wall, FA Bruce Dowrick.
Groove Armada, 23, Chasm Crag, FA Paul Rogers and Will McQueen.
Solitude, 24, Little Babylon, FA Burce Dowrick.
Bus’ter Milford, 26, Chasm Crag, FA Chris Plant, Equipper Paul Rogers.
Tufa Dub, 24, Babylon Left Wall, FA Bruce Dowrick and Jon Sedon.
Moses, 27, Little Babylon, FA Jon Sedon.
Crime And Punishment, 22, Long Beach, FA Graeme Love.
Parallel Universe, 25, Lover’s Leap, FA Steve Carr.
Polish The Cucumber, 19, Jane Fonda Workout Wall, FA Roger Parkyn.
Go, 23, Mt Pleasant Upper Right Tier, FA John Allen.
Getting Rid of Mr Clean, 23, Lyttleton Rock, FA Ton Snelder.
Fillet of Arnold, 25, Lyttelton Rock, FA Ton Snelder.
Melting Point, 25, Jane Fonda Workout Wall, FA Bill McLeod.
Flock To The Rock (Direct), 26, Jane Fonda Workout Wall, FA Dave Fearnley, Derek Thatcher (Direct).
Far too many boulder problems to list…
The grade here is largely irrelevant (so long as you are up to the task), these are some of the very best routes in the land and a great collection to call your own.
Dancing On A Skewer Direct, 29, Globe Wall – Paynes Ford, FA Matt Evrard (original), Derek Thatcher (direct).
A cruxy start that leads straight into a dynamic crux move followed by another 15m of pure pump makes this a great stamina route with excellent moves and some perfect examples of the grippy-but-slopey edges on Paynes Ford limestone.
Mainlining, 29, Al Cap – Wanaka, FA. Zdenek Racuk.
A 35m 16-bolt endurance monster up the sheer face of the Captain.
No Country For Old Men, 29, Little Babylon – The Darrans, FA Bruce Dowrick.
No Country opens with a crux boulder on some fine granite slopes and although the climbing is easier after that, it never really lets up and has a habit of spitting people off higher up. A great resistance route.
Fuel, 29, Babylon Right Wall – The Darrans, FA Derek Thatcher, equipped by Bruce Dowrick.
The route that started the post-Chasm sport climbing wave in the Darrans. Bruce’s visionary line up the centre of the sheer Babylon Right Wall spawned a wave of further sport development and piqued Derek’s interest in the hard climbing on offer. A relentlessly technical vertical sequence.
Contact Neurosis, 29, Chasm Crag – The Darrans, FA Andy Cockburn.
A steep sport climb that starts 30m above the stunning Fiordland beech forest (via easy access pitches). A crux with classic granite angles is only reached via a basaltic dyke offering an opening and cranky pocket sequence.
Protoplasm, 29, Hanging Rock, FA Nick Sutter.
A very atypical route of the early ‘90s sport climbing boom in New Zealand with generous and generously spaced holds on a very steep face. The soft limestone on this wall doesn’t quite match the rock quality of the other routes listed here, but the dynamic climbing and friendly holds will appeal to modern gym climbers looking to fling themselves around.
Bogus Machismo, 29, The Cave – Port Hills of Christchurch, FA Peter Taw, equipper Matt Evrard.
Possibly the best steep route of any grade in the land. While often described as ‘jugs’, without the requisite power endurance you won’t stick the redpoint crux just below the anchor.
Dance of Silence, 29, Castle Hill, FA Eric Talmadge.
Swiss climber Eric Talmadge is best known in these parts for adding Angel of Pain, but Dance of Silence is by far the better quality route. A demanding face/slab route on friendly edges and shallow pocks that never lets up for 25m on limestone that even Euros would be proud of.
See Part One of our NZ Road Trip series detailing the best of the North Island here.
This piece originally appeared in VL#20