Not even a briefing

A Canterbury fundraiser caught my eye. Annavale, Dalethorpe and Flagpole, all stations I'd been on before. Nice country in the foothills behind Springfield and Whitecliffs and in the Selwyn River catchment. Excellent views from the high bits. The first fundraiser I joined through there had over 200 4WDs. Far too many but it was a perfect day for it.

A repeat of that perfect day was not evident, though. It had rained for a week and the trip from town pushed through heavy drizzle that did not improve. It was so wet I firmly believed I was wasting my time and fuel as there'd be no way they'd allow an unknown bunch of drivers on unknown tyres onto those wet, grassy hills so I almost turned around. Approaching the venue on time, three or four 4WDs were visible in the paddock through my wiper sweeps. Turning in was a nice surprise: out of view behind the visible ones was a good line of shinies.

Closer inspection showed there was a grubby among them. It was a WWII Jeep – no top, screen folded flat, wearing full faded military paint, numbers and accessories. Excellent. The drizzle had eased but was still drizzle. There was no wind, visibility was maybe 300m and the ceiling touchable. The grass was saturated. I still expected some dude in a vest to saunter along to apologise and send us home. I was wrong. There was not even a briefing; a wave and we were off. That's the sort of organisation I like.

A few hundred metres of shingle then paddock and we were straight into a climb into the cloud. Our view contracted to less than 100m, most of it downward and illustrating the steep drop below. Even that soon vanished. Our convoy of about 40, including three or four land owner marshals, wound slowly uphill with occasional halts for gate openings that had 'close-me' pink clothes pegs for Tail End Charlie. I was following the old Jeep and not far ahead was a late model Laredo for contrast, though being white it had little contrast against the ambient mist. The oldie trundled along nicely with its two parka and sou'wester clad occupants rocking from side to side in unison and the Kiwi flag flying from its aerial.

The track was fine with occasional patches where mud showed, but it was mostly shale with plenty of grip. We clambered up to about 900m to where there would normally be panoramic views across the plains behind us to Banks Peninsula, the West Coast Rd (SH73) and the Kowhai Road below and the next row of foothills before the alps. Unseen below the left side of the Russell Range ridge we were following was the catchment of the Hawkins River. At times, as the track rose and dipped, the cloud brightened, it warmed up and the rain stopped so we almost broke through. Its top must have been at exactly 1,000m. Breaking through would have been like opening a trapdoor onto the biggest flat roof around. It didn't happen.

We stopped for a breather on the tops in a lighter bit then continued through scrub, where a dozer had preceded us to tidy the track, then descended to the Hawkins Valley on Dalethorpe Station for lunch at some yards by the creek. It was much clearer in the valley with a break from the rain.

Coming down the valley the Jeep began to gain speed then locked all its wheels and began sliding on the slick, grassy track with a sideways drift down the camber toward a nasty drop. I'm holding my breath and leaning forward thinking, “Hey man, get those wheels turning so you can steer!” The front wheels were pointing in the correct direction, but with the military bar-tread tyres locked they were ineffective (and they are renowned for their generally poor grip, especially sideways). The driver got it sorted just in time.

He explained at lunchtime that it had flicked out of gear and run away downhill. He’d hit the brakes. They tend to drop out of transfer, so he’d tried to fix that but it was the main box gone to neutral, hence the worrying delay. As soon as the wheels turned it was back under control. His passenger had been on the brink of evacuation.

The only other incident I was aware of involved a late model Disco that slashed two tyres on the shale. Luckily there was also a late model Rangie on hand from which to borrow a second spare. Their electronic gadgetry may be excellent but those low profile tyres on modern 4WDs are a bit iffy for real off-roading!

We continued into one of the Selwyn Plantation Board forests that took us to the Selwyn Gorge where we followed the river on tracks and shingle out to Flagpole Station. On the way we stopped at the Copper Drive – a misguided attempt to mine copper. Julius von Haast had found traces of various minerals in his explorations of the area but noted “not in commercial quantities”. Someone thought better of it and set some tunnelers to work. It was a fizzer. Jules rules! Many trippers sidled into the perfect narrow tunnel wielding torches.

We split from Flagpole, some to Sheffield or Darfield for snacks; the old Jeep headed over Pig Saddle Road back to the start and their A-frame. I opted to zoom to Hororata's cafe for a coffee and bikkie before they closed. I was just in time.

Despite the early rain it was a pleasant trip on interesting though not too demanding tracks. For me it was a different route through a familiar area. Numbers were well down but it was OK as a fundraiser for a cancer ward.


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