Photographer of South Island Rural landscapes and people

Bill Irwin

The Rainbow road

The Rainbow road is a 116 km of beautifully isolated road from Hanmer to St Arnaud. The route runs through passes in the Upper Wairau Valley and was a stock route between Canterbury and Marlborough. In the 1950's the road was built to service the electricity pylons following this direct path. Today the road is open for a few months over the summer, but as it runs through private land of Rainbow Station a toll is paid and permission forms need to be filled out (more info here).

Even though I've lived in the middle of the South Island for 50 plus years, for a small island I'm constantly surprised how much there is to see. I don't know how those international tourists do it in a week - mind you, you won't see any white campervans on this road. It's classed as high clearance 4WD only, but 90% is just your average shingle back country road. Bits of the last 10% though could possibly polish the undercarriage of your Suzuki Swift. There are a few fairly rocky paths across shingle fans and a bit of water to get through, but most crossings were bridged.

When I started early from Hanmer, I was a bit worried about the weather - low misty fog all the way up Jacks Pass was atmospheric, but not ideal.

Misty morning, Jacks Pass

Fairly soon I found the fork in the road; straight ahead for Molesworth or take a left to the Rainbow road.

Molesworth and Rainbow roads go seperate ways

By the time I came to the first of many gates, the mist was lifting and letting hints of sun brighten the landscape.

Please shut the gate

A little further on the day was looking good, and I went by the turn off to the St James Conservation Area.  Crossing over the Clarence river I found some nice compositions where cloud and river seemed to be reflecting each other.

Rainbow road, Hanmer to St Arnaud

This road through dry, brown tussocky wilderness was reminding me a lot of the Mackenzie Country (or should I say the 'old' Mackenzie, the one without green circles...). Just a short diversion off the road I found Lake Tennyson, it was beautifully clear and calm.  Hordes of tourists had invaded it for Waitangi weekend though (well I think I saw 3 tents scattered around the lake edge). 

Lake Tennyson, Rainbow road 0043Lake Tennyson, Rainbow road, Hanmer to St Arnaud

From here the road narrowed and climbed up through some fairly open country. Island Saddle (1347m) is the high point of the road.

Middle of the

Cattle were wandering all along the road, certainly no evidence of overstocking though! 

Cattle enjoy some space

There wasn't exactly a lot of traffic on the road, but by no means was it quiet.  There were almost more motorbikes than cars, and a couple of people on pushbikes - I didn't envy them at all.  Respect, though.

Bikers crossing bridges

By now the sun was baking, heat shimmering, dust flying.  Thank goodness for air con.  This was really feeling like the Mackenzie space I like.  

Heat, tussock, space: crispy wilderness

Canterbury now was in the rear view mirror, Marlborough ahead.  The flat open space looked to be narrowing ahead.

The Wairau river, now in Marlborough

Following along the Wairau river the road became a notch more claustrophobic as I drove through the gorge.  The road was pretty rough in places, it crossed several scree slopes and some looked like it had been a while since a grader had been through to tidy up washouts.  

The Wairau narrows down through the gorge

Fairly quickly the open brown space became the closed in green space of beech forest. By now I was near the St Arnaud end of the road, and came to the toll gate - $25 per vehicle, fair enough. 

Beech forest at the northern end of the Rainbow road

After a few more km through beech forest the road turned from shingle to paved at the Rainbow Skifield turnoff, leaving an easy drive back to the main road at St Arnaud.  The DoC blurb says to allow 3 hours, I took more like 5 but of course that included dozens of photo stops and investigation of side tracks.  I find it quite exciting to find a new remote part of the South Island to photograph, I feel like this was just an initial exploration though and I'll need to go up and down this road a few more times before it feels familiar.

Nice rock soaking in the sun