Sawcut Gorge

South Marlborough, 1 day

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This is an interesting and varied tramp only an hour’s drive north of Kaikoura, starting 12 km inland from the main highway. The Isolated Hill Scenic Reserve in the Seaward Kaikouras has some dramatic scenery that lies within easy reach of the roadend, including the short but very spectacular Sawcut Gorge, which exhibits some memorable natural rock architecture. There are plenty of swimming opportunities along the way, so allow extra time for a dip on hot summer days.

Turn off SH 1 immediately after the Waima River Bridge and follow the gravel road for 12 kilometres to the farm at the roadend. Cars can be left here—enquire at the house and enter your name in the visitors’ book.

A farm track descends to the Waima (or Ure) River, which is followed upstream into a steep-sided, narrow valley. This is definitely a wet-boot trip, since the river is crossed and recrossed many times as the route meanders up the shingle-and boulder-strewn valley floor. The smooth white limestone blocks provide some enjoyable rock-hopping, although they can be avoided if you prefer. Several small waterfalls and associated plunge pools are passed, when careful comparisons can be noted for the return swimming stops.

After about an hour the valley narrows into the first gorge near the junction with Headache Stream, at which point the track weaves among large boulders and remnants of forest podocarps. Species such as totara, miro and matai, along with red and silver beech and fine examples of kowhai, all grow in the narrow confines of the steep-sided gorge, while below the river is squeezed between giant tumbled blocks into a series of waterfalls. On the steep valley sides, look out for the Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis), a species unique to this region of the South Island.

After returning briefly to the stony riverbed, the track crosses back to the south side of the valley and enters Isolated Hill Scenic Reserve. Look out for the smaller Isolation Creek, which flows in from the south (true right) as the track up to Sawcut Gorge leaves the Waima Valley just upstream from the confluence. At first sight it appears as if there is no feasible route through the steep cliffs ahead, but a narrow split in what appears to be the valley headwall leads you directly into a sculptured wonderland of water-eroded limestone. At times barely four metres wide, this cleft, cut through millennia of sea-floor deposits, soars up for some 50 metres to the narrow strip of sky and greenery above. Around the middle of the day in the summer months, sunlight filters down into the gorge, bouncing golden-yellow light off its curving sides while illuminating patches of the shingle floor.

The stream that flows through the 50-metre-long gorge is generally no problem to wade, beyond which the route continues with ease up the valley for half an hour to the six-bunk Isolation Creek Hut. Although not as spectacular as the gorge below, the narrow canyon bounding Upper Isolation Creek is still well worth a visit. The hut is sited on a broad terrace, just above a major fork in the valley.

A side trip up Isolated Hill is possible from here and please note that an ascent of Ben More involves crossing private land; prior permission needs to be obtained.

The return to the roadend is by the same route, taking time to sample a few of the swimming holes en route.

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