Clay Cliffs mysterious and treacherous

The cliffs viewed from State Highway 8 near Omarama. PHOTOS: WAYNE MARTIN
The cliffs viewed from State Highway 8 near Omarama. PHOTOS: WAYNE MARTIN
Wanaka writer Wayne Martin takes the time for a detour and ends up a little worse for wear.

The approach to Omarama’s Clay Cliffs has an old-school Kiwi flavour: a rutted gravel road through grassy paddocks flanked by pivot irrigators, a farm gate to open and close behind you, a scattering of visitors, and an honesty-box charge pitched at the price of a cup of coffee.

The cliffs grace the western skyline from State Highway 8 as you near Omarama from the Lindis end; a sweep of vanilla scars gouged into the distant hills. I had driven past the turnoff on the Twizel side countless times over 30-odd years, intrigued, but always too time-pressed to make the detour. Recently, I put that right.

At the car park an interpretation panel corrects my notion that the cliffs were carved by 19th-century gold sluicing, like those of Bannockburn or St Bathans. The formations are the silt deposits of an ancient braided river, uplifted and tilted by the Ostler Fault which abuts the hills and eroded by wind and rain over millions of years.

A well-formed path leads to the base of the cliffs.
A well-formed path leads to the base of the cliffs.
A wide, well-formed gravel path winds through bramble and wild rosehip bushes, rising gradually towards a great wall of fluted pillars, towering mesas and craggy ridges looming like a hilltop castle. The trail narrows, steepens and grows rougher as it approaches a 1.5m gap between two steepling walls of stone. It looks like something from a cowboy movie, the kind of gap where horseback riders thunder through in hot pursuit or desperate flight. Passing through, I enter a majestic amphitheatre of rock, its high ridge outlined like the crater rim of a dead volcano.

The canyon’s life story is written in its slanted layers. A base of grey/white sandstone and claystone is overtopped by bands of honey-coloured silt, capped in turn by a conglomerate of stony fragments embedded in a mesh of silica-rich cement.

A cluster of pinnacles guards the upper reaches of the canyon.
A cluster of pinnacles guards the upper reaches of the canyon.
Ahead the track climbs steeper still and the ground is more rutted and rubbled. Skirting a cluster of pinnacles, I reach a narrow saddle that serves as a kind of a base camp. Surprised by the height gained, I soak up imperious views across the Ahuriri Valley. The sunlit flatness of the alluvial plain contrasts with the shadowed verticality of the canyon.

The southern reaches of the McKenzie Basin, backdropped by the Cuthbert and Benmore ranges.
The southern reaches of the McKenzie Basin, backdropped by the Cuthbert and Benmore ranges.
Surrounded by the canyon walls it feels like another world. More Martian than moonscape, with echoes of Colorado’s Monument Valley. These are classic badlands — a geographic term for severely eroded wastelands rather than the Hollywood construct I always assumed.

Leaving the safety of the saddle I round a rocky spur and gaze up to the head of the canyon, crowned by streaks of cloud radiating like a romantic painting of Calvary Hill. The heights are defended by raw geology; scree-strewn slopes, rain-scoured ravines and a graveyard of jagged outcrops.

The cliffs loom like a hilltop castle.
The cliffs loom like a hilltop castle.
There is no formed trail in evidence and of the five other visitors, none has ventured this far. With a weighty camera around my neck, I’ve had a few near-slips already. I don’t know if it’s the endorphins of the climb, the pull of the scenery or a sense of challenge that drives me on. My wife later suggests another explanation: stupidity.

Going up is manageable, leaning into the slope, maintaining three points of contact, including a death-grip on any small tussocks within reach. Clambering on, footfall by faltering footfall, I reach the upper canyon’s stone-studded cliff-face of impossibility. I now share the sky with the circling hawks and the lofty spires of this roofless cathedral. But it’s time to turn back.

Looking down, I’m suddenly nervous. Feeling like a cat who has climbed on to some high roof and needs rescuing by the fire brigade.

The descent is a trial. In retrospect, I should have lowered myself backwards, keeping three points of contact. I inch further down, occasionally disconcerted by a slip here, a half-stumble there, each a vague foreshadowing, like a grumbling appendix or a pre-earthquake tremor. Still I have this pocket of the canyon to myself and its enveloping silence seems to amplify the sound of the trodden gravel and my quickening pulse.

The first fall was a warning shot — not too far, camera still intact and nothing more serious than a bruised backside. Reversing down would make even more sense now, but I persevere with the front-forward technique. Five metres from base camp, a strange confidence comes over me. Complacency perhaps. Then it happens. Loose stones turn my shoes into sudden roller skates and I hit the ground as if a rug is pulled from under me.

Pain stabs from multiple angles. A wrenched shoulder re-activates a 30-year dormant cricket injury. A fingernail snapped at the quick; the finger skin torn, bloody and accompanied by an intensity of pain I usually associate with a broken bone. The camera clatters against a rock. Gingerly I assess myself and the camera for permanent damage. Neither seems serious, though the finger, a strange combination of numbness and pain, is hard to assess.

"Still in one piece?" a young man in a blue shirt asks, as I reach base camp. "Yep, all good," I lie.

The entry gap from within the canyon.
The entry gap from within the canyon.
I pick my way down the lower slopes, shaken but glad to be on better ground. On the pathway back I realise the lens cap is missing from the camera. Not a big deal, if that is the worst of it. Through the pain I manage to enjoy the last stretch of the trail, the sun, the stillness and the views to the Ahuriri River plain below.

Soon there comes the sound of heavy, urgent footsteps behind me. Like the very hoofbeats I imagined thundering through the gap into the canyon. I spin around, and the man in the blue shirt skids to a halt. ‘Is this yours?’ he asks, holding out a Canon lens cap. I accept it gratefully.

We stop at Twizel for lunch, heading first to the chemist.

"He had a fall," my wife says, explaining to the pharmacist why we needed so many dressings.

"I didn’t ‘have a fall’," I say. "I fell. There’s a difference. Only old people ‘have falls’."

"I rest my case," she says.



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