Sprawling west from Oamaru, rolling green hills march across the landscape before yielding to the towering Kakanui Mountains.
This lonely pocket of backblocks countryside boasts one of New Zealand’s most rustic, off-the beaten-track mountain passes, with a very storied past.
A journey on Danseys Pass is studded with a string of unexpected surprises, in spite of it being a relatively short drive.
Follow the signposts to sleepy little Ngapara, for a quick photo stop at the historic Milligan’s Eclipse Flour Mill, before a compelling exploratory of Elephant Rocks.
Situated in the Maerewhenua Valley, on a private farm with public access, this wondrous collection of large weathered limestone outcrops is scattered across a gentle hillside like giant knuckle bones.
Your mind will conjure up a veritable menagerie of animal shapes from the rocks – certainly not just elephants. If the setting looks familiar, you can probably thank Disney for that. The area was used as a filming location in the first Chronicles of Narnia movie in 2005, transformed into Aslan’s camp.
From there, the road weaves past Tokarahi, before the real deal takes hold on Danseys Pass Rd. Hacked out of the hillside, the twisting and unsealed road begins with a profoundly steep climb up a gully, on a road so pencil thin, it would be designated one-way, in town. You soon discover, very little of the 50km road is wide enough for a centre line. Driver courtesy is your only hope.
Wandering, directionless merino sheep and cows regularly bear down on you, roaming unannounced and unexpectedly onto the road.
Wending through this vast and vertiginous of world of majestic sun-baked hills, the Maerewhenua River slithers far below along the valley floor, shimmering like a silvery serpent in the sunshine.
Scratchings of supremely isolated civilisation, past and present, speckle the hillsides, as you pass by graceful old stone farmhouses. Some inhabited – most abandoned. The legacy of the goldmining era has left its indelible calling-card, with their water-races permanently scarring the rock-faces.
Higher and higher I climbed, reaching the summit of Danseys Pass, which tops out at 934m. The big-sky views stretch far across to the Waitaki River, looking north, and deep into the Maniototo, to the south. After marvelling over the limestone in the Waitaki, the terrain change was highlighted by the steadily growing sight of exposed schist.
The biggest surprise was stumbling upon the vivid purple gates of the impeccably manicured Danseys Pass Lavender Farm. The boutique farm has been Jo and Barry Todd’s labour of love for the past seven years.
Why Danseys Pass? Well, just as France’s famed lavender fields are grown at altitude in Provence, Jill and Barry were suitably inspired by the area’s hot, dry summers and pure mountain air. The climate helps produce the highest quality pure oil, which is used in a range of products, sold on-site, from soaps and candles to lavender ice cream.
A scoop of this fragrant delight is quite ice-cold therapy on a hot and dusty day.
Barry’s background in landscape gardening has produced the most exquisite botanical setting, with perfectly tended rows of lavender flowers, charming riverstone walls and a sculpture garden. Twenty kilometers on, as the sun started gilding the tops of those turreted brown Kakanui ranges, a dense forest of exotic trees shuffled into view, heralding my arrival at Danseys Pass Coach Inn.
The pristine waters of the Kyeburn River trickled by German Creek Reserve, thick with furs, spruces and redwoods, planted by early miners to remind them of home. Kyeburn Diggings was the northern-most town of the Maniototo – now a ghost town where the sole survivor is the Danseys Pass Coach Inn.
Offering hearty fare, boutique accommodation and a superb bar packed with curios, it exudes an unmistakable frontier, back-of-beyond charm. The long and low-slung hotel is an evocative roadside refuge, first built in 1862.
I enjoyed an overnight stay at the coach inn, after a cracking dinner, feasting from a fabulous menu which included scallops, salmon, duck, pork ribs, lamb shanks and chicken.
As you’d expect from a historic inn, open wood fires, wooden floors and exposed beams feature prominently in the lounge and dining rooms. Accommodation is elegantly furnished and magnificently appointed with plenty of heritage elements to the fore, like wooden joinery, brass fittings and copper piping.
This historic coach inn is a true hospitality treasure, accentuating the raw drama of a dalliance with Danseys Pass.
•Whether it’s for a quick driver reviver, a spot of lunch, or a characterful stay, Danseys Pass Coach Inn is a living legacy from the goldrush era. Bring the whole family – even the canines, it’s dog-friendly. For full details, head to www.danseyspass.co.nz