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Down in the South of Marlborough on the inland side of the Seaward Kaikoura Range is an area referred to by many as “The Clarence Reserve”. Even the name has some kind of mystique surrounding it, almost as though only a privileged few who can figure out the special code will be able to pass through the mountain to the wonders that lie beyond. In reality that isn’t too far from the truth as it is a well-protected and very unique chunk of New Zealand. It is a very hard environment with low summer rainfall and extreme temperatures leaving little vegetation and lots of exposed parent rock. The appearance of the hills could be described as “a bit freaky”, with red and orange stripes, creamy clay banks and pancake folded bluff faces. These are volcanic land features which we are not so used to seeing on this island that is mostly sculpted by ice. In places you can find perfectly spherical pressure boulders which have popped out of the shale. From afar it looks like very open country but there is a bright light green tinge that fills the gullies and cloaks the terraces. This is the invasion of an introduced weed the Sweet Briar bush or Rose Hip. This nasty scrambling thorny beast is actually what sustains the moderate numbers of wild animals such as goats, deer and pigs to thrive in this otherwise desert environment. The bush protects grasses and clovers from the elements but doesn’t shade them out, so plenty of quality feed grows underneath. In the summer the briar produces rose like pink flowers which later convert into huge crops of bright red berries which are a massive source of animal feed right through the cold season when the grasses are frosted off. While you are tracking down deer and pigs you come across orangey red poos that look like the end result of a good feed of Indian masala, so it is obvious that the berries makes up a large part of their diets. Heavy trousers and long sleeves are essential for pushing through the briar, as once those thorns dig in they won’t let go without taking some flesh with them! In fact leather gloves and a crash helmet might also be useful if you are crashing around chasing a team of pig dogs, it really is nasty stuff.

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The area known as the Clarence Reserve covers the mountainous land along the western side of the Seaward Kaikoura Range down to the Clarence River with the Southern boundary being Palmer Stream and the Northern Boundary as Snow Grass Stream. Most of the country near the main river is grazed by cattle and sheep under the Muzzle Station farming lease so visitors need to take care of fences and stock and leave the gates as they are found. The freehold part of Muzzle Station is on the inland side of the Clarence River, purchased in 1980 by Colin and Tina Nimmo, it is regarded as the most isolated farming operation in New Zealand. The Nimmo family continue to operate the sheep, beef, horse breeding and honey bee business to the present day. An older farming history has left behind some interesting historic sites in the Reserve, such as the old cob homestead at Quail Flat.

Accommodation on the Reserve is not an issue with some well-maintained public huts along the banks of the Clarence River and plenty of camp sites as well. There are also some private huts at Quail flat so make sure you are clear which is what. There are several bivs located higher up in the catchments of the side streams, such as the Jam, Fidget, Dubious, Limestone and Palmer, although these are not so easy to get to.

There are several ways to access the Clarence Reserve by water, air or trail. Rafts can be launched into the Clarence just behind Hanmer Springs and keen jet boaters can make it through if they dare! The fixed wing option will get you to a good strip at Quail Flat, with permission from Muzzle Station. Those not so accessible bivs can be reached via helicopter, zipping over the range from Kaikoura, but the keenest hunters will walk in to them from the Clarence River.

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The main access is a four wheel drive track over Blind Saddle and to build it must have been one hell of a feat of bulldozer driving! The climb is steep and gnarly and the views are breath taking, but features like dead horse gully dropping away below are great incentive to keep your eyes on the road.  This track starts where the Kaikoura Inland Road crosses the Kahutara River.  Once over Blind Saddle the route drops down past exposed bluffs that look like folded porridge then into Heron Stream (Seymour) which is followed down to the Clarence River. There are tracks leading up to the Palmer and down as far as the Fidget. This network of trails enables access on foot, mountain bike, or horseback, plus from about October to April it is possible to get permission to ride in on a motorcycle, quad/ATV or drive through in a decent 4×4 ute. The road is not drivable over winter and even in summer any rain will turn the clay tracks into a slippery slide. Washouts occur regularly and the many fords can become hazardous when the streams run high and discoloured. This adventure is definitely for the more experienced driver with shovels, tow ropes and second spare tyres being a must. There is a locked gate at the Kahutara and you must obtain vehicle access permission from Muzzle Station to get a key. There is a $50 fee per vehicle and $20 for motorcycles to cover road maintenance costs. No hunting is allowed during public four wheel drive open periods which are generally held over 5 consecutive weekends, through January and the start of February.

When it comes to permission for hunting and dogs it is a bit tricky to get everything arranged so you need to give yourself a few weeks to get the paper work all sorted. The usual on-line hunting DOC permit is not valid on the Mussel Lease areas so you need to contact the DOC South Marlborough Area Office to get a special permit. For your dogs to be permitted they must be registered and have a current vets certificate showing they have been vaccinated for sheep measles.

Landcare Research also have access to the Clarence Reserve for Bovine Tuberculosis (Tb) trials, this sometimes involves 1080 poison which means exclusion of hunters and dogs from certain areas at set times. Landcare also regularly contract pig hunters to collect samples from wild pigs that they kill in targeted areas so there is plenty of pressure on the hog population these days.

The Clarence Reserve is a long way from anywhere and cell phones won’t work, so hiring a satellite phone and taking the number of a local helicopter operator is great insurance in the case of an accident or a badly ripped pig dog.

In the past I have spent a fair bit of time between the Kaikoura ranges but it had been several years since my last visit. In the later part of April 2014 an opportunity came up and finally I was back in the Clarence Reserve. Sparky organised a six day trip and had invited myself and Chief along with a gaggle of pig dogs to provide high level hunting entertainment.

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We didn’t let the negativity of the weather forecaster’s drag us down, but we did make a few gear adjustments to cope with wet conditions. None of us owned a quad bike so we hired one and borrowed another, plus scrounged a little dog trailer. The call was made to ditch one of the hilux’s at the Kahutara locked gate and carry on over the Blind Saddle road with Sparky and Chief on the quads pinging the odd goat along the way. I tottled along behind in my good old 2.8 ute with the dogs noses sniffing out of the crate. We were treated to swirling fog sweeping over the spur leading up to the saddle which added to that hidden valley ambience. Half way down the Heron River the hired quad spat off its towball at the chassis leaving the hired trailer in the river, oops. We dragged the trailer out with the ute and towed it down to the Seymour Hut which is where it stayed. Setting camp at Quail Flat we had time for a quick walk with the dogs but didn’t come up with much except for when the naughty pups hozzled a possum just on dark.  In the morning we climbed high to check out a few gullies leading into the Limestone. I eventually spotted a mob of four small pigs. They were fair game seeing as I had a pup with me that hadn’t seen many hogs. I scratched my way through the briar to get near the hogs and ended up with both my main dog and the pup catching a separate pig each. I continued on but couldn’t track anything else down so eventually dropped back down to get to camp for lunch. Sparky and Chief couldn’t find much action so we decided to move on. The clouds were looking ominous as we packed up camp at Quail Flat, we left my ute parked up, loaded all the kit we could onto the bikes and stuffed the dogs into the mini-trailer. A couple of hours later we made it to Goose flat and came across fresh pig digging on the track. These pigs were either up the hill under thick briar or down on the river bank under the willows and even thicker briar. We drew straws which had Sparky and Chief taking the hill while I checked the river terrace. I was in luck again and my pup soon had a small pig captured. A heap of other hogs ran past me in the thick scrub, but I never laid eyes on them. I radioed the other guys hoping they could cut back around and head them off, but the mob vanished.

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We got to the hut just as the first drops started and that rain never stopped for the next three days! The Clarence River became a churning chocolate coloured beast and all the clay hills got stickier and stickier as the desert turned to mud. When you ventured out into the rain for a walk you would get taller with every step as the clay built up in layers on your boots and any slope was a slippery hazard.

Once the weather cleared we could only hunt on foot as the quad bikes wouldn’t get anywhere. We had to hope it would dry out enough to get back to Quail flat in another day. The dogs were happy to be back roaming the hills and we chalked up a few more pigs the biggest being about 80 pounds.

We never covered all the country we intended to as the weather had cut our trip so short. With the beer all finished and the sun just managing to dry the track surface we decided to bolt back to Quail Flat on our second to last day. It was still very difficult getting the quads up the clay hills and across the washed out creek fords and a ute would have had to stay there for the winter so it was lucky we made the call to leave it at the first camp. It was also pleasing that we’d left some of the beer behind in the ute as well! But before we had a last night festival there was still hunting to be done, with enough light left for a quick evening wander.

I raced up a spur and cut into the head of a big basin gully. The wind was perfect with a slight uphill breeze and my two dogs started to do some sniff testing on the air. I was so short on day light that I was jogging through all the gully heads trying to get the dogs keen to drop down into the briar. The pig sign started to freshen up and the dogs were circling and weaving, there was definitely a hog there somewhere! I got to the last gut and nothing had happened, but the sign was really thick just here. I was standing in that spot wondering what to do next when I noticed a build-up of dead grass just above me. A pig nest, hmm and hang on a second what’s that white furry looking stuff in the middle of the nest? Jeepers it is a good pig still sound asleep in its bed. I took a step forward and my main dog came barrelling past me and ran straight in to the nest waking up a grumpy boar who charged at the dog and then turned to run. The dog nipped the pigs heels which made him spin around and chase her again and they went back and forth a couple of times until the pup showed up. This crazy little hairy pup charged straight in and grabbed the boar on his jewel bags, the other dog grabbed an ear and the hunt was over.

It was a very fat stocky boar of about 130 pounds gutted and pure white except for where the bright red blood was spilling out of its throat. I quickly got the boar cleaned up and then gave him a piggy back ride back up to the spur to a track where Chief had bought the quad bike along to. We were back at the huts after dark and made good on our festival plans.

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The last day was a bigger effort than expected. The road out had been severely damaged by the storm.  The track up the Heron River was gone and the fords were ugly. The ute needed to be towed out of soft silt by the two quads a couple of times. Up on the mountain the creeks had blown out over the road and the shovels we had carried in were highly necessary items. Digging through and filling the deep washouts was the only option in some places. Several hours later we were back to the tar seal with some pork for our efforts and renewed respect for the mystical Clarence Reserve.

For information and permits contact:

Department of Conservation South Marlborough Area Office

Phone: 03 572 9100

Email: southmarlboroughao@doc.govt.nz   

And:

Muzzle Station

Phone 03 319 5791.