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Canterbury: Inspiring scenery at the foot of the alps

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Mt Sunday, better known to hundreds of thousands of 'Lord of the Rings' fans as Edoras. Photo / Jill Worrall
Mt Sunday, better known to hundreds of thousands of 'Lord of the Rings' fans as Edoras. Photo / Jill Worrall

The nor-wester is whipping up waves on Lake Heron which lies tucked in a valley beneath the Southern Alps, just a few hours' drive west of Christchurch.

It's a summer weekend but there is no other human being in sight, no boats on the lake, no vehicles on the road. The only other living things nearby are two rare southern crested grebes who duck under the surface at irregular intervals, then pop up like corks from a bottle some seconds later.

Certainly it's a bit breezy, but how lucky we are to be able to absorb in such solitary splendour such a spectacular place.

Beyond the head of the lake, the ramparts of the Southern Alps rear up. Only the peaks are still capped with snow at this time of year, but the sun is glistening on the remnants of the Cameron Glacier, a still sizeable swathe of ice tumbling down from the mountain tops.

Lake Heron is a wildlife sanctuary but it's still possible to fish for rainbow trout and salmon here.

There's trout too in nearby lakes Clearwater, Camp, Emma and Roundabout and designated areas for motorboats, sailing and even jet skis (I say even, because personally I believe jet skis should only be permitted beyond New Zealand's 200-mile limit).

These other lakes lie along the no-exit road that leads from Mt Somers township on the edge of the Canterbury Plains deep into the Upper Rangitata Valley, ending at historic Erewhon Station.

You could in theory, see everything in a long day trip from Christchurch, but this region deserves a much more leisurely exploration.

Base yourself in Mt Somers and take your time - there are camping grounds, holiday cottages, motels and bed and breakfasts nearby. Up the road a bit in Methven, there's an even greater range of options, including large hotels.

Heading west from Mt Somers, one of the first stopping points is in the lee of Mt Somers itself.

Unlike most of the surrounding area this mountain is volcanic and the area is a happy hunting ground for geologists and rock collectors.

It was also once the scene of mining activities, including excavations for coal, clay and limestone.

There's a reminder of this mining heritage at Vincent's Cottage, which is signposted from the main road. We used to roam around this area as kids, while Mum searched for agate in the river.

The cottage was built in 1872 to house men employed to cut limestone for a flour mill. Until they pleaded for better accommodation they were housed in tents and froze through the high country winters.

The cottage, which had fallen into disrepair has now been restored and even houses original household items used by families who lived there after the miners left.

Back on the main road, the next diversion is into Woolshed Creek, one of the two access points for the Mt Somers Track, an overnight walk that takes about 10 hours in all.

At both ends however are two easier walks: at Woolshed Creek there is a nature walk that wends through the forest to the remains of the incline that was used to shoot coal in carriages down the hillside. The creek itself tumbles among giant boulders (you have to ford this to do the loop track) with bellbirds and fantails flitting among the beech trees on its banks.

Alternatively, if you head north from Mt Somers and turn left at Staveley, the road leads to the Sharplin Falls track at the other end of the walkway. It's an uphill route, with a lot of steps but the forest is luxuriant and the waterfall photogenic.

The Ashburton Gorge Road runs out of seal at Hakatere, where a road to the right leads to Mt Heron. If you keep heading straight ahead you'll reach what are known as the Ashburton Lakes.

They are perfect places for a picnic - although some of the smaller ones are only accessible by four-wheel-drive - but don't turn around and go home afterwards because the best is still to come.

Beyond Lake Clearwater the road begins to gently wind up and over moraines left by glaciers that have long ago retreated high into the alps. Just before the road begins to descend is Potts Cutting. Pull off the road and absorb what has to be one of the most awe-inspiring views in New Zealand.

Stretching westward are the upper reaches of the braided Rangitata River, flanked by the Two Thumb Range on the southern bank.

The high peaks of the Southern Alps are directly ahead, including Mount D'Archiac, beyond which lies the wonderfully named Garden of Eden and Garden of Allah snow plateaux.

This landscape may look somewhat familiar, even if you've never been here before. The reason for this lies just a few kilometres further along the road - a roche moutone or rock outcrop sculpted by glaciers but too large to be eroded away. This one is Mt Sunday, better known to hundreds of thousands of Lord of the Rings fans as Edoras.

Absolutely nothing remains of Edoras and the Kingdom of Rohan's royal residence but the memories still linger.

With the nor-wester now blowing even stronger as I stand beside the car to take photographs I can "see" Miranda Otto outside the palace, hair streaming in the wind.

The road continues for a few more kilometres beyond Mt Sunday until it reaches Erewhon Station.

Curious cattle watch us unblinkingly as we brave the wind gusts to contemplate the view. Erewhon, although sharing the same name as 19th century author Samuel Butler's satirical book, is not the sheep station on which he lived. That's on the other side of the Rangitata at Mesopotamia, which Butler purchased in 1860 and named after the land between two rivers, originally that which lay between the Tigris and Euphrates.

While sitting high above his land on the other side of the river he wrote this, which despite the passing of the years resonates just as strongly now for visitors as it did to Butler: "I fancy that I can see the downs, the huts, the plain and the river bed - that torrent pathway of desolation, with its distant roar of water, oh wonderful! Wonderful!"

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