A "playground" for four-wheel drive enthusiasts is how one roading manager described the Waikaia Bush road where a 4WD party was rescued yesterday.

And a second roading manager questioned the sense in using it when snow was forecast, and sleet was already falling at lower altitudes.

The "road" - 17km of mud and clay within the Southland District and 12km of rock within the Central Otago District - has a long history of weather-related misfortune.

In a snowstorm in 1863, 30 gold miners perished as they tried to walk to safety.


In more recent times, many road users have been caught out by the weather. In 2008 Liam Brook died when the 4WD he was a passenger in slid off the road. He was thrown from the car as it rolled into a stream.

The road provides access to the Department of Conservation's Kopuwai Conservation Area and is used by high-country farmers but much of the traffic is generated by 4WD enthusiasts.

The Central Otago District Council's executive manager of infrastructure, Julie Muir, said yesterday that there was sleet on Sunday morning at Coal Creek, near Roxburgh.

"So I am surprised anyone would have gone up there," she said. "There are signs on the road saying it is a dry weather road and weather conditions can change."

Ms Muir, who has been dealing with the road for 18 years, said the council no longer closed the road for the winter because it effectively closed itself. "On our side ... it gets a snow cap and ice cap and you actually physically cannot get up [it]."

The Southland District Council at the road's southern end officially closes it at Queen's Birthday Weekend, the first weekend in June.

Signs on the Waikaia Bush Rd warn that it's a dry-weather road and conditions can change. Photo / DOC
Signs on the Waikaia Bush Rd warn that it's a dry-weather road and conditions can change. Photo / DOC

The closure process takes at least two weeks making it impractical to close the road at short notice.

Roading engineer Bruce Miller said Queen's Birthday was chosen because it was the usual time for a good fall of snow.

He suspected the group caught out might have been making a last trip before the gate at the southern end was locked for the winter.

He said aside from farming use, the road was "only a playground".

Questions had been asked previously about whether it should be closed permanently, he said.

"That would be the answer I suppose, but I don't know how that would go down with the public."