David Hill discovers a South Island landscape as grand as anything in Utah or Arizona.
Hidden away in a quiet corner of the South Island is a surreal landscape as grand as anything in the famed American Mid-west.
It's one of New Zealand's hidden gems, but it's not exactly easy to find.
The tiny (population 300) MacKenzie Basin settlement of Omarama is 90 minutes' drive south of Aoraki/Mt Cook, and the same time by car northeast from Wanaka, over the spiralling, spectacular Lindis Pass. It features a roadhouse big enough to hold multiple coachloads (SH8 and SH83 meet here) with a display of eccentric sculptures. There's an antiques-cum-antiquarian bookshop, where you can pick up rare first editions.
And just north of Omarama, on the way to Aoraki/Mt Cook, there's another discovery.
After 4km, signposts direct you left on to skinny, metalled Quailburn Rd. Another couple of kilometres, and you turn into skinnier, also metalled Henburn Rd, where a closed farm gate soon confronts you.
Put $5 in the adjacent honesty box (very rural South Island) and bump along for 4km among stunted trees and spiny matagouri shrubs, with the shingly, braided Ahuriri River dawdling beside you. Park your car, walk 200 metres, and you've reached the American Mid-west. Or possibly a setting from Lord Of The Rings.
That's what it looks like, anyway. You're actually seeing the Clay Cliffs, a remarkable amphitheatre of towering red, yellow and black rock formations up to 25m high, that stretches for nearly 500m parallel to the river.
It's a site where some canyon entrances are so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time. Fluted columns, and pinnacles like arrowheads rise up all around.
The Clay Cliffs are formed from layers of gravel, silt, and clay, laid down in million-year stages by the glaciers that once ground their way across much of the lower South Island, leaving great deposits of debris behind.
You can read the glaciers' narrative on the cliffs and canyon walls. The rock layers are like colossal licorice allsorts: sharply defined belts of red upon black upon orange upon grey. Omarama means "Place of Light", and on sunny days, the Clay Cliffs blaze with colour.
Some debris layers are packed and hard. Others are loose rubble. Walk beside these and the vibration of your footsteps is enough to start pebbles pattering down. If you get a day when the wind is whining through the skinny canyons, it's the eeriest of places.
Wander the central Slot Canyon, which is as grand as anything in Utah or Arizona.
Pick your way through the fissured landscape of gulleys, shingle faces and streambeds. Look for the shrubs clinging improbably to rocks, and the pigeons nesting even more improbably in some cracks. Allow yourself at least an hour to take it all in.
Turn and look back, through the skinny entrances or down the wide slopes above the Ahuriri River terraces, where lupins flower a startling blue in early summer.
You get panoramas of the crammed, crinkled Benmore Ranges, plus the softer foreground tumble of glaciated domes, with their rich Otago tawny-gold tussock.
The Clay Cliffs are an area of warm-air thermals, rising up from the rocks and adjacent riverbed and hawks hang in the sky. You may see a glider sliding high above. It adds to the surrealism.
The buttes are also called hoodoos — a wonderful geological term for such formations, where a large boulder or harder rock layer protects the more crumbly aggregate beneath.
Treat the Clay Cliffs carefully. Carefully because the tracks are rough, narrow, and slippery in wet weather. If it's very wet, knee-deep torrents can come bursting out of the canyon entraces. You'll need decent footwear, whatever the weather.
Treat them courteously as well. They're on private land. And they're fragile. Don't take that glowing red pebble away with you. Twenty others may come tumbling down as a result.
Follow the classic tourist code instead, and take only photos. The combination of multicoloured walls, craggy shapes, and rich blue sky makes for memorable images. Even our stone-aged 35mm camera managed dozens.
• The Clay Cliffs, Henburn Rd, Omarama are 120km drive from Wanaka and 95km from Mt Cook.
• Open every day, daylight hours. $5 per vehicle.
• No camping or fires permitted. Nearest petrol, toilets and rubbish bins at Omarama. Motels and Camping available in Omarama