Cairnmuir Hill Track, Central Otago NZ

This walk starts in New Zealand’s driest area, and climbs onto Cairnmuir Hill at 1114m of elevation. There are extensive views of the moody Dunstan Mountains, and over the flatlands further south.

Cairnmuir Hill Track

This walk is one half of a complete traverse of Cairnmuir Hill (1114m) in Central Otago, which would take you from near Bannockburn over to Clyde. It starts in New Zealand’s driest and most arid area, with just introduced thyme eking out an existence. As you steadily climb the country becomes more hospitable, with familiar tussock grass dominating the scenery, along with a few rocky outcrops. There are good views over the moody Dunstan Mountains, with their large tors and wrinkled dark slopes, and also glimpses of the aqua coloured Lake Dunstan in the valley below. (You can climb to Leaning Rock high up in the Dunstan Mountains on a hard day walk).

Cairnmuir Hill Track
An early-ish start. Dawn comes late in a NZ winter, but low cloud was further delaying the arrival of daylight.

The initial climb on vehicle trails can be a little mundane, (my wife thought so), but I liked the novelty of this dry landscape. Irrigation means the area around Bannockburn is quite a successful wine region, and after this rather long walk you would probably benefit from a glass of the local produce (if that’s your thing). There’s no shade for the whole walk, and I was even a bit hot in winter in the sheltered areas, so plan for sun protection. Track notes at the end.

The Scenery

Cairnmuir Hill Track
A misty start.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
The early mist cleared before long.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
An arm of Lake Dunstan going off to the left. Further upstream this is the Kawarau River that drains Lake Wakatipu.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Rugged hills near the start.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Not much vegetation on the lower slopes apart from thyme, which I read somewhere was introduced by early (paheka) settlers.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Lots of low cloud and glare action in this photo.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Looking back over Cromwell, the Pisa Range, and the northern, wider section of Lake Dunstan. Again, a bit glary: my old phone camera struggled a bit with the sun.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Emerging from the more arid sections to slopes of tussock grass.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
The Dunstan Mountains in the background, these south western slopes still in shadow on the winter solstice.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Approaching a historic musterer’s hut. I think these workers would act as a kind of human fence before there were actual fences.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Inside the hut.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Ram horns in the hut. NZ is famous for its sheep.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
An aqua Lake Dunstan down there.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Tussocks and spear grass.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
The first glimpse of lowlands to the south.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
The Dunstan Mountains
Cairnmuir Hill Track
The Dunstan Mountains with just patches of snow.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Looking over flatlands to the south.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Lots of varied textures in this landscape.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
The Dunstan Mountains.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
Descending back down to the start.
Cairnmuir Hill Track
We ended the walk in golden hour, adding a pleasing hue to these barren sections on the lower slopes. That telegraph pole looks a little out of place in this deserty landscape, but only because I usually associate these scenes with Central Otago’s alpine areas.

Track Notes

Track notes in the following DOC brochure: number 19, as far as Cairnmuir Hill summit and then we returned. As mentioned you can continue over the top to Clyde but you’ll need to arrange transport.

Author: Edward Hathway

I'm a clinical psychologist and keen hiker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.