The Dunstans are an uplifted mountain made up of schist rock, situated between the Upper Clutha and Manuherikia valleys. The early Maoris did not have any one name for the mountain but did name the various sections and significant peaks. The Government Survey Map of Maori place names of the South Island have incorrectly named it Mata Kanui - wild crashing thunder of the mountains but the Maori's had it as the central portion, with Castle Rock (Bendigo Station) as its pivot - Mataki-nui. John Thomson, chief surveyor of Otago on his first Maniototo exploration in 1857, could see to the west behind a serrated ridge, (Rough Ridge) a high mountain beyond which he named Dunstan Mountains after Dunstanburgh Castle from his old home county Northumberland, England.
To the south, along the summit in a relatively confined area are some most impressive mountain tors. Prominent amongst them, dominating the skyline at 1647 m a.s.l., is a massive tor which Thomson named Leaning Rock though the early Maoris named if Haehae-ata; which was also the name for Chatto Creek - to split the morning, an emblematic for the dawn. To the locals, it is known as the "Old Woman Rock" from the old womans face when viewed from the south west and hence many of these same locals refer wrongly to the mountain as the Old Woman Mountain.
The Dunstan at the south was once connected to the Cairnmuir Range but now has been cut off by the Cromwell Gorge (Lake Dunstan), as a result of the Clutha River, over some tens of thousands of years cutting down across old fault lines. The range crest lowers towards its centre to a narrow waist at Thomson's Saddle - 900 m. Now over this saddle, a 4-WD dirt road provides for an interesting drive following the old stock trail from Tarras to Omakau. At the northern end of the range, the top then extends to be above the Dunstan Creek catchment, close to the historical town of St Bathans.
Dunstan Mountains, like all the higher Central Otago mountains, is characterised by a smooth, tor-studded plateau-like crest with the highest areas like a sub-artic landform with high-altitude / alpine plants and insects. Plants include miniature shrubs, cushion plants, hebes and a large variety of herbs. Plants start flowering from late spring through into autumn. A rare alpine plant found only on the Dunstans, is a small yellow flowering forget-me-not:- Myosotis albosericea. Its location is on a most exposed site on the southern crest and can be seen out flowering during the months from late December / early February. Another rare plant is found lower down - a native stinging nettle, Urtica aspera and popular for insects. It is the host plant for the majestic red admiral butterfly.
4-wheel drive access to and along the top of the Dunstans starts from October / November through to early June and normally of 4 to 5 hour duration to a full day outing but first requires permission from the various station owners. Tracks are rugged and even in summer their are small areas of wetlands which require special care. Another option is by walking. The weather can change quickly on these mountains - cloud, mist, blizzards, gale force winds can easily disorientate you on these tops and can be very dangerous. A walk to Leaning Rock and back down would be a good days outing.
The normal access route to the most interesting part of the Dunstans starts from the Cromwell Gorge. As the track ascends to the top, views of Lake Dunstan, Clyde Dam and of a changing landscape can all be seen. Nearing the summit, the drive through the alpine zone are views of some of the best looking tor landscape that one can see. As you approach Leaning Rock, the features of an old womans face can be easily recognised. The views from around Leaning Rock are most spectacular - magnificent tor landscape with Clyde Dam as a backdrop and of valleys and mountains.
The return is either back down the same way you come up or else, continue north along the top to the highest point - Dunstan No 3 at 1670m a.s.l., then on through the DOC Mt Moka Reserve and ascend onto the Thomson' s Road with a possible stop off at the Bendigo Goldfield.
Tours of Dunstan Mountains, other mountain ranges, Historical Goldfields, general tours / Wild Flower Walks can be arranged with John Douglas of Safari Excursions
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