by John Douglas
The Rock and Pillar Range lies south to north, overlooking on the eastern side, the broad relatively flat valley of Strath Taieri while on the western side, the range merges into the Lammermoor Range with Lammerlaw Range behind to the south. The Range rise to 1450 meters and the summit plateau is 23km long and 6km wide, which comprises of Otago schist and has many outstanding tors along the summit.
Walking or by a 4-WD vehicle to the Rock and Pillar Range can be accessed from north of Middlemarch via Kilmory Station. The track either can be used by walkers or with 4-wheel drive vehicle, which will take you into stage one of the Scenic Reserve and then onto the smaller of the two tramping huts - Leaning Lodge. The second and the larger tramping hut, Big Hut is found along past Summit Rock. The track continues to the east and then turns south, passing near McGhee's Rock and out onto the "Old Dunstan Road". The track down to the "Old Dunstan Road " requires extreme care as there are mud holes to avoid and long sections of deep ruts need to be straddled (Though "The Old Dunstan Road" is closed by snow over most of the winter months, it is now officially closed over winter by the Dunedin city Council from Paerau / Styx to Sutton Stream from the first Tuesday after Queens Birthday long weekend in June to the 30th September). Public access from the Old Stone Glencreag's Woolshed up Six Mile Creek will likely be granted to the bigger proposed Rock and Pillar Reserve.
The weather can change quickly on the mountain - cloud, mist, blizzards, gale force winds can easily disorientate you on and can be very dangerous and do have warm clothing.
The climate is severe and the plants need to be tough, well rooted and low growing. The growing season is just some 5 months and the conditions on the top are only less severe than on the high ranges to the west where lies the heart of Central Otago. The fellfields on the most exposed crests is made up of scattered low herbs and cushion plants in amongst the patterned ground eg, the very small shrub Dracophyllum muscoides, a carrot relative Anisotome imbricate, the cushion daisies Raoulia hectori and R. grandiflora, sticky mountain daisy Celmisia viscosa, blue tussock Poa colensoi and the small speargrass Aciphylla hectori.
Found in sheltered hollows below the summit, the continuous seepage from the tarns provides the habitat of the snow bank plant species eg. the Rock and Pillar endemic mountain daisy Celmisia haastii var. tomentosa, as well as the Central Otago endemic C. prorepens, the buttercup Ranunculus enysii and Psychrophila obtusa. The alpine shrubland is diverse and thick in places, which provides an upper border to the extensive snow tussock land - Chionochloa rigida, on the flanks that cover the range. The genus Hebe is well represented on the top by whipcord species - Hebe hectorii and H. poppelwellii while down in the shrub zone is H. propinqua and lower still H. odora. Wetlands are common at all altitudes.
Matching the diverse assemblage of plant species is an excellent insect fauna. Typically for alpine regions, these insects are often larger, hairier, more brightly coloured than their lowland relatives and can be seen during the day. Despite the climate there is quite a sizeable moth fauna. By far the largest invertebrate is the weta - Hemideina maori that can grow to a length of some 65mm. It has adapted to an alpine existence, spending the summer days under a slab of schist and out feeding at night. During the winter months they are buried under snow and experience a kind of hibernation - properly haemolymph, under the rocks.
The tors provide colourful names of these outcrops - The Castle, Stonehenge, The Window and right at the summit, Summit Rock, which are the survivors of millions of years of erosion. As on all the schist mountains the loess and sediments that have buried them have long since been carried away. Then there are blocks that have split or lie tantalisingly balanced. Some have turned into "ploughing" rocks that leave a furrow as they move slowly down a leeward slope with some forming a miniature ice-wedge tarn. On more gentle slopes the ground can take on a waved pattern of crests and furrows. This patterned ground as well as the "soil hummocks" are a result of soil freezing - frost and subsequent thawing assisted by gravity and gale force winds.
Tours to the Rock & Pillar Range, other mountain ranges of Central Otago , wild flower walks, tours to the Goldfields of Otago and general tours can be arranged with John Douglas of Safari Excursions.
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