One hundred years ago there would not have been a New Zealander who didn’t know about Lake Coleridge. The lake became an icon of progress when the government built New Zealand’s first hydro-electric power station there.
Today, it’s largely overlooked but at just an hour’s drive from Christchurch Airport, I’m not sure why. From what I’ve heard, the glacier-gouged, deep-blue lake in the Canterbury foothills is a gem.
Looking to lose the crowds for a spell, I hit the road. From Christchurch I drive to Darfield where I stop for petrol and a coffee. The main street is a sight to behold: lined in cherry trees in springtime blossom with the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
As I continue towards the foothills, my spirits lift.
I take a detour to look around the posh grounds of Terrace Downs Resort, built around an 18-hole golf course and taking in spectacular views to Mt Hutt across the Rakaia Gorge.
The resort organises ‘high country activities’ like archery, fishing, hunting and photography trips, even heli-skiing. There’s also a jet boat that takes trips up the Rakaia River that interests me, but for today the view from the café is all I need, appreciating that I can enjoy it for the price of a drink.
Onward, towards Lake Coleridge Village, another 15 minutes down the road.
I’m heading toward big, open skies, which is characteristic of the Upper Rakaia Valley. The weather from the West Coast rarely reaches over, while cloud and rain that travel up the Canterbury Plains are often blocked by Mt Hutt, creating a paradise of sunshine for Lake Coleridge.
I drive into the village following a farm truck with happy dogs panting in the back. Several men are standing around at a house under construction, having a laugh and getting little done.
There’s a mix of older and modern homes, some with large vegetable gardens and chickens. Grassy domains make the houses feel like they’re set in a park.
Down a small winding hill I’m suddenly faced with a monolith: Lake Coleridge Power Station. The old power station – the original reason the village was constructed here – still pumps out as much energy as ever. Massive pipes run down a steep hill bringing water from Lake Coleridge to the turbines inside, which empty into the Rakaia River.
The geography is perfect for a hydro-station, but the geology wasn’t, as the early engineers discovered.
The village’s busy past is recorded in photos displayed outside the power station’s elegant building. It’s fascinating to see images of the original nearby lodge, once home to workers and now tourist accommodation.
I could stop here to explore more, investigate the salmon farm, take a horse trek, or wander along the village pathways, including through an old arboretum of pines where seedlings from around the world were planted in an early forestry experiment. But I’m committed to a three-hour hike up Peak Hill, described as the highlight of the many walking tracks in the area.
The description of the Peak Hill walk is not exaggerated: it’s a strenuous and sometimes slippery climb that has my heart thumping for an hour and a half of steady pace. Fortunately, the view rewards me well. The 360-degree vista takes in a mighty landscape of Lake Coleridge, vast braided rivers, scree slopes and mountain tundra.
There is much to explore in this region. Gravel roads around the lake lead to several other walking tracks that I don’t have time to tackle.
I start to plan a long weekend.
Reported by Toni Barlow for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue
Lake Coleridge Village is basic: there are no shops, no petrol is sold there and
mobile phone coverage is not reliable.
Terrace Down Resort has the area’s only café; book ahead for the popular Sunday buffet lunch.
Accommodation options include farm stays, holiday homes and lodges and should be pre-booked.
There are several walks and adventure activities in the region, for more information and to download a map of the area, visit Lake Coleridge
See AA Traveller for more Canterbury itinerary ideas.