Nature's playground

01:51, Jan 23 2013
Leatham Conservation Area
4WD trip up the Leatham Valley.

In the second of a series of articles, Department of Conservation South Marlborough area office community relations ranger Clare Duston highlights the attractions of the Leatham Conservation Area. 

The Raglan Range on the South Bank of the Wairau River contains many hidden gems, including the Leatham Conservation Area - a hunting, fishing, walking, botanising and mountain biking playground.

The area is 70 kilometres west of Blenheim on SH 63. It is predominantly clad in beech forest, with the mountains rising steeply to 1600m peaks on either side.

The Branch Valley is not well marketed by the names of the tributary streams - Misery, Siberia and Lost Stream are a reflection of the conditions in the 1960s, named by deer and goat cullers who spent long periods of time living in the area. It was said to be so cold in winter that their tinned fruit would freeze.

Most of the 15 huts and the 4WD tracks in the conservation area were situated to suit the cullers of that time, and have interesting histories.

Greig's Hut has a log-cabin like appearance, which was due to some creative budgeting skills by the New Zealand Forest Service.


A hut extension was required, and not having sufficient funds in the huts budget, the fencing budget was used, and the hut clad in half-round fence posts.

Also in the 1960s, the then catchment board noticed the Wairau River seemed to be filling with gravel, for which the high levels of erosion of the mountains surrounding the Branch and Leatham Rivers were blamed.

To combat this, various species of pine were planted and aerially seeded in both valleys, to grow and spread and hold the eroding hills together.

They did grow and spread very successfully, and have since become a major pest of the area. They are being controlled to protect vulnerable areas above the bushline, and the Molesworth Station in the next catchment to the east.

The Leatham Valley is also home to Craspedia "Leatham" - a member of the daisy family that is only found in the limestone cliffs of the Leatham Valley, and is therefore in the most threatened category of nationally critical.

It is joined in its rarity by "Pitpat" - Pittosporum patulum - a small tree found only in the top of the South Island, down as far as Otago.

The area offers many choices for exploring recreationally.

A 4WD will give you access up the Branch Valley as far as Greig's Hut, and up the Leatham to Bottom Gordon Hut.

A high-clearance vehicle is required, and the rivers must be in low flow.

Alternatively, these roads can be mountain-biked or walked.

Hunting is also popular in this area - a hunting permit can be obtained through the DOC website. Those on foot can take advantage of several side-tracks off the Leatham and Branch Valleys, and also the Leatham-Molesworth Route.

This route takes you from Bottom Gordon Hut over the Severn Saddle to Molesworth Station, up the Saxton River, back into the Gordon Stream - a great five-day trip.

As part of DOC's Summer Explorer Programme, there is a 4WD trip on February 17 and a mountainbiking trip February 2 up the Branch Valley.