A place to linger

Sawcut Gorge is a geological wonder that slices through time.

Words Tania Seward

Anyone who has driven State Highway 1 between Blenheim and Kaikoura will remember it well. The winding road, the waves breaking within metres of the highway, the glimpses of fur seals along the coastline. It’s without a doubt one of the best drives in the country.

But for those with half a day to spare and a penchant for adventure, look inland. Unlike many gorges that require specialist equipment to navigate, Sawcut Gorge is accessible for anyone who doesn’t mind getting their feet wet.

From the homestead at the end of Ure Road, a 4WD track leads to the edge of the Waima River, and the first stream crossing of the day. (There’s no point trying to keep your shoes dry, as this is the first of many stream crossings.) 

Small orange triangles nailed to trees and rocks mark the route up the boulder-strewn valley. There’s no formed track, but in good conditions the river is never more than knee-deep. The area is well-known locally, and there’s a good chance that a steady stream of people will be heading in the same direction.

Roughly 45 minutes from the first stream crossing, the valley gets narrower and the boulders larger. As impressive as this is, it’s only the halfway point to Sawcut Gorge itself. The water is clear and cold. A swim here would be refreshing, albeit brief. A short, steep track allows walkers to avoid the deepest parts of the river.

From here the track leaves the river and heads inland, before coming back to the confluence of two streams. This is the boundary of the Isolated Hill Scenic Reserve, and classic South Marlborough scenery: steep hills dotted with scrub and rugged, imposing bluffs. Photography aficionados will be in their element.

Turn left at the confluence and head up Isolation Creek. After a few minutes walking it appears that the way is blocked by an impenetrable wall of rock. But look a little closer, and you’ll see a narrow chasm – Sawcut Gorge.

The gorge is accurately named – barely two metres wide in places, yet 150 metres high, it does feel like someone has taken an oversized power tool to a rocky fortress. 

At only 50 metres long, the gorge can be walked through in a matter of seconds, but take the time to linger. The limestone rock is millions of years old and has layers of sandstone and mudstone rippled through it. If nothing else, it’s a stark reminder of how fleeting our presence on this planet is, geologically speaking!

To get back to the carpark, and reality, simply retrace your steps. 

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