When the light is right, Dun Mountain stands out red on the skyline behind Nelson. By a curious quirk of geological fate, it’s was separated from its sibling range - the Red Hills of Otago - by the nascent Alpine Fault. Over 25 million years the characteristic ultramafic rock has been nudged through successive tectonic movements nearly 500 km to the north. As part on Nelson’s Mineral Belt, the metals encased in the rocks didn’t pass the notice of early pioneers, who constructed New Zealand’s first railway to transport the goods down to the town. This easy gradient now forms part of the track.
The start of the Dun Mountain trail is signposted 2.7 km from Nelson City centre at the information kiosk, just past 135 Brook Street. There is parking a little further on.
This is a shared track with mountain bikers. It is well signposted all the way. Also known as the Dun Mountain Walkway in former times.
The beginnings of the track are a bit scrappy. Pass the NCC dumping yard and sidle the hillside through regenerating scrub towards Tantragee Saddle (182m). Codgers mountain bike park is mostly in pine forest but soon gets into the native. It’s shady and gentle on the ascent, weaving between watersheds and passing track junctions on Bullock Spur (great views out to the sea) and Cummins Spur. Third House Shelter (660m) is 3 hours and 11.2 km from Brook St. There’s a toilet here.
After Junction Saddle, the trail follows the main ridge through beech forest, passing sites of an old lime kiln and the site of the Fourth House. There’s an abrupt change in vegetation when the airy forest changes to the stunted plants characteristic of the mineral belt’s harsh soils. Coupled with exposure, desiccation and wind, these hardy natives have evolved special characteristics. After the lookout at Windy Point (845m), the outlook changes to the back side of Wooded Peak, with views to the Richmond Ranges. Coppermine Saddle (878m) is the junction with the walking track to the summit of Dun Mountain. It’s 6 km and 1 hour 30 minutes walk time from Third House to Coppermine Saddle.
The final ascent to Dun Mountain Summit is 2 hours (5 km) return and follows a poled route over Dun Saddle (982m) to the summit (1129m). Catch a fine day and most of the Top of The South is in the field of view.
The area is known as the Dun Mountain Mineral Belt - a strip of confused and varied rock types stretching from D’Urville Island to Lake Rotoiti. Among the more notable rock types are argillite and serpentine.
In 1859 the geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter found the rocks composed of olivine and chromite - such an unusual combination, he called it dunite. This term is now used worldwide.
From a distance Dun Mountain looks like Nelson’s answer to Uluru. With reddish rock on the upper slopes and little vegetation, the ultramafic geology supports highly acidic soils and little vegetation.
The Dun Mountain Railway opened in 1862. Early explorations by mining engineer, Thomas Hacket brought copper ore to the attention of the Government, but it was the chromite deposits around Wooded Peak, which finally lured the mining companies to invest in the railway. The chrome ore was transported from the hills to the port.
As the trains passed through the town, the Nelson Provincial Council insisted on the company running at least one passenger service per day. This first public transport in New Zealand was well used by locals for over 40 years.
William Doyne and Abraham Fitzgibbon were given the task of engineering the line. Over 20,000 sleepers were supplied by local sawmills and 45 wagons were shipped from England. The whole job was done for £75,000.
Horses pulled the wagons up hill, while the crazy brakemen rode the trucks on the descent, controlling the speed and hoping like hell the mechanisms didn’t crap out. Gravity was put to good use.
After a bonanza year in 1862, when 3843 tonnes of ore were mined, productivity fell off. By 1864 only low grade ores remained and with a loss in market, the railway looked doomed. The London-based company employed Joseph Cock to explore for further deposits, but none were viable. In 1872 the company went into liquidation.
The horse-drawn town service continued until 1901 and the lines were finally pulled up 1907.
South Island ▷ Nelson Region ▷ Nelson
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