Winter ZL3 / NZ South Island SOTA tour

I’ve not written up road trips before - so I’m not sure how this account will turn out. But at special request - here is a writeup of my recent SOTA tour round the NE corner of ZL3. if it ends up reading as ‘and then we, and then we …’ then I’d recommend skipping to the photos!

With June 30th being the end of the NZ govt’s financial year, late June is normally mad season for conservation contractors, as we all rush to finish off the year’s contracts, and gov’t departments rush to spend those last few pennies they found down the back of the sofa before the end of the year. So it was unusual to find 10 days of free time in the schedule and be able to book a fortnight off for a relaxed tour with Sim in her motorhome before the real midwinter cold and snow hit.


Top of my personal winter wishlist was a foot / MTB / packraft tour of all the 9 public Banks Peninsula summits, whilst Sim enjoyed the comfort of Akaroa township. With that in mind we headed to Godley Head on Friday night for an early morning start on Saturday.

Godley Head

Saturday / Sunday

The successful circuit of the nine Banks Peninsula summits has already been written up here. So all that remains to be told is the punchline:

It turns out that there are now 10 public summits on Banks Peninsula - the latest, Sugar Loaf [ZL3/CB-860] added in 2022 long after I originally planned the trip. So I guess I will have to go back and do it all again! That will teach me to update my GPS more regularly.

Monday / Tuesday / Wednesday / Thursday

Sim having seen enough of Akaroa in my absence, we decided to poke north into the coastline east of Cheviot. State Highway 1, running the length of both main islands of NZ, heads inland here, and leaves a series of quiet bays, beaches and communities reachable only by dead-end roads.

A number of these bays and peninsulas contain small reserves or lighthouses included in the NZART/ZLOTA schemes - many of which can be activated from quiet and sheltered campgrounds that dot the coast. So we spend the next 3 days exploring the coast and pottering - activating parks and lighthouses on the way. Much of the offshore area is in the [NZ-0590] Te Rohe o Te Whanau Puha Kaikoura Whale Sanctuary and thus also a target for those in the POTA scheme. With greyline DX was open to the EU and NA most evenings, this provided some enjoyable activations. Most notable @F5PYI managed at least one contact on every activation day for the remainder of the trip - 10 contacts in all.

Manuka Bay from Pt Gibson Light [ZLB/068]

The sole failed activation of the trip came on Tuesday. Sim dropped me and the pushbike off where the access road to ZL3/CB-831 becomes 4WD only. The verges were soft so I watched her multi-point turn with care before grabbing the last of my stuff off the passenger’s seat (thermals, phone). Sadly Sim mistook the tap on the rear panel of the RV as an ‘all good’ and took off down the road, despite whistles, waves and shouts. I contemplated cycling up the hill without phone or thermals, and taking my chances with the activation. But: midweek, HF, with no alert, an unnamed summit, no idea of the SOTA reference code, and no way of determining which short section of the 4WD road entered the AZ - it seemed a lost cause. Depressing how much my amateur activity depends on that commercial-band device.

So I rode 6km back into Cheviot, failed to locate Sim anywhere in town, and huddled shivering outside the 4-Sqare supermarket for an hour. Finally, one of the cashiers came out to inquire if I was OK? I answered ‘not really’, and explained the situation (which sounded very much like ‘I’ve lost my mummy’). The cashier kindly lent me her phone and Sim soon arrived to provide tea but no real sympathy.

Conway Flat POP site


By now I had recovered from the exhausting exploits of the weekend on Banks Peninsula, was tiring of retiree-touring, and was champing at the bit for some more SOTA.

After a pre-dawn start Sim dropped me at the southern access to Mt Sunday for a 3-summit traverse of the Richmond Ranges.

A steady 1200m climb leads to Mt Sunday [ZL3/MB-367] from Briggs Road - initially on pine forestry tracks and later through the native beech forest of the Mt Richmond Forest Park. My somewhat embarrassing 3hr time to the summit reflects the fact that the access track has moved since my 2009 topomap was printed - with tedious bushbashing on a faint overgrown trail finally easing when I finally encountered the wonderful new maintained tramping track at around the 700m mark!

A harsh, bitter wind scoured the ice-crusted rock of the summit and I dropped to the warmth of Mt Sunday Biv for a cuppa before returning to activate. Only the top-most 5m of Mt Sunday is clear of the bush - but the stunted, twisted sub-alpine beech below is a tangled nightmare through which to run antennas. So I brave the cold on the exposed summit and hope for a quick activation. You can pretty much guarantee in these circumstances that you’ll spend 40 minutes stuck on 3 contacts, calling fruitlessly into a dead band, or will be faced with an immense, never ending pileup. Mt Sunday provided the latter (by NZ standards) with a steady stream of callers providing 24 in the log over a period of 20 minutes, including both @F5PYI and @F4WBN. By the end of which my jaw was pretty much seized with cold, and I had to resort to the knife to remove the guy-lines from the scrub to which they’d been tied.

Mt Sunday [ZL3/MB-367] from ZL3/MB-172

Thankfully the rest of the trip remained below the bushline. I soon warm, dropping steeply onto the main spine of the Richmond Ranges, and we follow good goat-trails west before forking off to ZL3/MB-172 after an easy climb through goat-denuded open beech forest. Another 8 contacts on 40m, with 20m providing nothing.

More good animal trails lead 400m down through open bush to the head of Doom Creek, before a tricky, slippery knife-edge scramble of a spur back onto the tops south of ZL3/MB-177. With dark fast-approaching, this could only be a brief 40m activation, netting 8 in the log before calls went unanswered

ZL3/MB-177 - this is fast becoming a trip unusually full of bush activations

Dropping NW, things were too late in the day to bushbash down to the road via the beech forested Deep Creek, and so I cut out onto commercial forestry tracks to its north. Sadly my phone chose this moment to drop instantaneously from 52% battery to nil, and I was left to negotiate the maze of forestry tracks aided only by compass. A few years ago I would never have gone more than a kilometer or two without carrying a paper map - and the day provided a timely reminded of why. Bad habits unwittingly accumulated. But we made it to the road eventually, though probably not by the most efficient route.

Saturday - Sunday - Monday

The forecast for Saturday - Monday was for persistent rain for all but the northernmost tip of the South Island, so we head north. First to Picton to the 3-month-old ZL3/MB-378, already receiving it’s second ever activation.

The Snout [ZL3/MB-378]. An easy 1-pointer with a park bench and an MTB track above the port of Picton

Then, after a couple of nights parked up (and fattening up) at the Canvastown Hotel, into the maze of peninsulas and bays of the Marlborough Sounds. Narrow roadlines cling to crumbling ridgelines, zig-zag their way tortuously from bay to bay. All good fun in a motorhome!

No kiwi seen at Okiwi Bay

After checking out a few bays and drinking lots of cups of tea, I spot Bobs Peak [ZL3/MB-279], a SOTA 1-pointer only a 300m climb above the road - a rare ZL3 chance for a quick activation. The mixed, low broadleaf bush of the sounds is a far cry from the open beech forest of the Richmond Ranges, but taking PipSqueak (the dog) along for the walk, we manage to nose our way through the creeper and undergrowth on a reasonable if steep route to the ridgeline. The summit itself was impenetrable scrub, but more open bush to the south provided am open enough line to run the EFHW.

PipSqueak proved her worth, as always, on the return journey, leading us pace-for-pace down our original ascent route back to the road.

PipSqueak admiring the EFHW on Bob’s Peak [ZL3/MB-279]


Weather finally clears off the ZL3 mainland and we head back south, making for our original destination of the township of St Arnaud at the northern end of the Nelson Lakes National Park.

St Arnaud and Lake Rotoiti from Beebys Knob [ZL3/TM-094]

As always the mountains of the park are spectacular, white-capped with their icing of snow. But not really a winter SOTA destination, or not without real preparation and winter alpine gear. So while Sim explores dog-walk tracks around the township I head into the low bush-clad hills south-west of the village to bag a couple of lower 2-pointers.

An unexpected cut/blue-triangle-marked trapline network leads from Teetotal campground to the summit of ZL3/TM-188, making for an easier than expected summit, netting 14 in the log between 40m and 20m.


ZL3/TM-273 can also be reached from Teetotal Campsite by foot / bike / 4WD on the DOC access road to Big Bush Conservation Area. A pleasant afternoon bikeride with a gradient just gentle enough to avoid pushing. I set up on bushedge where the beech forest gives out to newly-cleared pines. 20m remained open and a reasonable number of VK contacts result, plus a bonus DX to I4RHP, an hour before the afternoon greyline normally opens.

ZL3/TM-273 by bike!


I need 19 more points to meet my target of 1900 by the end of the trip, and so target a couple of 4-pointers at the western end of the Richmond Range before it drops to the broad valley at St Arnaud.

Topomaps show no track over ZL3/TM-144, but one does exist running from Red Hills Hut to Beebys Knob. Not knowing that, I cut off the 4WD track to Red Hills at the first open-looking spur and bushbash the 500 vertical meters to hit the ridgeline 1.5km south of the summit. After passing through a series of open, frost-carpeted clearings ideal for activations, the summit itself proves to be of stunted beech forest. Finding an open 20m line through which to thread an EF40mHW involved backing off south a bit to find more open bush, still within the activation zone. The morning is bitter and windy and I find myself grateful for the cover of the bush in the end. 20m and above are again dead, and so only a handful of ZL contacts result on 40m.

Approaching ZL3/TM-144

The joy of following the unexpected MTB track to Beebys Knob [ZL3/TM-094] is soon lost on reaching the bushline. A strong bitter wind scours the hoar-frosted open tops. The sunken banks of the 4wd road to the summit provides shelter from the knees down - good for the dog, I suppose!

I reach the summit half an hour before my Alert time, and just keep on walking. It’s well into double figures below zero (before the windchill), and blowing 70kph+. Core temperature is maintained whilst I’m walking but the warning signs are all there that it will drop dangerously the moment I stop. So I carry on 1.5km and hope that just maybe Beeby’s Hut ZLH/TM-010 will be in the AZ.

Beeby Hut - ZLH/TM-010

The hut isn’t anywhere near the summit AZ, but sitting in the patch of sunlight that comes through the glassed window, drinking well-sugared coffee and attempting to munch snacks with unresponsive cold-numbed jaws, I begin to thaw out.

I make plans:

I will attempt the activation, but with all focus on brevity, simplicity and safety.

  • I’ll tuck in behind the repeater building tie one end of my EFHW to the structure, and run the rest out horizontally - supported by nothing more than my ice-axe at the far end if need be.
  • I will tie off only with bows that can be undone with gloved, numb hands by pulling on the loose end.
  • I will pre-spot on arrival explaining the need for speed.
  • And I will work the initial pileup then leave, qualified or not.

As things eventuate the plan works. The bitter NE wind is much reduced with my back tucked into the NW side of the repeater shed, though it shakes and shifts with every gust. A handy plastic venting pipe at about 2m of height provides a good anchor point, and miraculously the framing for the solar array is an EF40mHW (plus guy ropes) length away and anchors the other. The average antenna height is about 1.5m and it’s parallel to the ground, but it tunes OK on 40m and 20m, so we start. The noise floor is horrendous, but beggars cant be choosers.

Five callers come back to my initial CQs before the well dries up. 3 or 4 more unanswered calls, before the shivering, numbness, cold calls an end to it all. I pack up - unresponsive hands grateful for the simplicity of the teardown; stomp purposely off towards the welcoming sight of the bushedge below.

Beebys Knob [ZL3/TM-094]

It’s only when I get home and type up the logs that I see the duration of the activation:

  • Spotted at 1259.
  • Last call 0100.
    A record? For me, certainly!

Sim having exhausted the local walks around St Arnaud, we head to Springs Junction that night, parking up at Marble Hill campground and giving the chance for another relaxed evening of radio from the two POTA parks covering that reserve:


Marble Hill itself is SOTA summit, but I’ve seen a few alerts for it in the past and so instead focus on the unactivated ZL3/WC-611 at the opposite end of Springs Junction. A gravel reserve at the western end of the bridge provides good parking (and quiet self-contained camping for those wanting to avoid the dog restrictions at Marble Hill).

An overgrown roadbed follows the eastern riverbank into reserve land, and we give it 100m ‘to be sure’ before turning off and angling directly uphill towards the ridgeline. Going is slow at first with thick undergrowth and marshy flats, but as the contours get close the forest opens up to a pleasant climb and wonderful open ridgeline. The summit around the trig has once been cleared and is now a thick tangle of regrowth, but there is mature beech forest 30m or so to the south, well within the activation zone. There is also a good stream and flat area just outside the AZ, which would make this a good spot for a summit overnight camp, if anyone wanted one.

We, however, simply throw up the EFHW and do the usual 40m, 20m, 40m sequence, netting a good mix of ZLs and VKs, and the indefatigable F5PYI.

Again the dog proves her worth retracing the descent without fail.

PS at the trig on ZL3/TM-611

So that’s it. 1900 points - time to hand over the reigns to Sim to call the shots and decide what we do with the rest of our holiday.

‘Aren’t there any more SOTA summits you can do?’

So summit 2 of the day is Marble Hill [ZL3/WC-640] after all, which turns out to be unactivated after the previous activators failed to reach the summit. The previous night’s chat with ever-present SOTA chaser (and active park / lake activator) ZL2STR, revealed that the obvious route to the summit up the gentle ridgeine from the campground is beset by windfall. I decide that if the going’s going to be tough, it might as well be brief and tough; and so I head up the shortest, steepest possible climb from the main road.

This proves a good choice, as 1km, 200 vertical meters of often hands-and-feet scrambling leads quickly through open bush to the top, for the easiest 5 points of my SOTA career. I arrive 10 mins before UTC rollover and so get to reward the chasers by working everyone twice over a 15 minute activation.


A conversation and vague set of plans with John ZL3MR had been stuttering its way to decisiveness over the last couple of days and result in a 7am (that’s 1 hour before dawn, and this is supposed to be a holiday!) meet-up at the Ashley Gorge Bridge for a joint activation of Ladbrookes [ZL3/CB-618]. This is one of the last of the Canterbury foothills for me, and one I’ve never summited due to the need for permission on the usual access route.

It is thankfully near-light as we push through the tangle of gorse and manuka from the Lees Valley road and up the spur. The challenge is to beat Geoff’s time for the ascent, and through we fail, it’s not by much - 1hr20 later we’re blinking in the sunlight on the frosty open summit and admiring the snow-clad backdrop of the Uketeraki Range.

Activating Ladbrookes [ZL3/CB-618]

John kindly allows me to start on 40m whilst he activated on 2m - Christchurch is within sight below. So we both easily qualify the summit on our respective bands before mixing it up on HF a bit.

By 11am we’re back at the Ashley Gorge and John’s off to his Grandchild-herding duties and Sim and myself are off to find a nice cafe and a nice place to camp.

Claremont Castle - Not your usual POP campsite


Whilst on Ladbrookes I’d finally received the correct contact details for the Mt John observatory and fired off an email requesting permission to activate there the next day. So, permission granted, and after a night camped in the POP site at the stunning Claremont Castle, we break our final day’s drive home in the Tekapo basin on Mt John [ZL3/CB-625]. Surely the only ZL summit with a cafe?

OK. So that was the new record for the easiest 5 points in my SOTA career!

Activating Mt John [ZL3/CB-625]

All in all we both had a wonderful trip - a good mix of relaxing motorhome-based exploration and SOTA. And making the best of the winter season to activate some of those lower, but still tricky, off-track 2-4 pointers that would normally fall under the radar.

A total of 95 points added to the tally, and passing the 1900-point mark meaning just one good week of tent-based tops tramping/activating to achieve another goat. Maybe I really, finally will hit the new-year’s resolution of MGx2 this year.

Godley Valley, Southern Alps from Mt John [ZL3/CB-625]


Hi Matt, a great read and terrific photos. Well done. :+1:

cheers to you- :beers:

Geoff vk3sq