There’s always been something about forbidden fruit. Tell someone that something they want is off limits and they want it more. Tell this tramper that the Murchison Mountains, which he sees every time he drives past Lake Te Anau, is a no go zone (it’s closed off to allow the takahe to live without disturbance) and he wants to go there quite badly. A washed out trip up the Woodrow Burn a few years ago, on the first recreational permit issued, just whetted the appetite further.

The Department of Conservation has been running annual trips to Lake Orbell for years, and this year I finally managed to get on it. Even then, a weather postponement threw plans into disarray, but ultimately it was a perfect day that greeted 14 trampers and four DoC staff at the Te Anau wharf. A smooth trip across the lake saw us at the glowworm cave wharf ready to tackle the route up the Tunnel Burn. The track climbs quite sharply, rising 700 metres to the lake. Red beech dominates the forest for much of the way, before yielding to mountain beech. Ten minutes up the hill, an aqueduct that supplies the hydro-electric power station for the glowworm operation provided a last chance for water bottles to be replenished, and then it was continuous up hill. After two hours, the track dropped steeply into the Tunnel Burn gorge. We hoped that this marked the start of the drop into the basin, and not some cruel ‘lose height just to regain it’ situation. Our hope was rewarded. After a brief glimpse of Lake Te Anau, we crossed the stream and then meandered gently into the basin. Lake Orbell Hut is tucked just inside the bush, some 200 metres from the lake outlet. Plenty of distinctive takahe poo was observed, but the elusive birds, 10 or so of which reside in this catchment, were not to be seen.

With only four known sightings in the late 19th century, takahe had been assumed to be extinct. In 1948, Dr Geoffrey Orbell, who had seen evidence that suggested the birds were still around when he’d been deerstalking, led a trip that rediscovered them. The remnant population has always been tenuous. The Murchison Mountains were closed to the public in the hope that, left undisturbed, the birds would thrive. In the 1980s, it became apparent that that wasn’t enough, so other measures such as a captive breeding program, intensive pest management and  releases to sanctuaries and islands were started.

After a leisurely lunch break near the lake, ranger Martin Genet got out his radio telemetry receiver – like a hand-held TV aerial – to attempt to find some birds, but was greeted with radio silence.  He explained that aerial 1080 isn’t used in the area, as the captive bred birds are raised on cereal, so there’s too much risk of them eating cereal baits. Instead, a network of 3000 traps covers the range.

After a bit of a wander up the lakeside, we were given the option of pottering around the vicinity of the hut and lake, or climbing up to a bluff perhaps 150 metres above the lake. Half a dozen of us chose the climb, and were rewarded with a stunning view. Martin tried the telemetry from this vantage point, and picked up a signal suggesting one bird was a couple of kilometres away.

Then it was time to wander back down the hill – a considerably less strenuous proposition than the uphill leg. A brief detour took us into a large rock overhang that had presumably been part of the cave system in the past. From the point that I got to, I could hear the roar of the stream as it headed underground, ultimately to the glowworm caves.

Soon we were at the glowworm facilities, where we joined a tour group for the ride home. I’m sure they were glad that most of us dirty smelly trampers chose to sit on the top deck. The operator, Real Journeys, is a large concessionaire which seems to ‘get’ conservation and communities more than some others do. It had, as it does each year, passed our boat fares on to DoC as a donation to the takahe program.


  • Moderate, 3 hours one way.
  • Access strictly by permit.
  • Map CD08