Summer day trips - Sutton Salt Lake

By David Thomson on Wed, 26 Dec 2007 | Feature articles | Otago Daily Times

If you are keen to enjoy a gentle stroll through Central Otago's wonderful landscapes, but don't want to drive more than an hour from central Dunedin, then there is no better place to head than Sutton Salt Lake.

The lake is tucked down a little side-road at the south end of the Strath Taieri, some 80km from Dunedin and 7km south of Middlemarch. Getting there is more than half the fun in this case as it involves both a fabulous drive and an easy but spectacular walk.

Starting from Dunedin, the most direct driving route is along SH87 from Mosgiel. You'll pass through Outram before the highway climbs sharply bound for Clarks Junction, and then descends into the Strath Taieri.

Winding its way over an increasingly grand landscape, the road is fantastic both for the enthusiastic driver and for passengers who enjoy sweeping views into our provincial hinterland.

A little under 50km from Outram, SH87 reaches the flat expanses of the Strath Taieri, takes a sharp right turn and crosses the railway line at Sutton. It's just on this bend, before the railway crossing for those heading north, that you need to turn left down Kidds Rd.

The trick here is not to give up after a kilometre or so on the gravel: keep on driving until you see a Department of Conservation sign on your left announcing Sutton Salt Lake. There is parking in the paddock for thousands of vehicles, but even on a busy day the chances are yours will be one of two or three.

The loop track to the lake, around it and back, passes through a landscape studded with stunning schist tors. Adults who stroll in a purposeful fashion should allow an hour to complete the walk. Those with children will require a lot longer, as many of the tors will need to be climbed, with time spent hunting for lizards or re-creating some of those classic ambush scenes from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

The lake itself may rate as something of an anticlimax, especially after a dry stretch of weather, when all of the water has evaporated, leaving a muddy/salty crust. That, though, is very much the nature of a salt lake, which can only form in an area of high evaporation where an impermeable geological barrier below prevents water from draining away.
Sutton Salt Lake is something of a geological oddity: it is different from most of the world's salt lakes, which typically form in arid continental regions rather than in a cool-temperate area relatively close to the coast.

For all that, don't expect the weather at Sutton Salt Lake to be like that on the Otago coast: on a sunny summer's day when a stiff northeasterly breeze is keeping temperatures cool on the coast, you will likely find conditions here still and baking-hot.

For that reason, during summer months this is best as a mid-morning or late-afternoon walk. Pack sunhats and sunscreen and bring some bottled water and, better still, a picnic lunch or tea to enjoy in the shade of one of the tors beside the parking area either before or after the walk.

Don't expect the weather at Sutton Salt Lake to be like that on the Otago coast: on a sunny summer's day when a stiff no northeasterly breeze is keeping temperatures cool on the coast, you will likely find conditions here still and baking-hot.