Pinedale: from Gold to Glowworms

Down a little side road, somewhere between Nelson and Picton at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, lies Pinedale Motor Camp. This is not something a lot of people know, and why would they? Pinedale sort of keeps itself to itself, those going there have heard about it through word of mouth, making it somewhat of a secret little getaway.

This is my third trip to New Zealand, having visited with my parents once in 1994 and again in 2002/03. We stayed at Pinedale Motor Camp on both occasions, and I felt my third trip would not be complete without paying a visit. As I was not quite two years old my first time here, I have trouble remembering our stay. However I have many memories of the fun my ten-year-old self had at Pinedale. It is a magical place that smells of pine, where children run wild, and where treasure can be found!
Indeed, located just outside of Canvastown – a small town founded in 1864 when gold was discovered in the Wakamarina Valley, and aptly named for the thousands of tents that sprung up as miners arrived – you can still pan for gold in the Wakamarina River that runs around the perimeter of the camp. Dad and I found a few flecks on our last visit, but Dev and I weren’t so lucky this time around. Just when we thought we might hit the jackpot!

Gold panning Pinedale

As we took the turn off the ‘highway’ and started along the small country road, signs popped up, encouraging us to ‘keep going! You’ll have a great time!’ The smell of pine was not as strong as I remembered, but in my mind’s eye it mingled with the scent of bonfires and charred marshmallows as I energetically described the whole layout of the camp to Devin. He entertained me and my excitement by nodding and making appropriate noises of approval.

Pinedale sign

We checked in, chatting to Dolly the dog and Pete, the new owner who kindly threw in a shovel and gold pan upon hearing about my repeat custom. I enquired about tubing, my favourite activity from my last visit, and was slightly disheartened to hear that the new owners had not yet invested in inner-tubes! (For those who don’t know, tubing simply consists of floating and bobbing down a running river in a large inner-tube. Great fun, especially when you throw in some rapids and waterfalls!) Peter did mention that they have a kayak down by the water we are welcome to use. Without further ado, we drove Casper down the long drive, and I was slightly astonished to see that my ten-year-old’s memory was exceptionally accurate.
We located our cabin and rushed down to the river.


Like many rivers in New Zealand (especially the South Island), the Wakamarina is a glacial river. Beautiful, clear, blue, freezing water! Due to the recent lack of rain, the river was running low, with few to no rapids. This made me feel slightly better about the lack of inner-tubes, as we wouldn’t have made it far anyhow. Instead, we grabbed our large metal bowl and tried our hand at gold panning. It was only a matter of time before those pesky sandflies got the better of us and had us running for cover.
We made the most of having a camp kitchen and actual electricity while waiting for darkness to fall.

You see, at Pinedale, once night has fallen, there is a whole new adventure to embark upon. Find the inconspicuous gap in the fence and follow the windy path through the bush as it runs parallel to the river. Careful not to trip on any hidden roots! Eventually the path leads you to a bridge. Instead of crossing it, use the rope to swing down under it, to the babbling stream running below. And behold! Pinedale’s very own glowworm tunnel.

Although it is a rather small, short tunnel, it certainly has something magical to it. The damp smell of the slimy rock walls, the peaceful sound of the stream amplified by the echo, and the glowworms themselves. Tiny green dots of light forming alien constellations. Galaxies of minute, shimmering stars that surround you – to your left, to your right, above you! You barely notice the icy water running over your toes. Eventually, it is the noise that gets you; a sudden urge to pee – and the spell is broken. I guess that means it is time for bed.

Pinedale cabin

The next day dawned. Our final day on the South Island. We enjoyed a long chat with Pete and Stewie the Goat before setting off for Picton where the ferry awaits.

Wakamarina river
Amy, not quite 2 years old, by the Wakamarina River

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