Bumping and bouncing along Danseys Pass Road on a foggy day feels like a lunar excursion, or, at least how I imagine a road trip on the moon’s surface.
It’s 25 miles of tire-chomping gravel, blind corners and unprotected cliffs. The pass rises 3,068 feet at its highest point. Hairpin turns test the mettle of any driver and the faith of his or her passengers. My fiance, Pete, and I barely speak to each other as he maneuvers our Honda Odyssey. It’s as if we believe emitting extra carbon dioxide will plunge us over the edge.
You imagine what early settlers to New Zealand’s north central Otago region – between the Maniototo Plains and the Kakanui Mountains – would’ve seen as they drove horses or cattle south from Naseby to the coastal town of Oamaru. The road was named for early Otago farmer William Dansey, who reached the plains with friends. Danseys Pass was later used by gold miners working the Upper Kyeburn River.
Mostly, though, if you’ve driven the road by mistake (our GPS indicated this was the most direct route from Queenstown) you’re cursing technology, hoping your tires and shocks withstand the Danseys Pass car quake.
At least 7,000 vehicles travel the pass each year. Jo Todd, who owns a lavender farm along the road, has researched and written about Danseys.
“It’s becoming more popular because there aren’t so many roads that provide the kind of high-country vistas we’ve got and can still be driven in a normal car,” he said. “It is an adventure, a fantastic drive, especially if you’re a passenger looking down at the great gullies.”
An hour and a half after starting along Danseys Pass, gravel cedes to sealed road, and the Maerewhenua River burbles and rushes beneath clusters of golden-coloured pest plants called broom. Our unwitting introduction to the area – the old gravel road – heightens the sense of remoteness we feel upon arrival at Dansey’s Pass Holiday Park.
The holiday park sits 10 miles from the nearest café at Duntroon, and 24 miles from the closest gas station and grocery store at Kurow.
At Dansey’s, there’s no shopping, no bar scene, no bungy, no jet boat. We’d just come from New Year’s celebrations at Queenstown, which dazzled and dizzied with beauty and busyness. Dansey’s Pass Holiday Park contains little to empty your wallet or stuff your schedule. Which is why guests love it.
Gavin Castles brought his wife, Sarah, plus daughters Savanah and Lola (ages 10 and 11) from Arrowtown to Dansey’s for the second year in a row. Castles learned about the holiday park in a camping book. He hadn’t yet finished his 17-night stay when he booked another long stay for next year.
“We keep coming back because it’s all about the kids,” he said. “This is the first time my eldest daughter’s been here and she’s made six fantastic friends.”
I sit on a plastic lawn chair outside the shared kitchen. A swift breeze rustles trees, its sound mixing with shouts and giggles of children on the playground.
Three little girls ricochet from the trampoline, yelling, “Whee – let’s see who can bounce the highest!”
Two teenage girls clamber from the slate and limestone-lined riverbed, inner tubes encircling their waists. The holiday park owners’ son pulls a lawnmower, while a daughter emerges with a bucket and squeegee to clean the kitchen door glass. Girls on the lawn brandishing water guns chase each other. My own kids (ages 8 and 9) are running in and out of new friends’ cabins.
Between shouts and laughter, sheep bleat on the steep hillside. The shushing river completes nature’s symphony, percussing in an endless loop.
Children of all ages at Dansey’s can zip down the flying fox, whoosh over the river on a rope swing, paddle in swimming holes, pan for alluvial gold (one repeat guest has found enough gold for seven rings) and romp at a playground with in-ground trampoline, spinning seesaw and wooden fort.
Owners Margie and Scott Brown also host events such as relay races, a talent show, water balloon toss, river boat race and gladiator competition (which involves “slaying” an opponent inside a circle with a foam baton).
Margie Brown said community-building activities are a holdover from 40 years ago, when parents organized cricket games on the lawn. Margie, a homemaker, and her husband, Scott, a pastor, bought the holiday park in 2010. They decided to emigrate from the United States after spending their 30th wedding anniversary in New Zealand. Margie Brown, a mother of seven, said she tries to re-create positive travel experiences her family has enjoyed.
“We appreciated places our children were welcome and where there was something the kids could look forward to,” she said. “We’re continuing traditions that were already here.”
Brown said some of those traditions date from the time the park opened Christmas Day, 1955.
Staff consists of the Browns and two of their children, Halle and Noah, plus the occasional volunteer from America. Brown said her biggest challenge of living in and running the park isn’t location (the closest supermarket, after all, is 40 minutes away); it’s not having enough space during high season. Brown says, “We have great customers and we’re very family-oriented. I wish we could expand for one month so everyone who wants to come between Boxing Day (Dec. 26) through New Year’s could come.”
Most of the Browns’ visitors travel from the South Island, though some come from as far as Israel.
Gabrielle Scott, of Christchurch, said her 2-year-old daughter, Lauren, is enjoying their tent’s location, across from the river rope swing.
“She’s making new friends, saying hi to all these people,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Scott pondered whether five nights at Dansey’s will be sufficient: “There aren’t enough days to enjoy it all, really.”
Melanie van de Klundert, of Dunedin, is spending nine nights with her husband and two daughters, ages 4 and 6. It’s the family’s second year at the park. Van de Klundert says her girls have the “sort of freedom they don’t have in town.”
“After a couple days it became that place we wanted the kids to remember,” she said, “the place we went back to every year.”
Part of the holiday park’s charm, she added, is the wide swath of lawn stretched between green wooden cabins and the kitchen and toilet buildings. “If the owners were just thinking about money, you could have a whole other row of tents,” she said. “It makes it friendlier when you’re not so packed.”
It’s not about the money. Unlike Dansey’s, most Kiwi accommodation does not include use of washing machines, movies and campfire sausage sizzles at no extra charge. Prices at the 6-acre park range from about $14 for a tent site (per adult) to $78 per night for a four-bedroom A-frame chalet (for two adults). We chose the A-frame and reveled in the luxury of our own bathroom, kitchen and wood stove.
If you’re looking to explore beyond the park’s boundaries, activities within an hour’s drive include the Moeraki Boulders, Elephant Rocks, Maori rock art, hot pools at Omarama, plus attractions in Oamaru (a 40 minutes’ drive) like the world’s smallest penguins – the Blue Penguins (which draw 80,000 visitors each year). You can also visit Victorian architecture, gardens, and Steampunk HQ (which bills itself as “ancient home to curious machines”). Tourism Waitaki provides information about tramping and cycling tracks like the Otago Rail Trail, as well.
Or, do as our family did and wrap yourself inside the Dansey’s cocoon for five nights. For us, the park’s main attraction is people, and we all made new friends.
When I ask my daughter whether we should return next year, she says, “We should go back every year.” Sometimes, that’s all the endorsement you need.