Jackie's Journey: You need to go to Dunsdale!

By: Jackie Norman, Photography by: Gareth Scurr and Amy Ritchie

Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 10 Almost every tree is strung with hanging moss, adding to the area’s mysticism Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 10
Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 8 You can spend hours exploring the forest Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 8
Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 7 All manner of wonderful plants thrive on the forest floor Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 7
Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 6 These beautiful coprosma berries made a stunning show in the forest Jackies Journey You need to go to Dunsdale 6

As any motorhomer knows, the best camping spots almost always come about through word of mouth. Better still, they are also often free. One such spot is the Dunsdale Recreation Reserve, in Hedgehope.

We first heard about the area months ago, and its name had been cropping up on a regular basis ever since. "You need to go to Dunsdale!", they all said. "It’s beautiful there, so peaceful – and it’s free!"


Having just finished writing our first book, we were both exhausted and yearned for somewhere we could really get away from it all. By all accounts, Dunsdale sounded like the perfect place.

How not to get get there

There’s plenty of room for everyone at Dunsdale!

After a couple of days of heavy rain, we spotted a window in the weather, so set off from Invercargill, passing through small and picturesque farming settlements along the way.

We had been told Dunsdale was easy to get to, but didn’t want to miss the turn-off, so entered in the location on Google Maps, just to be on the safe side.

"This must be the one!" Gareth said, as we suddenly spotted a yellow sign pointing to ‘Dunsdale Picnic Area’. It certainly looked like it; we had been informed by others it was a gravel road and was a bit bumpy here and there but nothing to worry about.

The further we went along, however, the more we started to wonder if our fellow campers were actually quite mad. "How on earth would you get a motorhome down here?"

Dogs are welcome, but must be on a leash

Gareth wondered aloud, as he did his best to manoeuvre us across giant potholes and avoid getting the van stuck in deep mud, while the wheels skidded and spun.

"Or a bus!" I said, hanging on for dear life to avoid hitting my head and thinking of our friends, who had only recently visited in their 10-metre bus and said how much they enjoyed it.

On and on we blindly continued, through dense forest and past tracks and forks with no signposts until at last, by some miracle, we came across a sign which said ‘Domain’ pointing straight into the Dunsdale Recreation Reserve.

Everything that had been at the back of the van prior to our departure was now at the front, but mercifully nothing was broken.

Berried in nature

Rain or shine, the forest is full of colour

Shaken as we were, there was no denying, as we got out of the van, this was indeed a very special place. Everything we’d heard about this secluded haven was true, and more.

The air was full of birdsong and the grassy camping area was huge. We were in the middle of nowhere – and it felt wonderful. The Dunsdale area had originally been set up as a water supply reserve in the 1880s for Invercargill; however, it was never used.

In the 1930s the primarily kahikatea forest was logged and by the 1970s, 550 hectares of cut-over forest had been converted to exotic trees.

We crossed the bridge directly behind the picnic/camping area and set off along the hour-long walking track to Forks Flat. The track is managed by DOC and is in excellent condition.

With so many berries, it’s no wonder the forest is full of birdsong!

At this time of year the forest is a joy, with its many trees thick with hanging moss and berries of every colour. Not surprisingly, the native birds love it too and the forest rang out with tui and bellbird calls.

As for the fantails, they darted about so closely, they could almost be on your shoulder. The only thing noisier than the birds was the sound of water. The track follows the Dunsdale River, and after the recent rain it was gushing along.

By the time we reached the waterfall a short distance along, the noise was deafening and the usually gently cascading falls was a powerful torrent. Quite a spectacle!

Back on track

Even in wet weather, tramping conditions were good

We continued along the track, marvelling at the countless wonders of nature, until we suddenly were thrust out into the open, into the grassy plains of Forks Flat. This enormous area put me in mind of an African savannah and I could almost imagine seeing lions here! Quite the opposite though; you’re more likely to see deer as this is the home of red and fallow deer, and pigs.

You can hunt here if you have permission and we saw a couple of hunters returning along the track. We recommend wearing bright clothing as a precaution.

We walked through the flats and across a bridge which took us back home, this time on the other side of the river. This would have to be one of the best forest walks we have experienced, for sheer beauty and variety.

Even the tree bark is whimsical here!

All too soon we arrived back at the start – and just in time, as it began spitting with rain.
Keen to get moving before dark, for fear of getting stuck, we set off in the van in trepidation.

There was no phone reception, nobody around for miles and we realised, too late, that we hadn’t told anyone where we were going. "Perhaps we should go this way instead?"

I asked Gareth tentatively, pointing in the opposite direction we had come. "Might as well, surely it can’t be any worse!" he replied. Far from being worse, it was a breeze.

"This must be the road everyone else uses!" we laughed, as we whizzed along, relieved, and without a mudslide in sight. Our GPS had put us on the quickest route, but it was by no means the best! Ah, the joys of technology.

Once a kahikatea forest, the area has since been converted to exotic trees

For future reference, the correct route to the reserve is via Dunsdale Valley Road. Otherwise, you could be driving through the forest forever!

Despite our accidental off-road adventure, our verdict is the same as everyone else’s. You need to go to Dunsdale. It has everything you need for the perfect, peaceful getaway.

The camping area is closed from May until September, to prevent the grounds from being ripped up during winter, but make sure you put it on your to-do list for spring!

Everything you need

The free campground at Dunsdale is a real hidden gem and well worth going out of your way for. Here are a few handy tips before you head off into the forest.

  • Motorhomers can camp for free, as long as it is not for more than three consecutive nights in a 30-day period.
  • Non-self-contained camping is also allowed; there are public toilets available.
  • Fresh water is available.
  • Dogs are welcome, but must be on a leash in the camping area.
  • The first section of the track to the waterfall is accessible for wheelchairs.
  • The Southland District Council manage this campground and ask that campers respect people, plants and animals around them, restrict noise after 8pm, dispose of waste water thoughtfully and take all rubbish with them upon leaving.
  • The birds will give you a joyful welcome on your arrival – but so will the sandflies. Remember to bring insect repellent!

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