Deep in the heart of Canterbury, and down a long winding unsealed road, lies a beautiful river valley surrounded by mountains. Part way along the valley, lies a mound of rock that looks like it comes straight out of Middle Earth. Probably because it does. Astute people, or fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy will recognise this mound, Mt Sunday, as the location of Edoras, the home of Rohan, the horse-riding warriors, and in fact, if you go at the right time (or wrong time, depending on your feelings towards the franchise), you could be mistaken for thinking it is Edoras, as a tour company brings tourists up regularly where they pose with their swords and the flag of Rohan to flutter in the wind, and pretend to act out a scene from the movie.
To the south-west of Christchurch, the village of Mt Somers which nestles in the shadow of the mountain of the same name, can be reached from various directions depending on how much of a scenic drive you want to take. Roads from here, lead back to Methven & Mt Hutt, Ashburton, Rakaia, and Geraldine. Upon reaching Mt Somers, signs direct further inland into Hakatere Conservation Park along Ashburton Gorge Road and it is a beautiful drive.
Upon reaching the settlement of Hakatere, where the road splits in two, the Hakatere Potts Road very quickly becomes unsealed and remains so the rest of the way (with the exception of the steepest section). On a sunny March day, it was a reasonable road to drive, although it was quite rutted in places in the earlier section. In good weather, it is suitable for all vehicles, and there were a few camper vans about, but out of season, especially in wet or snowy weather, this would be best in 4x4s only. There are a lot of places to stop on route if desired with Lakes Emma, Roundabout, Camp and Clearwater all accessed from the same road. But definitely worth a stop is a small patch to pull over at the top of the hill before the descent into the Rangitata river valley, just before crossing Potts River, where there is a beautiful view of the valley opening up ahead of you.
The route down the hill is the only section which is sealed, and upon crossing the bridge over the Potts River it returns to gravel again and winds its way to a well-marked car park that denotes the start of the walk to Mt Sunday. Depending on route, stops and confidence with driving on unsealed roads, the time from Christchurch to here can take around 2-2.5hrs, and if you want to take any of the side roads to explore more of the Conservation Park, I suggest you head off with a full tank of fuel.
From the car park, a DOC sign denotes to follow the orange markers, and although in some places where there are several options of which exact way to get to each orange marker, it is impossible to get lost when Mt Sunday (611m) is visible the whole way. The initial section is very flat, crossing a couple of streams via bridges including a short suspension bridge, and with mountains in all directions it is a beautiful vista the whole way.
The initial ascent is up the hilly side, before the steeper (but very achievable) section up the more rocky face of Mt Sunday until the summit is reached. When I arrived there, a tour group was there posing for their Lord of the Rings themed photos, but after patiently waiting for them to finish, after they left, I had the summit to myself. Then it was simply 360o of utter beauty and peaceful bliss with just a swarm of flying ants for company.
As is usually the case in the mountains here, the afternoon brought cloud and wind. The best of the weather for exploring the mountains and valleys tends to be in the morning, and as it was, I had arrived in the early afternoon. I managed to get about half an hour of sunshine before the clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped a few degrees. After 40mins at the summit, I retraced my steps back to my car, and started the long drive home.