MAGIC IN MACKENZIE
Queenstown is not the only gem in the South Island’s high country
Oh, wow. I’m standing at the top of the chairlift at Ohau ski fields on New Zealand’s South Island overlooking the most spectacular sight. Deep within Mackenzie High Country, Lake Ohau sparkles below me, while at the end of the snowcapped valley sits the towering Aoraki Mt Cook. On a road trip around the South Island, I’m visiting some of the ski areas that are often overshadowed by the big Queenstown drawcard, and I’m already hooked on their beauty.
OHAU SNOW FIELDS
To say I’ve stumbled across one of New Zealand’s hidden gems is an understatement. I’m using up most of my phone’s storage with endless photos of THAT VIEW. It really is that spectacular.
The resort is owned privately by Mike and Louise Neilson who also run the accommodation at the base of the hill – Lake Ohau Lodge. The snow field is small, covering just 125ha, but the terrain is incredibly varied – the US race-ski team trains here every year. There are a couple of groomers but most of the terrain is off-piste and if you like to “earn your turns” then hiking up to the top of Ridge Run will get you some freshies. Besides the view, the best bit is its lack of crowds. It’s rare to ever find a queue here.
When it’s time for a coffee break, head to the day lodge for a great flat white (I have never had a bad coffee in New Zealand, no matter how small or remote the town) and a bite to eat.
If you’re dubious about staying at ski lodges, put your thoughts aside for a moment. A stay at Lake Ohau Lodge is not about communal cooking and cleaning, it’s a family-owned business rather than a club. While the rooms are simple, you’ll sit down to hearty dinners – think slow-cooked lamb shanks and roast chicken – and a cooked breakfast in the morning. Perched on the edge of the lake, you will feel completely off the grid.
My trip starts in Christchurch and in the same time it would have taken me to drive from Sydney to the Snowy Mountains, I have flown to Christchurch and driven just an hourand-a-half to Mt Hutt ski field. The hill is renowned for its big snow and it snows the entire day we’re there.
With a skiable area of 365ha and an altitude of 2086m, it consistently has one of the longest snow seasons in the South Island.
Fuelled with yet another great coffee, I take the Summit Six chairlift straight to the top and spend the morning exploring the range of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs. If you’re keen to head off the groomers, Mt Hutt has plenty of offpiste lines for powder days.
Skiers stay in Methven village, a 35-minute drive to the mountain or at Terrace Downs, a golf resort that also offers other activities including horse riding, clay shooting and bike riding.
It has spectacular, photo-worthy views up to Mt Hutt.
From Mt Hutt, it’s a three-hour drive, or just over an hour from Ohau, to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt Cook. Sitting in a national park, it’s just how you imagine the Swiss Alps to be. Immense, jaw-droppingly beautiful, humbling and covered in snow. It’s one of the most dramatic and extreme landscapes in New Zealand – the tallest mountain, largest glacier, darkest skies and the only glacial lakes with icebergs.
Staying at the Hermitage Hotel gives you a direct view of the mighty windswept Mt Cook, its peak illuminating in pink as the sun sets. The hotel has a fascinating and dark history that can be explored in the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre next door.
To truly appreciate the towering mountain range, a scenic flight with Inflite Experiences is worth every Kiwi dollar. After an initial false start from wind hold and subsequent cancellation, the following morning I strap in with six other passengers, eager to witness some of the best views on Earth. We see where the glacier cliffs meet the lake, soar over parts of the Fox Glacier and get our cameras ready for the glacier landing. (The plane has skis to glide in on.)
If you don’t mind incredible views, the odd sheep on the road, quaint country towns and Kiwi radio, the best way to take in a trip of the South Island is by car. Pick up a rental car from Christchurch Airport and make your way to Mt Hutt, drive on to Ohau and loop back up to Mt Cook.
TOP ROAD STOPS
Christchurch: The city ravaged by an earthquake in 2011 is rebuilding itself with interesting architecture, food and shopping outlets.
Geraldine: This pretty town is just under an hour’s drive from Mt Hutt. Sample the locally produced cheeses at Talbot Forest Cheese and head to the Village Inn for a great pub meal.
Lake Tekapo: Part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, stay for the night and go stargazing (weather dependent), bathe in the outdoor hot springs and visit the famous Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of the brilliant turquoise-coloured lake.
Mt Hutt ski field has one of the longest snow seasons on the South Island; the Church of the Good Shepherd sits on the shores of Lake Tekapo (below left); Mt Cook is New Zealand’s highest peak.