Discovering your Kiwi resort has gone to the sheepdogs
WE cross the Tasman in search of the ski experience depicted in glossy brochures. Sure enough, the stunning scenery on our drive from Christchurch to Wanaka, with the Southern Alps all around, has us gasping.
Lake Wanaka shines like grey marble in the evening light. But there is a hiccup. We have paid in advance for our week’s skiing at Treble Cone but the resort remains closed. It’s July, it’s New Zealand. What do they mean there’s not enough snow? In the ski-hire shop, Swiss-born Ardi grins broadly and tells us, ‘‘You should have come in September. Treble Cone is so beautiful. But never mind, Cardrona is nice, ya.’’
However, Wanaka’s alpine village spirit won’t be broken. As Ardi unwraps brand-new skis and hitech boots, our excitement mounts. Next morning on the road to Cardrona, Wanaka’s other mountain, hundreds of sheep converge towards us. Woolly barrels on toothpick legs form a V-shape around the bonnet, hoofs clackclacking on the bitumen.
Driving past a less distinctive rural tableau — a farm fence adorned with bras and knickers — we climb the knuckle-whitening, narrow, unsealed road.
We expected ice, but should we have been fitting chains for mud?
We skid on deep corrugations of brown muck and then are herded from the car park to the slopes on an open cattle-truck. The sky is blue, the alpine views sensational. Ardi was right, Cardrona is good. We cruise gentle terrain and watch a mountain biker hurtling down the slopes, using his foot as a brake. No wonder locals call Cardrona ‘‘heroes’ mountain’’.
Cardrona’s best surprise is at the mountain’s base. The Cardrona Hotel dates from the 1860s gold rush era and the atmosphere is part English country pub, part wild west. The citrus scent of mulled wine and dark ale is in the air as we watch apres-skiers share noisy yarns by the fire under a wild boar’s head and a ceiling studded with international currency.
Beyond the pianola room, crowds gather in the garden around braziers and a massive stone fireplace.
The story goes that James Paterson, the hotel’s publican from 1926 to 1961, used to ration customers. Patrons driving to Wanaka were allowed two drinks, those heading to Queenstown only one.
We understand his wisdom the next morning as we drive on Crown Range Road between Wanaka and Queenstown, which peaks at 1076m and offers extraordinary views in the direction of Queenstown and The Remarkables.
Our descent involves hairpin bends through dense cloud before we emerge into the lush, sunny valley. Lake Wakatipu is shimmering, jetboats rumble and kites float above Queenstown’s stylish architecture, cobbled lanes and trendy bars. The annual Winter Festival is in full swing, a celebration of all things wintry, and a highlight is the Dog Derby at nearby Coronet Peak.
But forget graceful images of huskies pulling sleighs, we are talking high country farmers and their working dogs. Fifty-two entrants carry their beloved canines on the Coronet Express chairlift to the summit, then they race, man and man’s best friend, down the M1 ski run.
There is riotous commentary on the resort sundeck as contestants appear over the ridge, airborne, on their tails, their stomachs, every which way. In a cacophony of whistles and shouting, farmers coax barking dogs around a final obstacle course.
The winner, appropriately, called Loyal.
The brochures were right. Pure New Zealand.