Dis­cov­er­ing your Kiwi re­sort has gone to the sheep­dogs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Australian & Nz Ski Holidays - LEONIE MANI

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.

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