Even though I love the summer, I think the cooler months are the most dynamic time of the year to visit the South Island. The land is often covered with a coating of new snow that magically transforms the landscape and native forests, and the high country takes on an elegance that is different to any other time of the year.
After a storm, the evening sunset sky often burns with dazzling colours and the nights are crisp and clear, allowing a spectacular celestial display of sparkling stars and galaxies.
Although we usually travel around in our own van, last year we booked a Maui motor home for a pre-winter holiday. It was a six-berth Mercedes – a joy to drive and I played Michael Schumacher with the clutchless six-speed gearbox.
We had two priorities for our first evening: to find a supermarket and to find somewhere to stay. While my wife Robbie shopped at the supermarket, I stowed the gear. The bulky ski-suits and jackets went in the vertical wardrobe and the other clothing in the overhead lockers. The skis, ski boots and poles fitted into the rear locker under the floor. There was nowhere for the golf gear other than on top of the bed over the cab.
Fortunately, we had learned from previous experience to pack most of our gear in soft, crushable bags and they were easily stowed under the rear seats in the dining area that would convert later that night to our double bed. We spent a pleasant night at Meadow Park Top 10 in Papanui and after an enjoyable round of golf at the Coringa Golf Course the next morning, we headed for the Southern Alps.
By nightfall we were tucked up in the Methven Camping Ground ready for a day’s skiing on Mt Hutt. We skied all morning in bright sunshine but by lunchtime a damp misty cloudbank had moved to make visibility marginal. We decided to get underway and head south.
By late afternoon, we had arrived in Tekapo and drove up the road beside the lake with the Southern Alps silhouetted against the late afternoon sky. We camped beside the lake miles from anywhere. The stars were unbelievably bright and as the night grew colder, they seemed to glisten even more radiantly, vividly brilliant in a crystal sky.
We spent the next day skiing at Round Hill under a bright blue, McKenzie Country sky and the next morning allowed ourselves a late start before a round of golf at the Tekapo Golf Course. Lunch was at the Mt Cook salmon farm where huge slabs of freshly filleted salmon were available at prices too good to pass up.
We set up camp for the night beside the Pukaki-Tekapo canal hoping, as I have in the past, to fish the evening rise. It was disappointing to find that I was no longer able to because the threat of didimo had closed the canals to fishing. For breakfast we ate more salmon from the farm.
After lunch, Robbie and I drove on to Mt Cook, stopping every kilometre or so for photographs. I also took advantage of the calm afternoon conditions to fish on the edge of Lake Pukaki until early evening. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We set up camp where we had parked beside the lake and opened a bottle of wine to toast Aoraki/Mt Cook as its western face glowed pink in the sunset. We wrapped up in jackets, scarves, gloves and hats and moved our chairs down by the calm, still waters edge. The Southern Cross was shimmering with a sparkling incandescence. It was a magical evening.
Heading south, we passed Lake Ruataniwha and crossed the snowy Lindis Pass on the way to Wanaka and Treble Cone Ski field. After a full day on the slopes of Treble Cone and a round of golf the next day at the delightful Wanaka Golf Course, we drove up the Cardrona Valley. The hospitality at the historical pub there is still as warm as it ever was and the once daunting Crown Range road has been rather tamed by the introduction of tar-seal. We crossed it in the dark without incident and booked into the Arrowtown Motor Camp.
The next morning in cool sunny conditions we began a round of golf at Millbrook Resort. Before we had finished the back nine holes the sky had darkened and the temperature had dropped. It began to sleet. Although we were wearing thermals and despite the enormous splodge of money we had paid for the round we walked off at the 12th hole and headed for Arrowtown in wet driving snow where, dressed like the Michelin men, we headed for a hot toddy. The wind picked up, screaming around the ancient stone buildings and the sound of our running footsteps echoed off the walls along the narrow street. We pressed on, averting our faces from the full force of the icy onslaught.
Leaves torn from their branches sought to escape the freezing sleet by rising, twisting up in spirals, then falling back onto the sodden earth. Streaming black clouds vaulted over the ridgeline and shrouds of icy mist invaded the town. We raced inside and slammed the door of the first café we came to. Huddled next to the fireplace in the corner were several fellow golfers hugging coffee with lashings of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Now there’s a thought!
The next day it was still raining and sleeting off and on. We looked around Queenstown and took the Gondola up to the restaurant overlooking the town. The view of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkable Mountains was breathtaking.
It was an early start up to the magnificent Remarkables Ski Field next morning. The facilities are built in a huge natural bowl with a frozen alpine lake just above the top chairlift. We spent a great day there and didn’t return to Frankton until nearly dark.
We had another amazing day skiing up Coronet Peak where the facilities and the snow were fantastic and we felt a tinge of sadness leaving Queenstown, the “Jewel of the South”, but at least we now knew that the road north had treasures of its own!
Reprinted with permission from ACP Media. (Motorhomes and Caravans)
Image: Lew and Robbie Cormack
Lew and Robbie Cormack come from the Far North where they are developing a lifestyle block. They usually holiday in their 4WD campervan dubbed Able Mable.