Ski Touring in New Zealand 2011 - West Coast, Southern Lakes and Canterbury

11 days skiing
7 mountains (3 first-time mountains)
6kms vertical descent per day
77kms vertical descent over the trip

2 whales
13 seals
1 glacier
4 Kea

Franz Josef Glacier
Sadly, departing the wonderful Nelson Lakes via the dramatic white-water Murchison River gorges the journey was tinged with a little regret at not staying in the area a little longer. But we must get going and make our way down the West Coast of the South Island over the next two days.

We reach the Tasman Sea at the town of Greymouth, then speed (no tickets) down the coast through Hokitika to arrive - after a long and uneventful drive - to spend the night at the lush rainforest town of Franz Josef Glacier.

It is a fine and - wow - remarkable sight, this slow-moving river of ice tumbling out of the majesty of the Southern Alps down into a narrow strip of rainforest between the mountain peaks and the Pacific Ocean. The millennia that these natural processes have been at work beyond human influence is evident.

And what better way to consider glacial dymamics, the weathering of rock formations, the power of H2O, the richness of rainforest flora, clear evidence for global warming, and the sheer uniqueness of this amazing island ... than ...

... on the back of a kick-arse, noisy quad bike!

These chunky little mechanical beasties are lots of fun - especially when powering through the narrow, extremely muddy rainforest trails, and when careening and splashing within the deep, fast-flowing river! Yee-bloody-ha baby!

From Franz Josef Glacier and the Glacier Country the West Coast drive proceeds to lonely Haast at the end of Middle Earth. The only road winds through more rainforest and along the coast and the absence of human population is noticeable. But somehow they still manage to have cheap bananas for sale.

Haast Highway
This twisting road for a time seems familiar - we get a sense of deja vu. We haven't been here before? The ways it switches back, the closeness of the ocean ...

Ah, that's right - it is similar to the beautiful Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia, cavorting and swivelling above the cliffs with the ocean far below, waves crashing against stubborn rocks.

At one roadside visitor lookout the ocean swell creates white-water on pointy rock stacks. In this picture, if you look very closely, you can see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon.

What? Yeah! Bit of science comin' at ya! 

More pictures of the Franz Josef Glacier, the Haast Highway and Lake Paringa in this album.

Wanaka and Mt Iron
The West Coast town of Haast marks an important point in our trip since it began a week earlier - wow, that seems a long time ago - in Christchurch.

We have been to this place, seen this town before in previous years and are now, once again, in familiar territory as we head inland to cross the Southern Alps through the winding mountain passes.

Arriving finally in the ski tourist town of Wanaka it even feels a little like home after the wildness of the unfamiliar West.

But while we without fail visit Wanaka every year, this is actually the first time we have stayed in this town for more than a few nights in a row. In previous years we have instead chosen to stay in sparkling Queenstown or in cute, historic Arrowtown.

But hold up ... first things first, its time to start skiing again after a couple of days travelling. Too much driving through rainforests and ocean roads and not enough sliding!

There are four ... yep, four ... commercial ski areas within reach of our gorgeous Mt Iron accommodation in Wanaka - there are skifields at Treble Cone, Cardrona, Coronet Peak and The Remarkables.

To enable a thorough exploration of the best of them we settle in, get comfortable, do a big shop at the supermarket (check the cheese and wine aisles first) and spend a great five days in this fantastic value luxury cottage just out of town at the base of Mt Iron in Wanaka.

Treble Cone
First up - its Cardrona - and wow Cardrona was warm this year! How seasons differ. Last year we were challenged by gale force winds and temperatures of -11c.

This year it was calm, warm and sunny at lovely Cardies. To give you an idea, in the evening afterwards I was flipping burgers at the BBQ outside with only a T-shirt on.

The two days at Cardrona were a lot of fun as us seasoned skiers now know this cruisey mountain so well that we can pretty much command the whole field! In a nice way ... we are very careful not to scare newbies with our hooning!

As the sun softened the off-piste areas we could cruise around the Captains area and link the runs nicely while enjoying the comfort of a chair lift for the first time this trip!

And then ... there was marvellous Treble Cone and the conditions were similar: Sun, sun, sun!

A lot of effort was required changing gear to try and keep cool - sunscreen and water (far too warm for hot chocolates in these conditions!).

What is great about Wanaka is that you can actually see the front basin of the massive Treble Cone ski area from town ... as you can see the town of Wanaka from Treble Cone!

This skifield certainly has some of the most inpsiring, picturesque views over the lakes and valleys of the Southern Lakes of New Zealand. The skiing was fantastic with Spring conditions, softening very quickly and there was almost nobody there.

More pictures of Wanaka, Cardrona and Treble Cone in this album.

Over the Crown Range Road
Despite the fantastic scenery, and great forgiving and soft Spring skiing conditions, there had been one something missing a little this year ...

... fresh snow and lovely powder!

Thankfully we were fortunate to finally get some ... but not at Wanaka, which the storm inexplicably missed entirely, but at Coronet Peak near Queenstown.

When I read the snow reports at dawn I knew it was on, and this meant a slightly longer early morning drive past Cardrona and up over the brilliant and snowy Crown Range Road.

Coronet Peak
As we came round the bends right at the top of the pass, the valley was suddenly spread out before us, snow blanketing everywhere save for the wheat-green valley floors.

And then there was Coronet Peak, looking splendid with inviting new snow!

Coronet Peak is the most commercial of the New Zealand skifields, on account of it being an easy, convenient 20-minute drive from the bright lights of Queenstown and its international visitors.

It is also one of the lowest-altitude ski areas and prone to ice at this time of year, most years. But 2011 is Coronet's year to shine and 10cms of fresh snow awaits and there are not many people around and plenty of space for us to enjoy the mountain.

View to The Remarkables and Queenstown
It is a brilliant day's skiing - definitely one of the best in visiting CP over the many years. There are some fantastic runs through soft powder and great views to The Remarkables and Queenstown itself.

More pictures of Coronet Peak in this album.

We decide to stay an extra day in Wanaka, skiing two days each at Cardrona and Treble Cone again as we get very settled in our lovely unit.

But we must be on the road and head northeast again, up towards the city of Christchurch. This final sector will complete our round trip of the South Island of New Zealand.

Mt Hutt and Canterbury Plains
In previous years visiting we have stopped off in the Mackenzie Country where there is skiing at Lake Ohau, Mt Dobson and Roundhill ... but sadly none this year.

The lack of rainfall has not been kind to these parts and we speed (no tickets!) through on our way back to Canterbury and Christchurch. Not so quick that we can't stop for a soak in the hot pools at Lake Tekapo, however!

When we arrive in the town of Methven we are only one hour away from Christchurch Airport, yet we still have four days of our trip to go and there is plenty of skiing around here, with Mt Hutt above us and the mountains deep within the Craigieburn Range.

Lyndon Road to Castle Hill
In Methven we stay in a lovely apartment attached yet separate to a new property owned by local artists, their works tastefully decorating the walls of our new home.

Art inside, sheep and llama grazing on the paddocks outside!

Once again it is very warm again up on the mountains ... more sun ... great views ... sunscreen ... fluids!

A hidden gem in this area is the back road that links Methven to Castle Hill - I can't think of a short drive that is better for the range of vistas, countryside and views in Canterbury.

At Mt Cheeseman one day if felt more like lying on a beach doing a bit of surfing than skiing!

From Methven you could do both in the same day ... ski in the morning and 24c in the afternoon at the beach.

Whether you're on the beach or on top of the mountain, it doesn't really matter ... this place is real and magical at the same time. A wonderful, natural and amazing part of the Earth that is in tune with the adventurous at heart.

More pictures of Methven, Mt Hutt, Mt Cheeseman and Wakanui Beach in this album.


Ski Touring in New Zealand 2011 - Kaikouras and Nelson Lakes

11 days skiing
7 mountains (3 first-time mountains)
6kms vertical descent per day
77kms vertical descent over the trip

2 whales
13 seals
1 glacier
4 Kea

OK, the super-cool official trip stats are out of the way...

The morning after arriving in Christchurch the first job is to pick up new sets of snow skis from Snowride, a great Christchurch ski shop that sadly lost its original store in the earthquake.

After getting into the Forrester 4WD from our trusty local provider and suitably armed with new skis, we did something few international ski visitors to the South Island do - pointed the car Northeast and headed up Highway 1.

Within the Hurunui District a few hours from Christchurch is Mt Lyford, a family-owned, commercial ski area that gets a big heap of snow every few weeks and then loses it all in between snowfalls due to the area's warm weather.

It was damn warm when we got there and the recent snow loss had been significant - they were closing for the season and it was their last day for 2011. Lucky we made it to ski there in time!

The Pacific from Mt Lyford
On this ski trip, friendly Mt Lyford was a highlight for a few very good reasons: it was the first time we've ever visited the skifield in years of travelling to the South Island; it has stunning panoramic views of the local mountain ranges and across to the Pacific Ocean; and it was the first time we have tried the famous "nutcracker" - a New Zealand rope tow that requires you to don a belt with a clamp you then secure to a moving rope to take you back up the hill.

More photos of Mt Lyford in this album

This area of rolling hills and mountain ranges near to the Pacific Ocean is peaceful, remote and beautiful, and in mid-winter you can stay in a village of log cabins on the snowline. I'd like to do that one year!

The mountains in the area are known as the Kaikouras (Inland and Seaward) and we drove on to the region's coastal centre to stay the night in a delightful motel of modern standalone units near to the Pacific Ocean beaches.

From the units as the sun set: the ocean lapping on the beach to one side and the snow-capped mountains on the other.

Kaikoura itself sits on a promontory near where a range of 2,600-metre mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. Kaikoura may have remained a little-known town if it wasn't for the breadth and accessibility of its maritime wildlife. Some of it literally lounges around the streets and boardwalks like this New Zealand Fur Seal.

Of course, if you want to see the undoubted stars of the show then you have to either take to the seas in a boat or get airborne.

We chose air, a decision that took some hours of deliberation, debate, discussion ... and ... UP ...flyyyying now ... ! That was easy, hey?

The snow-capped mountains on one side, the Pacific on another, what better backdrop, and then ... 15 minutes offshore the Cessna pilot reckons we're in the vicinity of a pair of 12-metre-long Sperm Whales.

The area is unusually home to whales all the year round, whereas I understand most places you go to see whales you may see them visiting as they migrate up the coast.

These young groups of male Sperm Whales stick around the Kaikoura area even in winter. Apparently, in spring and autumn there are many more species of whale and dolphin in these rich waters.

The young Kiwi pilot banks around sharply in the plane as we spot the telltale signs of spray from a blowhole. There are only three of us in the plane and he points because of the noise. I nod when I see them too.

The unique and distinctive mammals come into view, their tails and strangely blockish heads visible as we circle them from above.

After ten minutes of watching the creatures taking in air on the surface, eventually the holy grail of whale-watching: one fusses ... and then gracefully leaves its tail above water to announce its dive to the depths to feast on .... well, giant squid I'm told. And who doesn't like a bit of calamari!

It is a highly successful trip despite the perceived smallness and wobbliness of the little plane and we all nod smiling at each other with our earphones on as we fly back to the airfield.

More photos of Kaikoura, seals and whales in this album

Elated at the experience and back on the road heading out from Kaikoura we pick up a German hitchhiker desperate to get a lift north to the Interislander ferry at the northern tip of the South Island at Picton. She's missed a train and bus and is running late for an international flight back to Berlin.

The Interislander

We make the Picton ferry just as it prepares to leave New Zealand's South Island for the journey through the maze of islands in the Marlborough Sound to the national capital Wellington.

Heading back to our original route at nearby Blenheim we notice we are in the heart of the Marlborough region. I say notice - the area positively bleeds Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

The vineyards surround the city and continue to dominate the countryside as we change direction and head inland .... back into the mountains, away from the warm, balmy coast and, hopefully, in search of the snows.

Moss and Lichen on a tree
That is what we're here for, after all!

As we drive up the valley from Blenheim the mountain ranges progressively close in on the road and the vineyards become less frequent until the road is winding and we're out of the Marlborough region and into the Nelson Lakes National Park.

This northern mountainous area is unlike the landscapes of the south of this island - it is rich rainforest, thickly forested, and somewhat lusher.

The small Alpine village of Saint Arnaud is our next home for two nights and as we are shown to our cosy log cabin, it is snowing on the surrounding mountains. A good sign!

The next day's drive up to Rainbow skifield has to be one of the best of the bunch for sheer beauty and fun.

The first half of the drive is a fast, straight road along a narrow valley, pausing to ford the various full creeks that run the snow melt down from the snow-capped mountains.

The second half is a tiny, winding gravel road straight up through forest and then into the snow-covered mountains until the skifield appears.

Rainbow is a club skifield, run for and by the members of the regional ski club.

Rainbow was having a cracker of a snow season this year after a dreadfully disappointing one in 2010. This year it took out the award for my favourite skifield in 2011.

The new snow that fell during the previous day made the base area look white and beautiful from the Gift Shop as the icicles began to melt in the rapidly warming sunshine.

Rainbow has just one long T-bar that drags you from the base area to a ridge that encloses half of the Main bowl. From there, there are a host of options for getting back down - a few easy groomed runs or a big variety of off-piste steeper areas.

Rainbow Main and West Bowls
But it doesn't end there - by holding on tight to a short rope tow from one part of the ridge you can pull yourself over into a whole new wide bowl and from there even further to other peaks.

Once you enter the West Bowl there is just a single, narrow track that leads halfway around the top of the bowl. And thats it! No signs, no trails ... just freedom to do what you want (as long as you can work out how to get back to the base area!).

It is a fantastic, adventurous feeling given even more impact by the stunning mountain panoramas and the complete lack of people. The few people that are here are back in the Main Bowl!

Just to top it off, there is an absolutely brilliant view from the top of the West Bowl down to the village of Saint Arnaud and lovely Lake Rotoiti. You can just sit here and look out over the world.

The Nelson Lakes motel came with a great facility - a huge bubbling jacuzzi in a large wooden outbuilding. Opening up the roller door revealed a top view across lawns to the forests and up to snow-capped mountains above. Now that is the kind of view that complements a soaking of those tired muscles in a hot tub!

On the second day at Rainbow the snow was taking its time to soften in the sun, but the West Bowl provided some great skiing ... particularly if you were prepared to hike a bit up those peaks. That was a first for us, the hiking I mean, but wow it produced great rewards!

The snow here was all untouched and soft for smooth turns all the way back down. Nobody around ... no ski lifts ... no people ...

From the Saint Arnaud log cabins we could wander for a walk down a path by the side of a mountain stream that feeds into Lake Rotoiti.

The area here is known as the Rotoiti Mainland Island, an ambitious project to eliminate introduced pests entirely and reintroduce native wildlife - like Kiwi - into the beech forest around the beautiful lake. 

More photos of Saint Arnaud and Rainbow in this album.