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.

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