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.

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