Ski touring the South Island

By Fergus Blakiston

Fergus Blakiston embarks on a 10-day odyssey of the South's skiing high points.
Another day in paradise at Cardrona, the snowy heart of Central Otago.
Another day in paradise at Cardrona, the snowy heart of Central Otago.

At midday, I sit on a rocky outcrop high above Cardrona Valley. Far below, perched on a ridge overlooking the snowy heart of Central Otago, the Cardrona Alpine Resort stands like a colourful collection of Lego-block towers and Lilliputian houses in a landscape of beige and white.

Off in the distance, the Maniototo Basin lies beneath a fluffy blanket of hoar frost fog; overhead, the sky is a perfect blue dome from horizon to horizon.

It is day three of a 10-day South Island ski/snowboard adventure for my family and me.

Somewhere above me, my wife Linda, an expert skier, is checking out some of the more difficult runs Cardrona has to offer. Our daughters Lydia, 16, and Emma, 13, both capable beginners, are pottering around on the field's lower slopes.

As a semi-competent snowboarder I am content with just being in this amazing landscape, listening to music as I slide sideways down the less challenging runs, stopping often to rest and to chat with other snowboarders.

We had spent the previous day on the sunny, hummocky slopes of Coronet Peak with the spectacle of the vast Lake Wakatipu basin spread out below us.

Our original plan had been to spend half a day at Coronet Peak then the afternoon on the slopes of The Remarkables across the valley. But as is often the case when you are having fun, time had slipped away.

Before we knew it the shadows had begun to lengthen and we decided to head back down to Queenstown for some late afternoon shopping and a slap-up evening meal out. Queenstown excels in both: the hardest part was deciding where.

It's the same with skifields. Let's face it. In the South Island, skiers and snowboarders are spoiled for choice. From Coronet Peak in the south to Rainbow Ski Area near the top end of the island, the Southern Alps, with its foothills and valleys, caters for people of all abilities on skis or snowboards.

As well as the main commercial fields there are numerous private and club fields, heli-skiing operations, and back-country ski touring routes. Some have only basic facilities but all offer superb alpine experiences for adventurous souls.

After our day on the slopes of Cardrona we repair to the comforting warmth of the historic Cardrona Hotel for a warming drink before heading down to Wanaka for the night.

Whereas Queenstown is a bustling, hectic tourist town, Wanaka is quieter and more relaxed. Our motel overlooks the mirror-calm waters of Lake Wanaka that stretch away deep into the hazy blue depths of the Southern Alps. As daylight fades into the pink and mauve twilight typical of the mountains, we eat fish and chips at a wooden table beside the lake, eyed by a gaggle of hopeful ducks.

Sunday is a rest day. Wanaka in winter shimmers in the bright, cold sunlight; a few traces of autumn colour remain on the Lombardy poplars growing along the lake shore. The smell of wood smoke and damp earth hangs in the air.

Occupying the skyline ridge high above the town, Treble Cone is the South Island's largest ski area and features some of the longest runs in the Southern Hemisphere.

Looking up from an outside cafe table on Ardmore St we discuss the pros and cons of an afternoon mission up to Treble Cone. It's a tempting prospect. The day is fine and we could be on the slopes in less than an hour. But holiday ennui wins out and we order another platter of seafood instead.

Monday morning sees us driving north over the Lindis Pass. The road undulates through a landscape of tawny tussock fields and muscular hills riven by screes of black shingle.

Merino sheep mooch on the river flats. At Omarama, the valley of the Ahiriri River opens suddenly into the wide Mackenzie Basin, hemmed on all sides by ragged mountain ranges.

The Ohau Snow Fields lie tucked up under the lip of the Southern Alps on the southern shore of Lake Ohau. This dramatic, privately-owned skifield has some of the best alpine scenery in New Zealand. But we have our sights set on Round Hill, our favourite of all the South Island's ski areas, so we press on towards Lake Tekapo, our base for the next few days.

We cross the Mackenzie Basin under a cobalt blue sky laced with high trails of cirrus cloud. Lake Pukaki sits like cut turquoise in its frame of dark green conifers. The ice giants of Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park glower in the distance at the head of the lake.

Round Hill is perfect for families. The skifield comprises a large area of easy, rounded slopes (hence the name), with valley runs and groomed jumps, along with a neat terrain park for those looking to hone their aerial techniques.

But Round Hill also boasts the mind-blowingly steep west face of the Richmond Range: an almost vertical white precipice nicknamed the Wall. Accessed by the world's longest and steepest rope tow, the Wall has Australasia's biggest vertical drop, a leg-numbing 783m.

That's all well and good, but we are quite happy skidding down the lower slopes. After a particularly violent crash, I decide to stop for a rest on a snowy knoll near the top of the T-bar. The Wall rears overhead like a petrified wave. I can just make out the form of skiers, rendered almost invisible by the scale of the face.

Later, as we soak away the aches of the day in the hot pools at Tekapo Springs, nestled under the flanks of Mt John on the edge of Lake Tekapo, we look up at a sky encrusted with stars. The Mackenzie Basin has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve and from the observatory atop Mt John you can peer through telescopes at distant objects so far out in space their light has taken thousands of years to reach Earth.

On the eastern side of the Richmond Range, the Mt Dobson Ski Area occupies a vast alpine basin overlooking the town of Fairlie. The sheer scale of the landscape up here is almost overwhelming. The basin collects massive amounts of snow in the winter months and the snow lasts well into the spring. We spend a pleasant day at Mt Dobson, with its low-key facilities and uncrowded runs before heading out to the town of Geraldine for the night.

And so, we reach Mt Hutt, the final skifield on our high endeavour. While the girls ski away the last afternoon of our holiday, I sit on a rocky outcrop looking out across the patchwork fields of mid-Canterbury. In the distance, the Port Hills float on the horizon behind the city of Christchurch.

All holidays have to end. A chill is in the air and to the south, a hovering bank of cloud promises more snow to come. I check my bindings, turn sideways and slide off downhill.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Dec 2014 08:45:01 Processing Time: 865ms