Cardona opening day. 2000 people on mountain, although it didn't seem like it at all, and the first time in ten years that all lifts have been open for the very first day. The locals have been quite excitable about this, and the best start to a season in many years, not to mention the early opening of some local hills.
All skifields here are around 12-14km from the main valley road; while some are tarmacked others are gravel tracks, in part at least. Unsure how far up we would realistically be wise to travel in a motorhome, we aimed for a car park with free shuttle bus at the 6km mark and took the opportunity to pick the brains of the Aussie driver who was kind enough to point out spots that remain icy throughout.
At the ski area base, a complex of restaurants to suit many a taste, apartments, rental and retail greeted us; some of which was brand new for the season. A new concept to us too was that of a 'chondola' - a lift system loading one side to a gondola, the other to a six man chair, all on the same lift suspension.
The snow itself was pretty hard pack with some icy spots for the open runs so far, but we managed to find a few good off piste areas and even one small patch of fluffy stuff. Not having experienced early season snow before we were pretty chuffed with our day.
Heading into Queenstown from here, over the Crown Range, makes for a spectacular drive; the final decent opens up to magnificent views over Lake Wakatipu and the now sprawling town. After the day's skiing our aim was to find a dump station for waste and fresh water - easily done with help of a couple of good apps - and a freedom spot for the night with the same assistance. Free camp spots are scarce here, the opportunity to make money seems to reign so the location where bungee jumping originates, Kawarau Bridge, 23km from town was the best option and, in time turned into a regular haunt.
Coronet Peak, our next skifield to explore turned out to be extremely hard pack and icy, and very similar to European skiing when the snow is on the scarce side. Our later discovery of the names given to the mountain
by the locals said all we needed to know - "Concrete Peak" or "Coronet Rock". It's a new experience to be skiing on the white stuff but looking down into the green valley floor; something that seems quite alien at the moment. The four chairlifts - and a t-bar drag yet to open - serve a good variation of runs for all abilities and, when snow is fresh and soft, some really good undulating and rolling off piste would be available. Most of the snow - albeit a good start to the season here too - is man made at the moment and the temperatures extremely mild still, which over days at a time brought the inevitable stony patches to the slopes; these, and the tussocks where the coverage is still low, tested our avoidance tactics some!
The second skifield easily accessible from Queenstown is The Remarkables - the name speaks for the grandeur of the mountains themselves. This range, the other side of the glacial valley, had much more regular snow on offer albeit also plenty a 'natural hazard', as they are marked on the pistes. The skiing here is mostly in one bowl, unless you drop off
piste outside of the boundary area or take the 'home runs' - some great long sweeping blacks that drop into one of the many car parks on the route up the mountain; this is a different concept as returning to the skifield means taking the bus back up the valley, as these runs are not serviced by a lift. This seems to be the way of things as, while the trail map looks a reasonable size on first glance, a lot of the blacks higher in the bowl are only accessible by first hiking up. Two of the four chairlifts are extremely slow and old; one servicing the snow park, the other some of the best skiing and well worth the long ride up. This section hosts some wonderful blasting blues, a cruisy red allowing you to drop into another bowl with some nice off piste, and the drop of the steepest black we've found so far back to base. It seems the snow on these trails is preserved by the cloud as the bowl appears to both attract and hold the weather, often making for poor visibility.
Our timing of arrival in Queenstown was centred around the Real
Journeys Winter Festival, a four day celebration of the start of winter with live bands in multiple venues, comedians, fireworks over the lake, a birdman and dog barking competitions and the chaotic dog and owner race down the mountain, to name but a few of the the events; all of which was opened up with a torchlight procession and a wonderful traditional Maori ceremony on the beach front. In order to be in the heart of things and walking distance to the activities, we took the opportunity to have a couple of nights at Lake View Campsite and, once again, catch up on a few jobs - scrubbing carpets after a sticky and large spillage and making up batches of meals while on the luxury of electric hookup. Allowing ourselves a little more freedom than the usual budget this seemed to be a good time to have a couple of nights out, and in doing so we met some great people, both locals and one from back home too, both with whom we have kept touch and our paths are hoped to cross again.
With seemingly appropriate timing for Winter Fest, the temperatures plummeted. Standing out in the elements
under patio heaters, with a mulled cider in hand, seemed to bring the atmosphere alive in amongst the bustling people, wintery lights and music stages. With the cooler climes the snow also came, a dusting part way down the mountains around the town and a deeper and noticeable change to the mountain tops. It seemed Coronet Peak, with the lion's share, had had 20cms overnight; it was later that we learnt that 'Kiwi centimetres' are inline with their ever positive attitude!
Queenstown has grown, massively sprawled, and is continuing to expand further with new builds going up in all directions. Five years ago this was a separate place to Frankton, the next town 6kms away; now, one runs into the other and Frankton too is generating new business parks as well as two recently completed shopping complexes. All this makes for a lot of people and traffic so, in between the noisy Kawarau Bridge freedom spot - and albeit half an hour out of town and the wrong way for the ski hills - we took in some peace in the stunning freedom spot of 25 Mile Delta one at which, arriving early enough, provided the perfect spot on
the beach of the lake and mountains in all directions.
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