If you want to ski New Zealand on the cheap then the classic campavan roadie is the best way to do it. Just make sure to choose travel partners you can get on with at close (very) quarters – there’s not much room in a motorhome for people and ski gear at the same time. It doesn’t matter if you have never, or almost never, skied before – the Kiwis boast arguably the best learn to ski facilities down under at several areas, especially Cardrona. Ski rookie Nic Lever hit the road there for Snow Action last July.
I’m standing on a slope at Ohau Snow Fields. Below, pristine snow stretches out to a glacial lake, and postcard New Zealand mountains rise to fill the horizon.
A bird circles above, watching my progress, and probably hoping the next fall is fatal.
Owie glides to a stop next to me. We’ve been making our way down this blue run in increments for the last 30 minutes, myself usually horizontal on the snow while he casually takes pictures.
Ohau is what you would imagine a proper old-school ski field to be – wooden cabins, a canteen serving hot chocolate, and a chairlift, that are functional, in a medieval sort of way.
It’s a week before school holidays in New Zealand so the runs are uncrowded, the alpine air is clear and sun dazzles off the snow. Ohau has the feeling of a hidden gem. I glance up and the bird appears to have vanished. With trepidation, I aim my rented skis down the pitch and push off..
Four days earlier we had touched down in Queenstown and checked in to what would be our transport and accommodation for the week, a JUCY campervan I affectionately dubbed the ‘Spice Rack’. After taking instruction on how to empty and clean out its chemical toilet from the friendly Jucy staffer we made an agreement to just pull over should the need arise.
Our mobile accommodation was modest, feeling more modest still after it was crammed full of our ski gear. We had a stove, a kettle, a galley filled with saucepans, knives, forks and a cupboard of toilet paper (to remain unopened).
The Spice Rack seemed to start fine enough, so as we chugged out of the car park we felt fairly confident we’d make it up the Crown Range summit to Wanaka, the first stop on our tour. We were going to ski the South Island for a week with no fixed address or itinerary.
We made it up the range, a steep, mountainous route on which we were overtaken by practically every other vehicle on the road. But we did pass a struggling pizza supply truck, the first of about four vehicles we overtook all week. The Toyota HiAce was never a performance buy.
Winding down again over the pass we pulled up at the 1860s clapboard Cardrona Hotel, apparently the most photographed building in New Zealand. Inside there’s an atmospheric restaurant with stone walls and exposed beams. It’s hard to beat a fireside lunch here, especially as the sun drops and the New Zealand cold sets in.
It’s still bright as we haul in to the Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park to stake out our spot. Their sign is no exaggeration, it has the best lake view at a bargain rate. We pick a patch of turf overlooking the sodden rugby field between us and the lake, plug in to the mains power, and we’re set up.
Owie had his chef’s hat on, and I wasn’t going to try and stop him as he charged toward the communal kitchen with a box of produce under his arm, rather than muck around in the cupboard size confines of the Spice Rack.
We cook up chicken curry, dahl and rice. Around us oven bake frozen chips seem to be the main choice in the kitchen full of backpackers, cooking and joking in a half dozen languages – like the United Nations, except everyone was getting along.
First night in the Spice Rack was a trial. Heater on, it was too loud to sleep, heater of, too cold to sleep.
A grey drizzly dawn broke and we hit the road early for my morning lesson rendezvous at Cardrona.
Breakfast in the van was a concoction I liked to call ‘sad oats’: a cup of no-brand oats, boiled water and a sugar sachet from a cafe, mixed together and enjoyed in the front seat. It’s pretty easy to forgive the rough edges of travelling in a van as you get up, change into snow gear, and head straight to the snow fields.
Turning on to Cardrona’s gravel access road the light rain turned to sleet. Owie asks about chain fitting and gets told they’ll put them on for us at the designated spot half way up.
Several bends later the sleet turns to snow. Our van passes a tour bus that has become stuck in the slush, and then another. The chain fitting point is a way off, but we are still traveling okay.
Then there’s a big bus stuck blocking half the road ahead, a minivan behind it, and the bus driver is in the road trying to sort the problem. Quick tip, once you lose traction on an icy road without chains your vehicle will begin to resemble my career – stuck, going nowhere or sliding backward.
So we pull in behind them to fit our chains. But as we do another bus from the same company appears and keeps going blindly past, then promptly gets stuck beside his mate – almost completely blocking the road up. Now everyone is pulling in to fit chains behind us.
Almost everyone: breathing hard on my numb fingers I see a shiny new 4WD shooting for the slim gap beside the two stopped buses.
Proving that men can multi-task, the driver manages to talk on his phone, yell at the kids in the back and crash into a ditch all at the same time, blocking the road completely.
So that’s it, no one is going up or down to Cardrona till the grader and rescue vehicles sort out the mess.
My morning lesson is swapped to afternoon after Owie sends a few texts, and we wait for the chaos to clear in front of us. Despite the ‘sad oats’ breakfast on the road we pull into the carpark at about lunchtime.
By the time we do arrive at Cardrona its gentle slopes, happy families and modern lifts are whited out under a blanket of snow.
We soon sort my rentals at the big, convenient and fast rental, then have time for lunch in the Mezz Cafe. Go the fish tacos I say!
Apparently this was the heaviest fall they’d had since start of the season, and the atmosphere was charged with excitement.
My morning lesson having been swapped for afternoon I was immediately placed under the tutelage of Russ Kauff, a big American with a wide smile from somewhere in Vermont. His red instructor jacket stood out like a beacon.
The previous time I’d seen snow I was about 10 years old, 16 years before, and then only for half a day at little Mt. Selwyn, so I was becoming reacquainted quickly.
I vaguely remembered that ‘pizza’ was a shape you could make with your skis whenever you felt like you might die – and also, as I was now learning, give anyone with a GoPro on their helmet a very wide berth.
An hour into the lesson, Russ and I were fresh off the express Chondola (Cardrona’s brand new 6 seat chairlift/gondola hybrid, the new easy way to learn to ski New Zealand), looking down the valley. For me, this was a chance to catch my breath, for Russ, a moment of reflection.
“Look up there!” he pointed to a few scattered tiny specks of black on a high summit, as the clouds lifted briefly.
I traced Russ’ finger along a trail that had been left on the ridge of the mountain – the line disappearing where skiers had dropped in to the steep face, carving their way down amongst the rocks.
“Wow” I breathed, “You must have to be a pretty good skier to do that.”
“You could do it yourself” said Russ, a shadow passing across his face, “but first you must conquer your fear of death.”
“Is that next lesson?” I asked, fiddling with my goggles.
“No” said Russ, “next lesson is turning.”
By the time we finished the carpark was half empty, snow was still falling, and the visibility was even less than on the way up. But we had our chains on now, so it shouldn’t be as much of a drama getting down as it was coming up.
In the disk changer was a custom CD I burned back in Sydney – essentially a pub-rock sampler featuring a lot of AC/DC and Men at Work’s Downunder. It was a CD that would be our one and evidently only sound track with the van’s radio broken. As we wind our way down from Cardrona the rolling sound of clanking snow chains blends with Men at Work, drowning out any chance of conversation.
Moving at a slightly faster clip downhill, the Spice Rack begins to drift, then slide. Despite the chains there’s no traction. In lowest gear, Owy’s gentle pumps on the brakes have no effect as the tires slide on a sheet of ice. We keep moving forward. So he bumps us a couple of times into the side of the snow bank left by the grader to wash off speed, then wedges us onto it – a much better option than smashing into the next car in front.
After a few panicked seconds we come to an easy stop, the front of the van lightly lodged in the snowy embankment.
Behind us, in the body of the van, the toaster shakes loose and crashes to the ground. We laugh with relief.
“Don’t tell your mother about this one!”
We jump out to check if we’ve lost a chain, but they’re holding, just not gripping on the slicked off surface left by the grader. So we wait for some more traffic to rough it up a bit, then steer on out of the snowbank and resume the descent, Men At Work’s classic Downunder resuming on the CD.
Early dinner at the Cardrona Hotel is Owy’s call, and a it’s a good call. Rib eye and mash by the fireplace works for me.
Back at the Lakeview Park with no need to cook we just hit the showers, which have plenty of hot water – not like the coin operated motor park showers back in the day grandad says, when you had to leap out to drop more coins in or freeze.
Next day we repeat Cardrona. It’s still snowing lightly, so we opt – along with plenty of fellow Jucy vans – to just take the resort shuttle bus up from the gate and relax in chain-fitting free comfort.
A shorter lesson with Aussie instructor Justin and I was loving the runs from the top on the Chondola. It’s snowing and blowing a gale – all the snowboarders I pass are sitting by the fences, waiting out the wind. On skis, the weather just adds to the thrill.
It’s been a great, easy ski New Zealand day until we get down to the van. It won’t start. Turns out Owie left the lights on and the battery is dead. His Aussie Gold NRMA membership is useless unless he has his card he finds out after 15 minutes on the phone. The local version want $200 to come out the short trip from Wanaka. So we wait for someone coming down the hill with jump leads, but a passing liftie has an easier solution.
“Mate all these vans have a two battery set up, one for the appliances, one for the engine. There’s a switch to flick them over” he says. He quickly finds it, and the Spice Rack springs back into life.
More rain falls as we pull back into the Lakeview in the dark. The temperature hovers just above zero, but the rugby field is still full of teams training under sodium-vapor lights. I wonder what would be required to cancel training. No wonder the All Blacks always win.
For the latest exciting developments for Cardona check the news about the new Soho Basin ski area to interlink over the backside towards Arrowtown.
For a great campavan deal check Jucy NZ here.
Check Nic’s NZ Road Movie here