The Mackenzie–Hanmer Road Trip
The South Island and road trips go together like bacon and eggs; like peaches and ice cream; like lager and vindaloo.
It is the wide open road, the sheer distances between destinations, and the sheer feeling of getting right away from all those everyday cares.
New Zealand’s clear air is even clearer and seems you can see further: across the plains to the great mastodons of granite and snow that are the Southern Alps.
The McKenzie Basin drive – from Burkes Pass through to Lindis Pass – is, for my money, one of the greatest drives in the world.
The first time I travelled it was mid summer, as a student, hitching up from Queenstown after a waterlogged tramping trip on the Five Passes route in Aspiring National Park.
Got a lift with a French guy in a cheap Ford Capri which boiled over on the top of Lindis: used some leftover lemonade to top up the radiator and coasted it down to Cromwell, where a mechanic patched it up and the French bloke – who was heading up to Cook to do the Copland Pass – dropped me at the Pukaki turnoff.
Which was baking in the mid-January heat.
That was mumble mumble years ago, and this latest trip was mid winter. A very different proposition: middle age means less activity in the hills, but the ability to pay for better transport and accommodation.
There are other modern benefits: the New Zealand Transport Agency now has a great service - available at https://onthemove.govt.nz - where you can plot your journey and it will send updates to your smartphone on the road conditions.
This is quite important if your trip coincides – as this does – with a patch of snow coming across the island.
After a short delay to wait for the worst of the snow to pass over, it is off down what I call Anticipation Road – that long and flat stretch between Christchurch and Burke’s Pass.
There isn’t a lot to divert the driver on this patch – not this driver anyway. The whole point is to get to that rise above Burkes Pass where the landscape changes and the Southern Alps are displayed across the horizon like valuable diamonds on a velvet cloth.
The first base for this trip is Twizel: quiet, a bit off the track, decidedly on the cold side, but handy to some good tramping.
There are walks here: ones worth several days, particularly the Gunsight Pass trip up over the North and South Temple routes is a great one to do.In summer or autumn. Not, perhaps, at this time of the year. The drive in to the foot of the Temple valleys ends early in impassable snow and it's a walk in the rest of the way.
The river up North Temple Valley is frozen: so, too are the streams which cross the track beside it.
The tramp does not do more than a little more than four hours but that isn’t the point: the point is the gentle quiet and the awareness of being miles from daily hassles – and from cellphone range.
The next day brings a walk up behind Lake Ohau, although this is less unpopulated: there are other walkers and a few intrepid mountainbikers.
The following day brings a drive up to Mt Cook village and a tramp up to Sealy Tarns – a modest trip; compared to previous years, and at this point regret about lost fitness really kicks in. There are groups of young trampers coming down from Meuller Hut, having seen the full moon rising over Mt Sefton in a cloudless sky the previous night.
They were still gushing about it.
After that, it is time for some real decadence - long drive up to Hanmer Springs and a few days of soaking middle aged muscles and tendons in the hot pools.
For the fourth time I stay at Aspen Lodge Motel – I don’t normally do recommendations but this is an exception. This place is a step above the cookie cutter format of most motels: it is quiet, and the proprietors have some nice extra touches, which include freshly baked muffins and – when you leave in the morning – they come out and spray the ice off your windscreen.
All in all, a superb trip across the centre of the South.
Disclaimer: Rob Hosking pays for his own holidays, sunshine.