McSkiers travel to New Zealand for Spring SkiingThe McManus family only has one rule about vacations. We must travel to a colder place than where we are living. As Canberra is cold in terms of Australian weather, we fled to New Zealand in search of more frigid conditions.
Saturday morning, 27 September, was not as uneventful as hoped. Olivia had woken up at 2:30 am complaining of a stomach ache. By the time we got to the airport she was green. As we were checking in all the ski stuff, she tossed her cookies on the nice carpet. Being 6 AM at a small airport, there were no staff to remove the mess, so the Ansett Airlines shift boss shared the honours with John. From Canberra, we flew to Sydney with a two (which became 3 and a half) hour layover. Fortunately, the Sydney airport had Aboriginals performing with a combination of dancing and digeridoo playing. By the time we got to Christchurch on the south island of New Zealand, it was late afternoon. We were greeted by our rental car company and got a ride through Christchurch to pick up our '96 Toyota Corolla 4-door hatchback. The reason for renting a car instead of flying from Christchurch on the east side of the island to Queenstown on the west side of the island was to see some of New Zealand as we would be skiing all week. Our plan was a good one, but with the plane delay, we hit nightfall 2 hours into the 5 and a half hour drive. The South Island doesn't have freeways; it just has roads. There weren't a lot of signs showing us the way, but between my karmic navigation and John's obsessive compulsive addiction to maps, we made it to Queenstown by 10 PM. Good thing we called the hotel, as they shut everything up at 9 PM. They were kind enough to tape our key to the outside door so we could get in.
Sunday was to be the 'get settled and check out the town' day. We woke up to glorious sunshine, flung the drapes open, and WOW! There were snowcapped mountains surrounding us, a lake below us, and a bustling tiny tourist town all around us. Our first indication that this was a tourist town was when we went across the street for breakfast and their menu had the American pancake breakfast. They called their chips 'fries' and their tomato sauce 'ketchup'. Another give away was the bottomless cup of coffee. There was also lots of Japanese writing all around.
Monday was the big ski day. We had heard reports that the Queenstown area hadn't had a very snowy winter, leaving the spring skiing not as good as in years past. The closest hill was Coronet Peak which was about a 20 minute drive from our hotel.The magnetic roof racks worked better than we had expected up the windy dirt road to the hill. There weren't a lot of skiers and there were quite a few bare spots but we were game. The kids hadn't skied in a year and a half so we stuck them in lessons. Patrick got a great teacher, Derek, but from interrogations with Olivia, I think she got Son Of Hitler. John and I skied a few runs at the top where the conditions were better, but still way too mushy and slushy for me. By lunch, it was time for hot chocolate with marshmallows and a happy face made in the cream on top. The afternoon was spent skiing the slushy, mushy, sloshy, slurpy, heavy, giant snowcone runs at the bottom with the kids. I was in misery, but the kids loved skiing through the puddles which became lakes by the end of the day. We got home to soak in the pool-sized outdoor hot tub at the hotel. From there, we got a view of the Gondola which led to a restaurant, bungy jump, paragliding,. . . . I starting formulating my supposition that Queenstown was settled by suicidal people who, upon devising new ways to kill themselves and failing at the attempt, invented new sports. Bungy Jumping began in Queenstown. The parasailers were overhead every afternoon. The rivers were full of jet boats careening toward the rocks, river rafters shooting through old gold mining tunnels, and river bugs (a new individual rafting device first used in Queenstown). No wonder these fools skied in slush. Fortunately for me, a family from the Christchurch area which we met in the hot tub each evening brought me back to MY reality. They had come to ski but weren't skiing because of the slush. There was plenty else to do in the area. I heard loud and clear, but John has deaf ears when he can sniff snow. Let the negotiations begin.
Tuesday was more torture at Coronet Peak. It was completely 'socked in' with clouds and, if we hadn't been there yesterday, we wouldn't have been able to find the ski school meeting place right outside the lodge. I'm sure that in winter, this place is fantastic, but as I didn't wear my waterproof long underwear, I skied the compulsory 'laps' with the kids before and after lessons. My mood did not reflect the rest of the family. John was having a blast as were the kids. Patrick and Olivia made tremendous progress in their lessons and Patrick, not really remembering his earlier experiences in snow, searched out the slopes for the slushiest stuff declaring it 'the best stuff to ski in'. Hey, if they can ski in this stuff, they should be able to handle anything. We had heard that most of the locals were at Cardrona Resort about an hours drive away, so that was the plan for Wednesday. Our friends from Christchurch laughed at us when we told them we would continue to ski, but I could see he was making headway with John, and I might get Friday off.
WednesdayThe road to the Cardrona Resort is at least a test of driving skills and at best an exposure to New Zealand's verdant back country. The woman at the ski information office in Queenstown had scrawled out a map for us to follow. We followed the road by the lake, crossed the bridge, then came to the part that had severe zigzags up the Crown Mountain Chain. The first 10 kms were sealed (paved) but had no guardrails on roads that barely fit two cars. Then we came to the unsealed (unpaved), washboard riveted, steep, curving road again with no guardrails. About 10 long kms later, we passed a cattle stop and began our way through the crevasse of the Crown chain. This also was washboard dirt for about 9 kms, where cows came into the road and sheep sheepishly stayed behind fences. Once we passed the pub at Cardrona, it was sealed road for 300 metres, then a sharp left onto the recurring dirty, hairpin, washboard road for the 13 kms straight up an uninhabited area with no ski resort in sight until the very last turn. The snow was high in the mountains so the roads were dry. We couldn't imaging how people did this in the thick of a snow storm, but we were sure they did. Once at the top of the lift, one begins to relate to why Sir Edmund Hilary is such a beloved citizen of the country. There are mountains everywhere, and there is no getting around them, you just have to conquer them. New Zealand ski hills are barren, free of trees. This makes for a different skiing experience as trails are merely suggested paths. People are free to find their own way down the hill. Patrick found this to be a great way to locate jumps. Olivia loved not having to follow the rules (as she spends a great deal of her life negotiating her own rules), John loved being able to get from one hill to the other without having to do endless runs from one chair to another, and I, well I like trails and I stuck to them. Just as the roads don't bother with guardrails, the ski hills had little evidence of orange webby stuff to keep skiers from careening over cliffs or out of dangerous areas. Olivia lucked out for lessons. She got earringed and flashy red haired Willie. Willie gave her chocolate on the lift, let her lead the group the whole lesson, and took the class in for hot chocolate half way through. No wonder we could hear chants of 'Willie, Willie, Willie. . ' when children gathered at the ski school each morning. We saw Olivia's class several times and found that if kids tried to get in front of her she quickly cut right back in front of them and gave them the look of death. Patrick got Petra, and Petra learned that when she told Patrick to follow her, he could now stick like glue. He'll make a fine 'yes man' when he grows up. After lunch, the ski hill had a lollie scramble in the courtyard. Someone stood on a table and threw hard, chewy, wrapped candy in all directions. Olivia and Patrick had to fight with some teenagers for a few pieces The reward came when Olivia ate her first piece and her very loose baby molar came out. What the heck does the tooth fairy pay in New Zealand? The afternoon got quite windy and toward the end we had to watch which trails we took so the kids wouldn't blow over. One feature of Cardrona is that they've carved out tunnels, igloos, and a thing called the 'toilet roll' for kids to ski through. The 'toilet roll' was a spiral that was like being flushed down a toilet when you went through the tunnel at the end. All this excitement and we still had to make the trek back to Queenstown past the cows, past the sheep, past the roadkill possums and rabbits.
Thursday Since the snow conditions at Cardrona were still good, and we knew the road, back we went. The second time wasn't EVEN scary. Guardrails are for wimps. The slopes were groomed and instead of heavy snow, they were kind of powdery. The days so far had been mostly cloud covered which helped keep the snow skiable. Olivia got Hamish as an instructor who had one fatal flaw. He ate chocolate on the lift, but didn't share it. The afternoon was delightful. We skied until last chair. We have to ski an adult behind Patrick because he has 'tunnel vision' and isn't aware of other skiers. I dropped my guard once, turned around and found he had taken out a skier and a snowboarder with one turn. John wasn't happy, but I was quite proud (in that twisted sort of way). On the way home, I had planned to take pictures of a bull in the road, but none were to be found. I decided to get some pictures of the sheep instead. We stopped by the side of a mountain, I got out with camera ready, and learned where the term 'she's a little sheepish' came from. Sheep do not stay still when people are around. Maybe they were just all having a bad hair day, but they all ran the other way. I got two pictures of sheep bums. Once back in Queenstown, I kicked John out the door and told him to trade in our last ski lift vouchers for something non-skiing.
Friday, Mom's day!!!!!!!! Finally, I didn't have to get up at 6:30 am! I could tell John thought this day would be bogus, but as we had skied 4 days and seen nothing of Queenstown, it was time. We caught the 10:15 bus to the Shotover River to take the Shotover Jet. This is a jet propulsion boat that can operate in water depths of 4 inches. The driver gets as close to the cliff walls as possible then spins out for full effect. He also did some 360's and got some of us all wet. The driver looked liked JFK Jr. which enhanced the view a bit. After we got back to town, we knew we just had to take the Skyline Gondola to the top. It was getting windy and rainy so the sooner the better. By the time we got to the top, it was raining and winds were gusting. Yet, there were still bungy jumpers ready to go. There are a few ways to bungy jump. The wimpy way is to wear a harness around your torso. This way you can run off the launch. With this harness on, you could ride a bike off the launch if you want. The traditional bungy is tied around your feet and is scarier because you have to stand on the ledge and plan the fall. We saw a bike bungy, a few harness bungys, and one feet bungy. The feet bungy was done by a lady 'well past her 60s'. Anyone over 60 gets to bungy for free. I wonder if that saves a trip to the chiropractor?
Saturday was the trek back to Christchurch to catch the late afternoon plane. We finally got to see what we had driven through in darkness the week before. The shades of green contrasted against the snow covered mountains was a beautiful sight. It's hard to believe the population of New Zealand is just three and a half million. It's the world's best kept secret. We saw fruit trees, cows, deer (not wild but farmed), sheep, lakes, and even drove past the first ever bungy jumping sight. With stuffed bungy jumping sheep and kiwi bird, we were ready to fly back to Australia. A week was not enough in this incredible wonderland. I want to go back when the ski hills are closed.
© McManus - Monday 6 October 1997