A Misty Day Out at the Remarkables: Matchstalk figures amid the snow

July 11, 2020
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The Remarkables are a range of mountains that tower epically and in a Grand Teton-like sort of a way over Queenstown, New Zealand.

You can see them from Coronet Peak, on the other side of the ‘Promised Land’.

Map showing the relative locations of Coronet Peak (north), the Remarkables (south) Queenstown (west) and also the A J Hackett Kawarau Bungy Centre (east). Map data ©2020. North at top.

A closer view of the Remarkables, from Coronet Peak

The weekend after my trip to Coronet, we decided to go to to the Remarkables skifield. The Remarkables skifield has the advantage of being more open to the north, where the sunshine comes from in New Zealand, and thus sunnier than Coronet Peak where as a rule the snow-blowers catch the sun, but you don’t!

At Coronet Peak, using a flash in the daytime. Lovely how the sun catches the clouds from the snow-making machines, though.

Unfortunately, this weekend the weather in Queenstown was horrible. All you could see was a deck of low cloud.

So I checked out the skifield camera online and yay, the field was relatively clear. So off we went, eventually making it above the sea of clouds.

But with foreign tourism locked out because of Covid, the field, which has 940 parking spaces plus bus traffic, a huge restaurant / cafe and a ticket counter that’s like a railway station, wasn’t anything like as busy as normal. Not all the tows were going.

It was above the first deck of clouds but still a bit dreich. Strangely enough, in some ways this actually made for better, more atmospheric sorts of photos.

The skiers made pops of colour against the blue-grey, like figures in one of the northern English painter L S Lowry’s famous depictions of winter gloom, with its “matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs.”

The Remarkables Skifield

L S Lowry, ‘ Factory workers going to work at the Mather & Platt, Manchester, in the snow’. Work commissioned by the UK Government, 1943. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, after a while it was time for a coffee inside the cavernous dining hall.

Sometimes the kea, the famous Alpine parrot of New Zealand, will show up at these skifields.

Kea are actually quite rare. But they’re often seen because they like to hang around humans for whatever they can steal, and even just for the attention. In my book A Maverick Traveller, I wrote that:

"While I was at Copland Shelter, I made friends with a family of eight kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. They are known for their cheeky personalities and quite often break into cars and unattended backpacks to steal food and other items. Though they seem common because they are so readily attracted to carparks, campsites and unattended backpacks, kea are actually a threatened species. There are only about five thousand of them left and they are currently in decline, for the usual reasons.

"Kea are intelligent and enjoy playing simple games. I gathered up ten small stones and placed them on a large rock. Then I would move one and a kea would move it back. I played this game with the kea family for over three hours! It was great to see the birds in their natural environment living off fern roots and other alpine shrubs. Amazingly, they left my pack alone because they were occupied with the rocks. Seeing them, let alone playing with them, was something I’ll never forget."

But I didn’t get to see one today!

The author playing games with kea near the Copland Shelter, on the West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand

In New Zealand, snowboarding pretty much got started on the Queenstown skifields. In the early days, the snowboarders were regarded as a bunch of hoons by proper skiers. They weren’t allowed on the skifields and had to camp in the hills above! But eventually they were accepted, and the first New Zealand snowboarding championship was held at Cardrona, another skfield in the Queenstown region, in 1988.

Along with the skiing and snowboarding, the Remarkables also have trails. The top of the skifield is close to an often-frozen mountain lake called Lake Alta, and you can also hike or mountain-bike down past Coal Pit Saddle into the ‘Promised Land’ basin and then back up into the Pisa Conservation Area where the Snow Farm cross-country skiing facility is located, and also the Mahu Whenua area, consisting of the Harris Mountains (currently popular with heli-skiers) and the Crown Range, across both of which the Mahu Whenua walking trail network has lately been developed.

The Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand are also agitating for the creation of a Remarkables National Park and there is also talk of creating really long-distance ski trails across this terrain.

Certainly from Cardrona to Treble Cone via the Mahu Whenua (some 60 km) and perhaps even all the way from the Remarkables to Treble Cone: which is near a couple of other places I’ve blogged about before, the Matukituki Valley and Wanaka, on the next big lake north of Queenstown.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just heard that the field has been packed out on a fine day in the week since we went, so the lack of foreign tourists doesn’t seem to be fatal as yet. There are terrific views from the road when the cloud isn’t there.


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