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A Spring Break at Wanaka

Published
December 6, 2019
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THIS September, just passed, I decided that I was going to take advantage of the spring conditions, which are glorious here: sunny days and snow.

So I decided that I was going to go to Glendhu Bay on Lake Wanaka, a short distance westward from the township of Wanaka, with an arctic sleeping bag that I’d picked up in Kathmandu, Nepal. It’s warm to minus 25 degrees Celsius.

Here’s a map of where Wanaka is, including nearby attractions like the Snow Farm cross-country ski resort and the attractive Matukituki Valley. It’s taken from an earlier post of mine called ‘Prelude to Aspiring’.

Background imagery ©2019 DigitalGlobe, Maxar Technologies, Landsat/Copernicus; Map data ©2019 Google. Additional information added for this post. North at top.

Lake Wanaka covers an area of 192 square kilometres. The original Maori name of Wanaka is Oanaka, which means the place of Anaka, a local tribal chief.

It’s in the Queenstown-Lakes District. Wanaka is a bit over an hour’s drive from Queenstown, via the Crown Range Road through Cardrona.

The Crown Range Road has some very interesting sightseeing stops where you can see the Crown Range to the west and the flat-topped Pisa Range, which has the Snow Farm cross-country skiing resort on top.

Here’s a closer view of Wanaka town and its environs, including Glendhu Bay and Albert Town, a shorter distance to the north-east on the confluence of the Hawea River which drains Lake Hawea, and the Upper Clutha River which drains Lake Wanaka.

Wanaka town, Glendhu Bay and environs. Map data ©2019 Google, with the name of Lake Wanaka added for this post. North at top

It’s possible to camp in the Glendhu Bay Motor Camp, which advertises itself as the only lakefront campground on Lake Wanaka, and also at the Albert Town Campground in Albert Town.

I camped at Glendhu Bay, so as to be on the lake. You can drive from Wanaka to Glendhu Bay or take a hiking track.

Between Wanaka and Glendhu bay there’s Roys Peak, a mountain 1,578 metres or 5,177 feet high.

The elevation of Lake Wanaka is 278 metres, so Roys Peak towers 1,300 metres above the lake. That’s more than four thousand feet of prominence, as mountaineers say. The views are pretty spectacular!

The views are also pretty good from Treble Cone skifield, which is the extreme west of the last map.

Halfway along the Crown Range there’s another downhill skifield called Cardrona. The Snow Farm on the other side of the road is a cross-country ski resort. I’ll be talking about Snow Farm a little further below.

At the southern end of the Crown Range, near Queenstown, there is a skifield called Coronet Peak, which overlooks the flats to the east of Queenstown.

Coronet peak skifield by night, from an eastern suburb of Queenstown

There’s talk of a ski touring project similar to the ski touring route that exists around Mont Blanc in the European Alps. The idea is that you should be able to ski from Coronet Peak all the way north to Treble Cone via the Cardrona skifield in the middle. And then turn around and come back another way. Which would be pretty amazing.

September is a really good time to get off the beaten track in New Zealand. Spring and autumn are the off-seasons in New Zealand.

Yet at the same time, the weather is often tranquil, with blue skies above the snow.

Glendhu Bay Motor Camp only charged NZ$18 a night to pitch a tent. The nights were cold and the mornings frosty, but during the day it got up to 22 degrees C. I decided I’d spend about five days there, as a base. Albert Town, on the Upper Clutha River, is only $10 a night. But you can only pitch a tent there for two nights, and anyway, it’s not on the lake.

Glendhu Bay

My Tent

Here’s a quick video of what you can see from Glendhu Bay.

The township of Wanaka has a permanent population of nine thousand. It’s a place I go to quite often because it’s the gateway to Mount Aspiring and some other epic tramping routes which you can read about in some of my other blogs. There are a lot of glaciers such as the Rob Roy Glacier, beech forests and small lakes. It fronts onto two big lakes: Wanaka and Hawea.

The whole area is just insanely photogenic. Even just with a smartphone, it’s hard not to take pictures that look (almost) like they were made by the 1940s-era photographer of American Western landscapes, Ansel Adams, who preferred to work in black-and-white.

Here are some pix I took wandering up the nearby Matukutuki Valley, a valley that’s the main subject of my earlier post, Prelude to Aspiring. It’s also the subject of a black-and-white 1940s documentary of the same title, photographed by a local cameraman called Brian Brake.

Let’s give that one the classic black-and-white treatment:

Yeah, that’s pretty close!

The Rob Roy glacier. which I’d hoped to get to via the Matukituki Valley, was closed because they’d had rockfall. Which was a pity.

I met the owners of the Glendhu Motor Camp. Like a lot of people in New Zealand, they seemed very stressed out over construction: just getting builders to complete work and to get permits is very difficult.

I met a few of the locals who were living at the Glendhu Bay Motor Camp. They’re only allowed a certain number staying there long term. One was an architect, who was saving to buy his own piece of land. To buy land in the immediate area, at Luggate or Wanaka, you were looking at three to four hundred thousand dollars for a section.

He was also looking at spending a hundred thousand dollars on a tiny home, but he also said that up to now his tiny home hadn’t cost him anything to build.

I enjoyed staying at Glendhu Bay. It was a bit cold but I was fine, I had winter blankets and so on. I went and I walked around Wanaka. The town has expanded in recent years, and I believe they have a new supermarket.

Wanaka was practically deserted when I was there. The backpacker places were only 50 per cent full. There had been a bad ski season this year with not much snow, an issue I talk about in ‘Prelude to Aspiring’. And the Christchurch terror attack also had an effect. And so, occupancy was even lower than usual for spring.

Wanaka town, including the location of #ThatWanakaTree in the lake. Map data ©2019 Google. North at top.

I went and saw some of the local sights including the Wanaka Tree, #ThatWanakaTree, a willow which has become famous for growing unusually far out into the lake.

Lake Wanaka goes up and down and in and out quite a bit depending on how hard it’s been raining lately. Quite often, the Wanaka Tree is well out into the lake, which gives it a magical look. Just lately, the water has been halfway up the tree’s branches (which is unusual).

I think the reason the tree survives is that it isn’t always underwater. When I was there the water was right out — and so it all looked a bit ho-hum!

Though having said that, from another angle it does become quite photogenic even at low water, especially once I am out of the way!

A video of #ThatWanakaTree

The Wanaka Tree apparently began life as a post on a fence line extended into the lake by a local farmer many decades ago, to stop his sheep from sneaking off when the water was low. The wood was still alive, and it sprouted as a cutting. The earliest known image of the Wanaka tree might be as one of the posts in an old painting of the fence. That was when Wanaka was a lot less swept-up than it is now, of course. You wouldn’t find sheep wandering about the town these days.

Though I decided not to tour all the social media sites, I saw quite a few pleasant sights and other interesting things down on the foreshore.

Early Morning Sun at Glendhu Bay

Wanaka plays second fiddle to Queenstown. But all the same the smaller town is continuing to progress. It’s no longer strictly a get-away-from-it-all sort of a place. There’s a swimming pool complex going in. And there are two really good movie theatres. One is called Rubys, and the other is called Paradiso: more exotic with bean bags on the floor. But Rubys is nice, quaint, with antiques and is pretty old-fashioned.

At Glendhu Bay, I ran into the Chinese cross-country ski team. They were staying at the motor camp, and taking part in a competition at Snow Farm, a cross-country skifield facility on top of the flat-topped Pisa Range, which I have also blogged about earlier.

It’s pretty photogenic there, too.

I did a day’s cross-country skiing myself, once again, and stayed at the Bob Lee Hut, to which I fondly returned after my last visit to Snow Farm.

Returning to the Bob Lee and Daisy Lee Huts, with a view of the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground

I shared the hut with five other people who were part of the local Cardrona Ski Team. They said that the Treble Cone skifield was being sold and that it was being bought out by Cardrona. They said that they’d had a really good ski season, though there hadn’t been much snow overall.

I went really fast and developed my cross country skiing. It was quite icy in the morning and there wasn’t as much snow on the ground as there had been earlier.

One of the rails, with interesting gnarly rocks alongside

What you can also see that the snow wasn’t really all that thick by now, and was getting baked off the sunny sides of the slopes. Definitely spring, alright.

Snow Farm has this quite weird clubhouse which is mostly quite elevated above ground level. It looks like a spaceship has landed, or the sort of thing you’d see at the South Pole. I don’t know whether that’s a testament to the heaviest ever recorded snowfall, or what precisely.

Talking of strange things, the Pisa Range also includes the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds or SHPG, a sort of Area 51 for automobile manufacturers where they take the very latest experimental models to try them out in the snows of July and the baking heat of December, thus getting a head start on northern seasons. The SHPG is semi-secret but then again, not all that secret. I managed to video it.

It was a really good destination to be able to go away in spring and enjoy the sun, and still take advantage of the cross country skiing.

The teams that won the cross-country skiing were Japan, China and South Korea. There were a number of United States entries. They also have dog sled races and competitions at Snow Farm.

It’s really good to be taking advantage of the seasons and getting a holiday in your own back yard if you’re lucky enough to live around Queenstown and Wanaka.

Or perhaps even — this is the wider lesson — anywhere else.

Spring’s a good time of year. You can get cheap rental cars. And enjoy the sun. And still take advantage of the skifields if there are any nearby.

This is the first in a series of posts this Southern Hemisphere summer, which I’m going to call ‘Sustainable Tourism: Off the Beaten Track in my Backyard’.

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