Wanaka in Winter

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“Far over the misty mountains cold…”

Down on South Island, nestled on the lip of the lake in the Mt Aspiring Range, is a little town called Wanaka…

~The Sweet Smell of Wood Smoke~

            Back roads of Wanaka.
            Snow peaks, fog faded
            Rooftop scuds of chimney smoke
            Pine trees, winter leaves
            Logs piled up to the windowsill
            Icy fingers, frozen toes
            Pompom hats, rosy nose
            Streetlights glimmer, Pavements shimmer
            Frost bites
            Breath spirals rising
            Precious moments round the burner 

When I first arrived in Wanaka, I stayed with Grainne (an old friend from uni) and her friend Jess, in a cosy little house, stacked up to the windowsills with firewood, tucked in on the top road by the BMX track. We stayed with a handful of other travelers, where we spent a week drinking tea; circling room ads in ‘The Messenger’, and taking Jake (the slightly crazy resident chocolate Labrador) for walks. It was Corey – a Canadian friend of Jess’s – who picked us up from Queenstown airport on the 10th of June in his white converted camper van, and drove us to Wanaka along the Crown Range. Grainne and I sprawled on the bed he’d installed in the back of the van, watching the clouds and mountain tops float by the draped back windows.

We arrived at the snug little house at 4pm, where we met Corey’s girlfriend and lady of the house – Britney; Nick, a quiet fitness fanatic who quickly became everyone’s personal trainer, and Matt (Jake the dog’s dad) a hard working businessman from Auckland. They were an unrelated family unit, and some of the loveliest people I’ve met. A little later, two more arrived: an arty Canadian surfer chick – Janelle, and her Finnish travelling companion, Anna. We got the wood burner going, (which Jake the dog hogged like a hearth rug) and sat around drinking earl tea. Later, we filled the living area with duvets and pillows and watched one of Janelle’s films called ‘Like Crazy’, which taught us we shouldn’t fall in love on a holiday visa…

The clouds didn’t lift for the entire first week we were there, leaving us in some vague belief that our plane had never left Auckland and we were living in some ‘Truman Show’ parody with an unfinished set. But then one day, Grainne and I were strolling by the park, and up in the sky before us appeared a cut out of mountain peaks through a gap in the cloud – eerily faint as though covered with a sheet of tracing paper. The Mount Aspiring Range are some of the most spectacular mountains I’ve ever seen. They look how mountains should look – pointy and jagged and covered in snow, filling up the sky.

~Family Values~

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Cardrona Alpine Resort has been feeding Wanaka’s snow-lust for 35 years, with a terrain of 345 hectares, ranging from 1670m to 1860m high. People travel from all over the world to play in the snow at Cardrona, and the field plays host to many national events, which this year included the Winter Games; Snowsports International Paralympic World Cup; Snowsports NZ Freeski; Snowboard Junior Nationals, and Winter Olympics Spring Camp.

 DSCN4442(2)    [The Women’s Half Pipe World Cup Finals, Winter Games]

In the beginning a string of headlights would snake up the mountain track against a moody backdrop of the mountain silhouettes. The peaks would glow in the morning moonlight as the convoy of rental vans drove us to work, reaching the top in time for the bloody-Mary sunrise. Now that spring is approaching the sun has already bleached the landscape before we’ve left our front doors, and it seems the hills are always on fire.

Back in June – about a week before the mountain opened to the public – it all started. The 2013 Cardrona F&B team spent the week getting acquainted and building ‘the family’. We did lots of paperwork, learnt to fit chains, gave mouth-to-mouth to a plastic dummy, got shown around the mountain, did more paperwork, had various training sessions, did more paperwork, played in the snow and partied hard. The work vans picked us up from the town office at 7am every morning, and we’d be back in town at around 5, just in time for happy hour at Water Bar.

Eventually, I was able to quit my couch-surfing career. Kai, Sean and Christian – lads from work – moved into a motel with an Australian called Tom, and shortly the neighbouring motel became free. I moved in with a ‘Despicable Me’ German called Bastian; a Michael Jackson obsessed Malaysian called Tze, and a small Welsh sci-fi artist called Rhys (who quickly adopted me as his sister and liked to bully me in a very brotherly manner). Within weeks the whole block of motels became a Cardrona staff hotel!

There is a series of snapshot images on the road I go along everyday between Cardrona and Wanaka. A scattering of bee boxes littered on the grass beneath a tree. Behind runs a babbling stream, coursing over miniature rockery with the mountains rising on the backdrop. Sheep dabble in the grass lands around, grazing lazily as we gaze out of the van windows, hardly noticing each other. Usually, a brilliant blue sky canopies the view, leaving a crystal tint every unique colour. The second snapshot is of little wooden fences and neatly cropped copse – possibly an orchard, but there’s no fruit at this time of year to clarify that. The icy, silver-yellow sunlight falls dappled on the ground between the leaves and twigs, and the little wooden fences cast criss-cross shadows. The drive back towards Wanaka presents you with sun-stricken panoramas of countryside, which pans out onto snowy peaks beyond. Before you reach the town, you glimpse a vast stretch of Lake Wanaka drenched with golden light and framed with the jagged mountainous horizon, a different shade of sky everyday.

~Snowboarding~

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The heart of winter. Not what you normally think about at home, in the middle of August, when you’re clinging on to every last ray of summer, and each last grain of sand that sticks between your toes. But here it’s winter. Not damp, shivery, grey winter, but crisp, colourful winter, in which every sunset paints the lake a different story. If you’ve ever been on a ski holiday, you will appreciate the sheer thrill of zooming down a mountain side with nothing but bluebird skies and crystal views, spraying up waves of fresh powder around you with every turn; cool speed brushing your face… If, like me, you grew up on a small island on the edge of a country corrupt with money and politics, you may not have even seen a ski field, and learning is the most challenging fun you can have.

Waste Busters is a recycling centre on the outskirts of town, which funnily enough recycles things. You can buy practically anything for under $10, so, naturally, I got my first snowboard gear there. My actual snowboard came from Will and Esther, a lovely couple who lived next door to Corey and Britney. Grainne and I surfed on their couch a couple of nights and Esther happened to be selling her old board – a little Rossignol, red and blue, with a hooded creature holding a lantern on the tail end, which always reminded me of a Ra’zac out of Christopher Paolini’s ‘Eragon’. It served me well all season, until it mysteriously vanished on the last day…

Adrenaline pumped through me, getting on that chairlift for the first time. Nervously sliding up to it and letting it take control, for I knew that once I was on that chair, that was it, there was no going back. At first it felt like trying to ride a tea tray downhill over ice cubes, but with a touch of practice and encouragement from friends (a hard shove and endless amounts of laughter) I learnt to control my board.

The first time I got stuck in a whiteout was fairly early on in the season; one of the first times I went over the other side of the mountain to Captains. The mist came in while we were having coffee in Captain’s Cafe ($2.50 with staff discount!) By the time we’d realised how bad it was, they’d already closed the lifts, so we were forced to take the lower cat track back across the Whitestar lift. Now, I wasn’t very confident, especially on cat tracks. People were zooming past me, vanishing into the fog, and my friends were long gone. (You can’t stop to wait for people on a cat track, as they are flat, if you stop you can’t start again). The wind was pushing me back, slowing me down and blowing me off course. I couldn’t see the edge of the track where the sheer drop would surely kill me, and no matter how low I got, I couldn’t pick up any speed. Frustrated, I took off my bindings and attempted to walk, but with sheet ice beneath my feet and my board under my arm acting as a wind-sail, I was simply blown backwards with ever step I took. It ended with me sitting on the bank, arms folded, refusing to move, while Greg tried to coax me along from a few meters ahead. But at least I know I’m not the only one who had a cat track tantrum… (Miss Stokes!)

But snowboarding wasn’t all hardwork and horror. On the whole it is the most exhilarating sport I’ve tried so far. You’re out there in this beautiful landscape with brilliant people who just want to have fun. You skate up to the chairlift, do the barrier dance (a kind of gyrating motion against the barrier so it can detect your lift pass in your pocket), sit on the chair anticipating where you’ll ride, chatting with others on the lift and watching the pros in the park below. You weave down the slopes, racing your mates (or just trying to keep up), bunny hopping over mogles left by skiers, carving edges up the sides and stopping occasionally to throw a snowball or two. At the end of the season, we had to take a snowboarding assessment, and now I am an intermediate snowboarder!

(Thanks to Bez who gave me that first push at the top of McDougals and never failed to catch me all the way down my first run. Thanks to “Dutch” Sam for teaching me to turn and giving me that kick of confidence. Thanks to Wilko for taking me over the kickers in McDougals Park and being my witness for my first air. Thanks to TimTam and Lauren for giving me heaps of ride breaks. And thanks to Greg for believing I was better than I was.)

~Living For The Weekend~

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The drive up the Cardrona track is hairy at the best of times, but when you’re in the passenger seat of your friend’s well-loved, well-used Ford Escort, with no chains and no brake pads, you can do nothing but laugh and hope. Greg and I would meet on our days off and drive up the mountain, teeth clenched, buttocks tensed, swerving away from the cliff edge on globules of mud and ice, or spinning out on fresh, unplanned snow. I think of cold, sunny drives and loud hip-hop and rock; singing along to the likes of Will Smith, Slim Shady and Foo Fighters to drown out the sound of the wheel bearings shaking to pieces. I think of sunglasses and laughing at nothing and all those threats of handbrake turns.

Occassionally, we would give the mountain a miss, and spend our day off in town eating gellato icecream by the lake and chilling on the deck, go for lunch and shopping in Queenstown, or go for a drive in the countryside…

~A Picnic at Glendhu Bay~

Blues of oceans, far out in the midst of clear-sky-nowhere. Sunshine breathes through the silent chill of winter. Spring on the horizon. A curve of sand stretches around the lake, curling into the distance where the leafless trees merge into the carvings of the mountain. White peaks brightly shard the sky, dazzling like new knives. The water laps my ears between songs of Muse and Metallica, while little yellow-faced birds scamper about the stones. A twist of smoke rises up and licks the cold while the car bonnet toasts our bottoms. White puff-ball clouds on the sky; avocado and strawberries on our lips.

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Out in the depths of Lake Wanaka lies Ruby Island – a tiny nature reserve, which you can only reach by boat, or in our case, one kayak, one punctured dinghy and a blow-up bed… a good group of us made it over, Bez, Stokes, Sean, Paul, Olivia, Greg and myself. We walked around the island, jumped off the jetty into the lake, and had a BBQ feast before the paddling mission back to land.

The season is over now and I have begun spring work in a vineyard just outside of town. But I’ve learnt a lot, achieved more and made friends for life. See you next year Cardrona!  
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