STORY: Destination: Wanaka Pt. 1
Updated: Aug 17
It’s 6:30am and I’m in the office punching out emails. I’m massively behind, having just arrived back from a week out at Crankworx, and I’m about to be out for another five days. Half an hour passes before my ride to the airport picks me up and we’re out. Ten minutes into the drive and we’ve stopped for diesel, listened to the last eight minutes of an audiobook about the founder of Nike, and now we’re accidentally bullying our way into a queue of Auckland’s finest rush-hour traffic. “The people behind us probably think I’m such an asshole,” she says. “We’re in a truck, it’s expected” I reply.
So far, this experience is a little different to my usual airport Uber - but then again, Casey Brown isn’t your typical Uber driver.
The rest of our run goes smoothly and it’s almost a little unnerving. It’s at about this point in a trip to the airport where I remember what I’ve forgotten, hit unexpected traffic, or start stressing because I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten. This time around though, it’s all smooth sailing – the traffic is flowing and we’re chatting about a shirt Casey designed, as we cruise along the motorway.
I guess I should point out what we’re actually doing! Well, a few months ago, I was invited to visit Wanaka to check out Cardrona, ride the new Bike Glendhu, sample a couple of the local eateries and explore the region. A few setbacks kept bumping the trip back, but eventually we locked in the week after Crankworx - which was perfect, as Casey was in town. We convinced her to re-book her flights home and stay on for an extra week with us, then roped in a videographer, Haimona; and photographer, Callum, to come chase us around.
Back to the present and we’ve hit the airport; I check us in while Casey returns her rental car. Bag drop goes smoothly, we find Haimona, who has flown in from Gisborne, and breeze through security. I always set the goal of grabbing a coffee between passing through security and boarding, but the reality is that I’m usually late, so I have to settle for an average-at-best airline coffee instead. The smooth run continues, though, and before you know it we’re kickin’ it at a coffee shop, browsing Canadian SPCA websites on the hunt for a buddy for Casey’s dog, Snuff, before piling onto the plane and making our way down south.
I love the flight into Queenstown. I lived there for a while after high school and every time I fly in, it feels a little like going home. Descending into the mountains served as a great reminder for what a rad few days I was in for - and what a rad week I’d just had at Crankworx. We touched down, repeated the airport procedure in reverse and were faced with our first challenge: getting two bike boxes, two camera bags, a drone case, three people’s worth of luggage, and said three people into a minivan. A bit of Tetris and we got there, before hitting the road to Wanaka.
We were due to spend our first two nights in an alpine apartment on Cardrona, and had originally planned to cruise up the mountain, dump our luggage, then venture into Wanaka to grab some lunch and some groceries. By the time we hit the access road, though, I was running on fumes and posed the idea of punching straight through to Wanaka. Casey was deep in a nap by this point, so Haimona and I made the call and kept punching. Once we hit Wanaka, we hit Big Fig for the first of two visits over our stay. After a much needed lunch, we did a quick grocery shop, struggled to pack everything into the van, then hooked a U-turn and headed for Cardies.
As you turn off the highway onto the Cardrona access road, you’re met with 14km of unsealed gravel, up the side of a mountain. Our buddies at Toyota definitely didn’t have these kinds of roads in mind when they designed the van we’d rented for the week, so we took it easy and cruised our way up the hill.
As far as ski fields and, as a result, lift-access bike parks, go Cardrona is pretty unique. Typically, base buildings are found at the base of a ski-field, as the name would suggest. Cardrona’s different though, with the base building located halfway up the slope. What’s rad about this, is that as we pulled into the carpark, we could see riders tearing up the network of trails that run down the mountainside. By this point, it was pretty late in the day – we must have been pushing 3pm - and with all our bikes still packed up and the lifts only running ‘til 4pm, we decided to pack-in, build our bikes, then have a chill afternoon. This was where we ran into our first problem: the 8mm I had packed to do up/remove my pedals wasn’t up for the task of tightening pedals, and quickly stripped. Casey’s multi-tool had everything but an 8mm, so we ventured into the bike park to find one. Trust the media - and an athlete - to come unprepared! After this, we retreated to our alpine apartment for naps while Haimona broke out the drone to get some rad location shots. Upon waking, we went for a walk down to the base building to figure out our dinner plans. Cardrona have a restaurant on-mountain, making the choice easy – and after all the travelling we’d done, I wasn’t too keen on driving back down the mountain to visit the Cardrona Hotel! Whilst making our dinner reservation, we found out that our stay happened to coincide with a stargazing tour, something we had to check out.
Our dinner was nothing short of phenomenal, and our photographer for this trip, Callum Wood, showed up right on time. If you’re visiting Cardies, whether staying the night or just spending a day on the mountain, you’ve gotta check out The Mezz. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves, bar one table that left pretty soon after we arrived, and the food was amazing. As we ate, the excitement started to build – we’d made it to the South and we were excited to explore.
Stuffed full of food, we made our way back to our mountain apartment to hang out for an hour or two before we embarked on our tour. It was super nice to have our own space on the mountain. Staying in hotels isn’t bad by any means, but it was rad to have a kitchen, bathroom and living room to hang out in without the worry of other guests. On these trips, you tend to be in-and-out of places pretty quick, and we always have a ton of gear including bikes, camera equipment, regular clothes and riding gear, so it was rad to not have to lug our stuff across a hotel, as was the case the week before when we were at Crankworx.
We dug around the apartment and found all the board games Cardrona had graciously supplied, and by the time we started making the final decision of what to play, it was time to wrap up and head out to go stargazing. We met our host, Dan, at the base building and all piled into a van to head across the mountain to our stargazing spot. Earlier on in the day, we’d been told Dan was from Hawaii, so we spent all afternoon and evening trying to figure out if we’d be in for a super low-key Hawaii-style star tour, with plenty of shakas, or a more educational experience. As we unloaded from the van at Captain’s, we dove into the café and got kitted out with some huge winter jackets before heading out to Dan’s telescope, to admire the night sky. The moon was pretty close to full, so whilst the conditions weren’t the best for admiring the Milky Way and the many nebulas in the night sky, we were able to get a good look at the moon. I’ve got to say, if you haven’t looked at the moon through a telescope, you definitely should – it’s unreal to see. Dan showed us stars and constellations throughout the night and, to be honest, it was one of the standout experiences of the trip for me - I think mostly because it’s something I’d never have considered doing. Once we were all frozen solid, we headed back up to Captain’s Café for hot chocolate, before piling into a van and heading back to our apartment, where we all headed for bed.
Good light is always a priority when you’ve got a photographer and videographer in tow, so we rose early the next morning to begin our first day on the bikes. I had a meeting in town, so whilst we all left at the same time, Casey and our content team headed up the hill on their bikes and I headed down it. As I drove down the mountain, I couldn’t help but admire the incredible sunrise, and I can tell you now that I spent the next few hours wishing I was up the mountain.
As I turned back onto the Cardrona access road a little while later, I was beyond excited to get some ride time in and drove our rental van as fast as I could (which was still a good nudge under the speed limit) up the mountain. Today’s agenda consisted of exploring Cardrona’s trail network, before tearing down the Peak to Pub trail to finish our day off with dinner at the famous Cardrona Hotel. I hadn’t ridden at Cardrona since their opening season, and I’d heard nothing but good about the park since, so I couldn’t wait to get riding. Because we were visiting on a weekday, we practically had the place to ourselves and didn’t once have to wait for the lift. How good?! Before we took off up the mountain, we caught up with Graham Dunbar, or ‘Spy’ as he’s better known, for a quick coffee. Graham’s been working on the mountain for as long as anyone and knows it like the back of his hand, so he was able to give us all sorts of valuable insight that we otherwise would’ve missed out on. For what it’s worth, the team at Cardrona came through once again and the coffee was next level.
Our first run took us right down the guts of the park, following close-ish to the Whitestar Express – the main lift in the bike park - coming down Grasshopper into Hi Vis, before making our way to the lift via Low Vis. This made for a solid Grade 3 run down the mountain before diving off into the advanced Low Vis trail. We spent the rest of the morning tearing up and down the mountain and, just as we were about to cruise back to our apartment for lunch, I got chatting to Cam, one of the bike coaches up Cardrona, and ended up putting in one last quick lap as the rest of the team headed back. The riding at Cardies is nothing short of rad. I love riding in the woods, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about riding down the tree-less mountain that’s breathtaking. The views are amazing, and you constantly want to stop on the trail to admire vistas that seemingly go on forever. The best part about the lack of trees, though, is the ability to build almost anything you want. The main natural obstacle on Cardrona is rocks, which are easy enough to work into trails, and the end result is a trail network full of fast, sweeping berms, all the rock rollers, rock drops and rock gardens you could dream of and, for the most part, plenty of tussock to cushion your fall if you come off. I feel like the South Island, particularly the lower South, has a reputation for being gnarly Grade 5 riding, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – and a rider of any level would find plenty to enjoy up the mountain at Cardrona.
We had a little downtime after lunch – we’d been up since about 5am, after all - so opted to get in a quick afternoon nap (yes, naps became a theme of our trip) before heading up the hill to get a couple more laps in before taking on the Peak to Pub – something we’d been counting down to all day. The Peak to Pub name sort of tells you all you need to know: it’s a ride from the top of Cardrona to the Cardrona Hotel at the bottom of the mountain. We started off at the top of Whitestar Express and headed down Arcadia, to the bottom. From there, we jumped onto Crankshaft, marking the start of the Peak to Pub journey. The journey down Peak to Pub is awesome, and has you tearing through tussock on a trail that lends itself to let-off-the-brakes-and-hang-on riding. Unfortunately though, our fun came to an abrupt end as the lower half of the trail (the part we were all looking forward to most) was shut due to pest control. We considered pushing on anyway, but when we noticed the ‘firearms in use’ warning on the sign, decided better of it. In the end, we took off down the access road and decided to figure out how to fit our three bikes in the back of our van once we’d had dinner and a beer.
If you’ve been through Cardrona and haven’t stopped off at the Cardrona Hotel for a photo at the very least, I hate to be the one to tell you, but you did your trip down South wrong. The Cardrona Hotel is one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels, and I’d argue the most iconic. Built way back when in 1863, the Cardona Hotel was one of four hotels in Cardrona offering accommodation to gold miners and travellers. The hotel survived through to 1961, before the doors shut after the owner passed away. By 1983, the hotel had been restored, coming back from the brink of being knocked down, and has been taking care of those passing through ever since. We wheeled our bikes through the pub and out back to the garden. Walking into the pub is like taking a step back in time and the vibe was super relaxed, even though the pub was fairly busy. It was a beautiful autumn night, so we opted for a spot outside by the fire and were quickly greeted by a Jack Russell, who spent the rest of the evening hanging around our table in the hopes one of us would drop some food. We later found out he and his parents are regulars. After a meal you wouldn’t complain about from a restaurant - let alone a small country hotel - and a Cardrona Ale or two, we headed back to the car to begin the game of Tetris. We had three bikes, four people and two people’s worth of camera gear to get into a mini-van that was arguably closer in size to a station wagon than it was a van – and, once again, no mutli-tool to take any wheels off. After stuffing gloves, knee pads, jackets and shoes between the bikes, we managed to get them all in and then just had to figure out how to get the people in around them. After some creative manoeuvring, we got everyone in the van and began the slow trundle up the access road. We had a 4:30am wake up call scheduled for the next morning, so once we got up the hill we packed up and hit the sack. Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon...
Words: Cam Baker
Images: Callum Wood