Friday, 27 January 2012

Cycling NZ - Wanaka to Queenstown via Cardrona Valley (Crown Range Road)

There are two ways to get from Wanaka to Queenstown or vice versa. The easier and longer one is HW6, 112 km, around Lake Dunstan and through Cromwell. The shorter and of course tougher one, Crown Range Road, goes through the Cardrona Valley and although it's only 70 km long, it's quite a challenge with a 1076m mountain pass, which makes it the highest sealed road in New Zealand. Chains are required during winter.

According to Lonely Planet's Cycling New Zealand, part of the road is still gravel, but that's not true, it's all paved. That book is actually very old (written in 2000) and even my 2009 edition lacked up to date road information.

Day 16 - 16 Nov 2011
Distance ridden: 70 km; Route: Wanaka - Queenstown via Crown Range Road; Weather: fine until the pass, then extreme headwind.

Click for more photos.
Cardrona Town
I left Wanaka at 3pm and after a while I reached Cardrona (22 km), the only human settlement along the way. It's an old mining town, sold to Chinese miners at the very end of the gold rush. Probably not their best deal. Anyway, nowadays it's just a bunch of buildings, the most remarkable being the Cardrona Hotel, a ramshackled 1800s house, whose authenticity is spoiled only by a "free internet" sign on the door. The vintage car in front of the hotel must be on a zillion of identical pictures, as there's only one obvious angle for taking shots. I even saw a postcard that looked exactly like my own photo.

Not far from the hotel stand some modern (therefore ugly) and expensive looking tourist houses, and then there's my favourite building - a cute little old shack on a green lawn. I was half expecting a hobbit to come out.

Ah, and just before Cardrona there's a place where you can drive monster trucks, including a monster Cadillac and a monster school bus. There wasn't anybody around when I popped in, so no ride (I could never afford it anyway), but I had a good look at the cards and I must say that standing in front of a 3-metre high pink Cadillac is quite impressive.

Stupid, stupid donkey
Guarding the place was a pony and a donkey. Unfortunately, the animals were roaming freely on the driveway, the only way out, and since donkeys are the stupidest animals in the world (perhaps except for sheep), it ran away from me, despite having plenty of room to walk around (which the smarter pony did), it went onto the main road, got almost hit by a car and then started to merrily trot towards Wanaka, even when I was long gone.

The climb up
After Cardrona, the road starts to steepen up, but the real challenge doesn't come until about 5 km from the peak. That's where I started panting like a ninety year old asthmatic smoke addict, and despite my granny gears I had to stop every few hundred metres.
It was a nasty surprise, considering the similarity between this road and Lindis Pass coming from Omarama, where I hadn't had such a hard time. The only difference, except of course for 100 metres of elevation, is that Cardrona is a much narrower valley.

It took me four hours to reach the top, 40 km from Wanaka, and when I finally got there, it was a hell of a view, literally. You can see all the way to Queenstown from the pass, and on this occasion the town was under a huge black cloud.

Good thing they put this warning... at the bottom of the hill.
The climb down
The Queenstown side of the hill is incredibly steep, way steeper than the Wanaka one, yet there are people cycling it up. As for myself, I'm really glad I did it the easier way. It wasn't that easy, though; my good ole' friend headwind showed up as soon as I started descending, and it was stronger than ever. Not very nice when there's nothing but a small barrier between you and hundreds of metres of free fall.

The problems started when I ran out of downhill. The Crown Range Road ends at a junction with HW6 and then there are 20 more kilometres of flat road before Queenstown. With the sort of head wind I had that day, it felt like 50...

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