The mighty Crown Range

By: Liz Light, Photography by: Liz Light


NZMCD tackles the highest sealed road in New Zealand

There are two roads between Wanaka and Queenstown and they take about the same time to drive.

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The Crown Range Road doesn’t have wineries but it does have superlatives; it’s the highest sealed road in New Zealand and one of the world’s most scenic drives.

Rapidly up

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As soon as the road leaves Arrow Valley, the fun begins, with seven hairpin bends making a rapid ascent up to the Crown Terrace. On the Terrace, where Russell Coutts has a farm that is so well groomed it looks like a golf course, there is a pull-off parking place with great views.

In spring, Arrow Valley is green, the mountains behind are prettily topped with snow, elderberry trees are in full white bloom, and briar roses are sweetly pink and perfumed. 

For the next few kilometres, the road climbs steadily through sheep farming land. We visited during a busy season: sheep were being moved close to the woolshed, dogs were on the job, shepherds kept watch, and shearing was about to begin.

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As the road gets steeper, there’s another viewing area: a 70-metre path to the ultimate photographic (read selfie) spot in front of a sublime view—down the Kawarau Valley to Queenstown and a blue splash of Lake Wakatipu, hemmed in by the glorious Remarkables.

The road keeps steadily climbing, but at this corner, the colour changes. The green farmland morphs into tawny golden tussock, with a few hardy briar roses and silver-grey rocks adding texture to the vast swathes of tufted grasses. Soon, we reached an altitude of 1121 metres; we had arrived at the summit.

Gently down

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The descent is curved and gentle with most of the Crown Range road following the Cardrona Valley to Wanaka. It was fun to observe the Cardrona River, which was initially a mere trickle, then a fast-moving ditch, then a stream and, eventually, it grew big enough to be a river.

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Lupines in shades of blue, pink, and occasionally white flower prolifically around the stream. They are as tall as a person and thrive in this cold dry landscape, adding colour to the gold and grey. In 1949, Connie Scott of Godley Peaks Station, near Lake Tekapo, bought £100 of Russell Lupine seeds—bred by Lord Russell for colour—and scattered them along roadsides.

She did it to make the world more beautiful and to give the high country a splash of flowers. In 69 years, they have spread far and wide along the edges of rivers and lakes and, yes, they put on a spectacular spring and summer show.

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But the debate is on. Are they an eco-nightmare, clogging streams and upsetting the natural ecosystem or are they a tourist attraction and dry season fodder for sheep?

An iconic piece of New Zealand history

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A stop at the Cardrona Hotel is must; it’s New Zealand’s oldest and most iconic hotel. The 1860s saw a gold rush in the region, and the hotel, built in 1863, was one of the four constructed during the era.

It is the only one left and has been hammed-up tastefully, complete with a tussock-coloured vintage car parked outside. The big dark bar smells appropriately beery and the walls are decorated with heritage knick-knacks, including portraits of the original owners.

Behind the hotel is a glorious beer garden where, even on a not especially cold day, there was a warm fire burning in a large stone fireplace.

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Flowers such as peonies, roses, and fragrant honeysuckle bloomed in the cold climate. The huge deciduous trees, probably as old as the hotel, were cloaked with leaves, filtering the air green. A cart and vintage farm implements decorated the garden’s corners along with a couple of not-yet-restored vintage cars in the stable.

It’s a terrific place to stop for an ale and the 14 rooms, modern but elegantly heritage, would make it a charming place to stay for the night. But staying was not an option for us; our next stop was Bradrona. 

Bradrona

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It’s kind of weird to find a fence with hundreds, possibly thousands, of bras hanging on it, next to a fairly lonely road in the middle of nowhere.

The bra fence emerged between Christmas 1999 and New Year 2000 when four bras were hung on the farm fence. By February, there were 60 but a few locals from Wanaka, who were offended, cut them all off. The story hit the papers and sparked an onslaught of bras, so before long, there were hundreds of them.

In 2006, the council deemed the fence a traffic hazard and subsequently a new bra fence, off the road and with parking, was born. It’s now widely known as Bradrona and was given a useful purpose. There is a pink donation box with a sign explaining that all proceeds go to the Breast Cancer Foundation.

Distillations

Look beyond the fence and you’ll spot the Cardrona Distillery in the distance. It’s made of local stone and looks as if it could be 100 years old, though it is so new that its first batch of whiskey has not yet matured to its eight-year-old sale date. But you could give The Source Rosehip Gin a try.

It’s the best you’ll have and it won a gold medal in the 2016 New York World Spirits Competition to prove its worth. Local rosehips are used in the formulation as are other botanicals: juniper, coriander seeds, and lemon and orange zest.

But the elements that make it award-winning are the pure mountain water and the fresh, clean mountain air. There are five bespoke stills, two of which are made by fourth-generation Scottish coppersmiths and one can see these and learn all about the distillation process in a tour that includes a tasting of the four products.

Distillation is not all about alcohol and, in the paddock adjoining the still, 2500 Damask roses bloomed. They are harvested early in the morning during summer and distilled to produce 100 percent pure rose oil. Heaven in a small glass bottle.

The final gong, on reaching Wanaka, was seeing Mount Aspiring—a perfectly triangular peak above a mattress of peachy cloud, shining bright in the last rays of the sun.

More information

Weather

  • It’s best to carry chains if you’re passing through the Crown Range Road from May to early September. It is a high road and is often snowy and icy in winter.

Stay

  • Queenstown: Queenstown Creeksyde Holiday Park. Great location, a 10-min walk from downtown action. Trees, gardens, and ducklings in spring. Call 03 442 9447. 
  • Arrowtown: Freedom camping at the Arrowtown end of Lake Hayes. Self-contained only (an instant $200 fine if you’re not self-contained) and stay two nights. 
  • Wanaka: Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park. Quiet, good amenities, has a dump station. Call 0800 229 8439 or visit wanakakiwiholidaypark.nz.
  • Albert Town Camping Ground: On a bend in the Clutha River, just as it leaves Wanaka. Delightful, spacious, cheap, and has basic amenities.

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