An eventful weekend in Wanaka, New Zealand

Motatapu copurse, Wanaka, New Zealand I am lucky.  I live in New Zealand.  Land of the long white cloud, kiwis and hobbits.  It’s an outdoor adventure playground second to none and I take every opportunity to use its open spaces, lakes and mountains, bush and rain forest, coastal pathways and ridge top trails.  I trail run.  And my hobby has taken me all over New Zealand, seeing parts of this beautiful country that can only be accessed by boat or by foot.  One such occasion was the Motatapu Marathon.  An officially measured off-road marathon whose route works its way across the Crown Mountain Range from Wanaka to Arrowtown in New Zealand’s South Island.  It’s an amazing journey and only open to the public once a year – by entering the Motatapu event – a choice of an off-road marathon (walk or run), a mountain bike race or an adventure run.
For two years in a row I have run the off-road marathon and lived to tell the tale.  For me it’s more than just a run, it’s a real weekend away and I make sure there’s more to my trip than just the marathon.  Here’s a recount of the March 2011 event.  There’s three of us on the trip – all over 50, all keen trail runners.

It starts with a direct flight from Wellington to Queenstown on the Thursday.  A small aircraft, formerly Mount Cook Airlines, now flying under the Air New Zealand Link branding, seating sixty-eight passengers and on my March flight it was virtually full.  This turboprop aircraft takes two hours to fly the 640 kms distance (880kms by road) and flies across the Southern Alps.
The flight is an amazing trip in its own right.  Granted, the weather was perfect; clear blue skies, little wind.  I had no idea just how beautiful the Alps were when viewed from up high.  Even in March (towards the end of the NZ summer season) the peaks are covered in snow, with glaciers clearly visible, carving their way down the jagged mountain faces, separating the valleys and leaving their impressive footprint for miles. 

Motatapu trail through the Crown Range Our pilot is a seasoned Mount Cook aviator and gives us a running commentary on the lie of the land.  What’s more, because we are enjoying perfect weather conditions we make a flight detour to ensure passengers on both sides of the plane are able to see all the sights: the vastness of the 29km Tasman Glacier, the peaks of Aoraki Mount Cook, the braided channels of mountain streams, with their gravel bars and boulder outcrops rapidly becoming silted glacial rivers and ultimately turquoise blue lakes that belie their ice cold temperatures.

Lakes that once again become rivers, meandering across the Canterbury plains that run eastwards towards the South Pacific Ocean leaving behind the steep rugged mountains to a gentler, flat fertile land, worked by the farming families who underpin our thriving economy. 

Most planned air tours wouldn’t have such a perfect flight, yet alone a scheduled commercial flight.  We were extremely privileged. The decent to Queenstown airport took us right along the valley of Crown Range and I was reminded of the distance and beauty of this area that we will run through in less than 48 hours. 

Breathtaking views from the Crown Range Road We pick up a rental car and head north towards Wanaka, taking the Crown Range Road in preference to State Highway 6 which takes you on a circuitous, but less hair-raising route via Cromwell.  The Crown Range Road is said to be New Zealand’s highest paved road, reaching some 1075meters through a series a hairpin bends and strategically placed stopping points that implore you to stop and wonder out loud at the sheer beauty of this Central Otago mountainous region.   We pass the Cardrona Hotel and General Store; the only commercial survivors from a once prospering 1860s gold mining town.  We’ll have a drink there on our way back from the marathon.

Within two hours we are in Wanaka, a stop-off for us to stock up on provisions at the local supermarket and enjoy a late lunch in one of the many cafes that line the lake side.  It’s warm and we sit outside.  I eat a chicken and pumpkin salad mindful of the eat-well maxim I have been drumming in to my consciousness for the past six months in preparation for the event.  My team mates are equally disciplined but being guys can get away with homemade burgers.  A busker appears towing a piano and stool and entertains his audience for a cup of coffee and an appreciative applause.  Only in Wanaka, I think to myself. 

Wanaka is situated on the southern shore of Lake Wanaka, home to Mount Aspiring Park.  It’s a year-round centre for outdoor activities encouraging locals and visitors to make the most of the outstanding natural environment; fishing, water sports, hiking, biking, mountaineering, skiing, relaxing and exploring the many beautiful areas within its reach.  There is plenty of accommodation to suits all tastes and pockets, from backpacker hostels to boutique hotels.  You are spoilt for choice when it comes to cafes, restaurants, pubs and bars.  But we aren’t staying in Wanaka.  We’re heading 20 minutes further north to the settlement of Hawea, a cluster of cribs, holiday accommodation and homes to some 1600 permanent dwellers settled on the southern shores of Lake Hawea, itself just 1000meters distance from Lake Wanaka. 

Cardrone Hotel, Wanaka One cafe-come-general store and one pub completes Hawea’s local amenities, but you need little else when you can sit out on your deck, sip a central Otago wine or locally brewed boutique beer and take in a vista few ever experience.   We are staying at a friend’s family crib.  A crib is the South Island’s term for a bach, a basic holiday home and an iconic part of New Zealand’s history and culture.  Ours is a three bedroom single story detached unit surrounded by apple trees and huge pine trees sheltering us from the strong northerly winds that can dominate in these parts. An old wood burning stove fuelled with well seasoned firewood and pinecones gathered from the garden provides welcome warmth – even in the summer months the nights are cool in this mountainous region. 

It’s the Wanaka A&P Show weekend (officially known as the Upper Clutha Agricultural and Pastoral Show) so we venture back to this neighbouring town on the Friday morning to take in all that this annual event has to offer.  It’s an enormous show spread across the two large fields right on the lake front.  15,000 visitors are expected over the 3 day event which is supported by the whole community with some 375 trade exhibitors and participants for a wide variety of events from horse show jumping and Jack Russell racing, to Alpaca showing, sheep and cattle competitions, wood chopping contests and sheep shearing displays.  A Ferris wheel, produce displays and sales and tractors galore.  A true kiwi experience and a great distraction to the following day’s event. 

Motatapu vista We have to be at the event start for registration by 6.30am.   There’s only way to get to the start area and that’s by organised bus, simply because we will be driving over part conservation and part private land.   An early rise, a quick shower and a nervous check over our racing gear, forcing down a light but nutritious breakfast and we leave the crib at 5.30am in pitch black, stars still out, the shadows of the mountain ranges around us reminding us of the challenges ahead.  A 20 minute drive to Glendhu Bay, we park the car and join other participants on a 40 year old bus chartered for this occasion and befitting those kitted out in trail shoes and back packs.  No luxuries necessary. It’s a bumpy 15 minute ride over a dirt road and a further 10 minute walk from where the bus parks to the registration area.  It’s still pitch black.  We’re on farm land, there are no lights and no road markings.  It’s uneven underfoot.  Head torches on, we march silently in single file towards the distant sound of rock music and flickering lights. 

Swing bridge by Blue Pools And there, in the middle of nowhere, or the foothills of the Crown Range to be precise, we are greeted by the sounds of power generators drowned out by the noise of music designed to get the heart pumping and the feet moving.  It good natured and somehow it doesn’t detract from the beauty of the surroundings, with dawn just about visible and rising rapidly as we prepare ourselves for the hours ahead.  It’s going to be a warm day and we need to make sure we are hydrated and our water packs full before the 8am race start. This isn’t a race recount, so I won’t bore you with too many details except to say there are some 28 water crossings with no bridges, stepping stones or alternative routes – just ice cold, glacial fed water to wade through.  Some are just ankle deep streams, others full flowing rivers thigh deep with underwater boulders to navigate around or trip over. Of the south-bound 42.2kms run the first 34kms is mainly uphill rising to 875m, with some pretty steep pitches to remind you of the terrain, the last 8kms not as downhill as the course map promises!  There are four aid stations along the way; the camaraderie and support from competitors and volunteer helpers is uplifting the entire way but most importantly the scenery is truly breathtaking. 

The 360 degree vistas, stretching for miles along the valley, with tussock-clad hills and mountains towering on either side, water falls, mountain streams and rivers, alpine flora, native ferns and beech trees, mountain birds, sheep and cattle in the occasional organised paddock make every step worth while.  One minute you feel dwarfed by the sheer size of the surrounds, the next you are up high, looking down, mesmerized by its rugged, sun scorched beauty and vastness.   

Blue Pools of Haast You encounter the deeper rivers in the last 6 kilometers of the course, the leading mountain bikers (who have started 3 hours after the runners) catch up and the tension picks up as everyone is navigating the easiest pathway across the icy water.  Tired, but determined I push through to the finish in Arrowtown, loudspeakers celebrating every finisher, recognising the gigantic effort that has been undertaken and personal challenges achieved.  And suddenly its party time, more loud music playing, free beer vouchers, barbecued steak sandwiches and ice cream to be had.  And the recollection of the day begins.  Weary but elated, we limp in to the picturesque high street of Arrowtown for a coffee before heading back to Hawea via the Cardona Hotel for that promised drink and plate of chips. 

Sunday is a day of recovery, more marathon reminiscing and banter.  It’s also time for a dip in Lake Hawea to help restore tired muscles.  What better place to dive in to than the clear, pristine waters of a mountain lake.  We are the only bathers in this 141km2 ice bath and we don’t stay in for long.
The afternoon takes us westwards to The Blue Pools of Haast Pass in the World Heritage Mount Aspiring National Park.  We take an easy walk along a well maintained gravel path and boardwalks, through a native silver beech forest to a swing bridge high above the Makarora River.  Looking down in to clear waters we see brown trout darting amoungst the many deeply embedded boulders.  Looking up we view the breathtaking mountains of the Main Divide. 

Motatapu off-road Marathon We continue to walk deep into the forest to a series of crystal clear deep pools that have been carved out of the rocks by centuries of erosion.  The colour of the deep water is a vivid turquoise blue, the greens, whites and greys of the surrounding rock forms clearly visible right down to the to the pool floors.  We collect ancient pieces of rock to take home whilst listening to the call of tuis and bellbirds; their echo through the wilderness completes a truly magical experience.

Monday and it’s time to pack up and return to Queenstown airport and back to the humdrum of Wellington.  Not that Wellington is dull, far from it.  It’s a cool little capital with plenty of running and outdoors stories of its own.  Another time. 

I am a 55 year old mother of two girls.  An empty nester, professional person who strives to get a work-life balance having spent years juggling work and children.  At the age of 50 I was persuaded to run a little.  Now I run a lot! I live in a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city and regularly travel across New Zealand, to Europe and to the USA.

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Alison Green

New Zealand marketing specialist, silver traveller & runner

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