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AWD off-road adventure near Queenstown, NZ

  • By Marcus Craft
  • 12 September 2018
  • 22 min read
  • 2 Two day trip
    Fancy an adventure-packed AWD trip in New Zealand? Head out of the south island's adrenalin sports capital, Queenstown, for awesome scenery and great driving
  • Light
    Dry weather gravel roads and formed trails with no obstacles, very shallow water crossings.
  • 2 Two day trip
    Fancy an adventure-packed AWD trip in New Zealand? Head out of the south island's adrenalin sports capital, Queenstown, for awesome scenery and great driving
  • Light
    Dry weather gravel roads and formed trails with no obstacles, very shallow water crossings.

The South Island of New Zealand, especially its tourism capital, Queenstown, is renowned for its myriad action and outdoor sports: bungy jumping, jet-boating, skiing, snowboarding, kite-skiing, tramping (hiking) and much more. There are also a stack of 4WD tracks – ranging in difficulty from suitable for a light-duty AWD through to hard-core trips that require a 4WD with an experienced driver, recovery gear, spares and preferably travelling with one or more other vehicles.

Our getaway was a nice balance of light off-roading, local-area history and plenty of culture. (Image: Simon Darby) Our getaway was a nice balance of light off-roading, local-area history and plenty of culture. (Image: Simon Darby)

Any getaway here can be as adrenalin-fuelled an experience as you want it to be.

We opted for two day-trip loops out of Queenstown, a nice balance of light off-roading, local-area history and plenty of culture.

Queenstown to Cardrona

Simon, a Wanaka resident, suggested a drive to Raspberry Flat, via the Crown Range, taking in Cardrona. Simon, a Wanaka resident, suggested a drive to Raspberry Flat, via the Crown Range, taking in Cardrona.

Mazda put us in touch with expert photographer Simon Darby, of Wanaka Photography, in order to get the low-down on routes that would be do-able in a CX-8 Limited, the equivalent of an CX-8 Asaki in Australia.

Simon, a Wanaka resident, suggested a drive to Raspberry Flat, via the Crown Range, taking in Cardrona, Wanaka and then a walk along a section of the Rob Roy Glacier Track that leads into Mount Aspiring National Park.

The round-trip from Queenstown is more than six hours, depending on stops and about 70 percent of the driving is on sealed roads but there are lengthy sections of unsealed road that can be quite corrugated.

The round-trip from Queenstown is more than six hours. (Image: Simon Darby) The round-trip from Queenstown is more than six hours. (Image: Simon Darby)

The first hour of driving out of Queenstown was a bit slow-going with some early-morning work traffic and people heading for the ski fields, but once we were out of the city limits it wasn't so concentrated, only patchy.

We headed up along the Crown Range road, a twisting-turning route up and over the mountains, traffic thinned out, and we dropped into Cardrona Valley.

No words will give you an accurate idea of this region's beauty, but I'll give it a nudge any way. The scenery here is truly amazing; it really has to be seen to be believed. The landscape is a breathtaking combination of mountains, glaciers, alpine lakes and river valleys – everywhere you look there is something incredible, something stunning.

The landscape is a breathtaking combination of mountains, glaciers, lakes and valleys. (Image: Simon Darby) The landscape is a breathtaking combination of mountains, glaciers, lakes and valleys. (Image: Simon Darby)

Maoris first traversed the Cardrona region around 1000 years ago, searching for paradise shelducks and taramea, a plant containing perfume oil, regarded as "liquid gold”. Well, in the 1860s, prospectors arrived in search of actual gold during the Central Otago gold rush – and the quaint little township of Cardrona was created. Nowadays, it is home to something just as precious in my book: Cardrona Distillery. This family-owned-and-operated business makes “great hand-crafted whisky, gin, vodka and liqueurs” they told me and after a tour through the premises – and a quick sample of some of their products (including Rose Rabbit Butterscotch Liqueur and The Source Pure Cardrona Gin) – I wasn't going to argue. The distillery is a great stop-off out this way; take a tour, taste the goods and even buy yourself a private cask (filled with new make spirit that will mature into single malt whisky) to enjoy in a decade or so. Bonus: The Cardrona Hotel is just across the road – but more about that later.

The Cardrona Distillery is a family-owned-and-operated business. (Image: Simon Darby) The Cardrona Distillery is a family-owned-and-operated business. (Image: Simon Darby)

It was time to hit the dirt … soon.

Cardrona to Wanaka to Raspberry Flat / Rob Roy glacier 

We left Cardrona and soon passed through Wanaka, a lovely town in its own right but not part of this trip so we continued on.

We turned left into Wanaka-Mt Aspiring Road for the circuitous one-hour drive to the Rob Roy glacier and trail head carpark. More than 20km of this drive is on well-maintained gravel – in fact we drove past a grader working on the road – but there are corrugated sections and if there has been heavy rain, the fords along the way, closer to Raspberry Flat, can rise to about 300mm deep. These little water crossings were very shallow when we went through in the CX-8 though.

The drive through Matukituki Valley is a spectacular one: with towering peaks and tumbling waterfalls either side, as you drive into Mount Aspiring National Park.

The drive is a spectacular one. (Image: Simon Darby) The drive is a spectacular one. (Image: Simon Darby)

From the Rob Roy carpark we hiked only a kilometre or two along the 10km Rob Roy track – I was on a tight schedule – dodged around cattle on either side of the walking track, took some photos from the Matukituki River bridge and turned around. If you continue along the track in order to get up close and personal with hanging glaciers beneath Mount Rob Roy, you're bound to witness grand views of glaciers, mountains, river valleys and alpine lakes – but allow for a three- to four-hour round-trip to reach the view point. 

Raspberry Flat to Wanaka to Cardrona to Queenstown

We headed to Wanaka's Federal Diner for a great breakfast and coffee. It's a cool joint with a low-key, friendly atmosphere – then back through Cardrona with a one-beer stop at the pub there, one of NZ's oldest hotels. There were log-fires blazing inside and outside this charming little pub, laughter aplenty from the apres ski crowd, and a thick perspex window set into the floor, which offers a glimpse into the exposed mine shaft on which the hotel was built.

A sneaky fun-seeker's getaway, up Snow Farm Access Road on the opposite side of Cardrona Valley, is the Snow Farm on Mt Pisa. The farm is actually a massive ski area with more than 55km of trails and activities include a snow fun zone, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding and more.

The Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG), a world-renowned counter-seasonal winter-testing facility. (Image: Simon Darby) The Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG), a world-renowned counter-seasonal winter-testing facility. (Image: Simon Darby)

Nearby that is the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG), a world-renowned counter-seasonal winter-testing facility which covers 500ha of land about 1500m above sea level – and somewhere I returned to later that week and spent a half-day there, driving on the snow and ice with Mazda. SHPG, with its snow flats, ice flats, snow and ice circles, handling tracks and ice tunnels, is used by carmakers from around the world to test vehicles in extreme conditions.

Queenstown to Cromwell to Clyde

Cromwell is an easy 50-minute drive from Queenstown, then it was on to Clyde before winding our way to St Bathans. Cromwell is an easy 50-minute drive from Queenstown, then it was on to Clyde before winding our way to St Bathans.

Sometimes an adventure trip involves a large chunk of history, relaxed ranging through the countryside and a bit of backroads touring.

Cromwell, an easy 50-minute drive from Queenstown, is another nice town which came to be largely because of the 1800s rush to find gold in the region – but it is also the home to one of New Zealand's most beloved odes to the sport of motor-racing: Highlands Motorsport Park.

We took a look around the extensive collection of cars in the National Motorsport Museum. (Image: Simon Darby) We took a look around the extensive collection of cars in the National Motorsport Museum. (Image: Simon Darby)

This impressive facility encircles a 4.1-kilometre circuit, which includes sections based on some of the world's most famous race tracks. 

The park offers a wide range of vehicular-based activities including an “experience” in a $4.2m Aston Martin Vulcan, fast laps, go-karts, winter driving, a 4WD adventure park and plenty more.

We took a look around the extensive collection of cars in the National Motorsport Museum inside the park's main complex, soaking up the history, and were then kindly offered a ride in one of the park's Highlands Taxis (a Porsche Cayenne), driven by a fair-dinkum race driver. Your first lap is a slow and informative guided tour of the 4.1km Highlands international-standard race track; your second lap is a white-knuckled lap at high speed.

Cromwell was created in 1982 when the valley behind the then newly-constructed Clyde Dam was flooded. (Image: Simon Darby) Cromwell was created in 1982 when the valley behind the then newly-constructed Clyde Dam was flooded. (Image: Simon Darby)

With our knees a-knocking from the fast lap, we made a brief stop at Old Cromwell Town to slow down a bit and appreciate the region's gold rush history. Cromwell lies on the shore of Lake Dunstan, which was created in 1982 when the valley behind the then newly-constructed Clyde Dam was flooded. Old Cromwell's actual business district, at the junction of  the Kawarau and Clutha rivers, is under those waters.

Then it was on to Clyde, a small town about 25km south-east of Cromwell, for a quick coffee. This is a town renowned for its gold-rush history, wine and stone fruit. Nice people and a cool place with a real historic feel to it.

Clyde to St Bathans

From Clyde we wound our way about 65km north-east through to St Bathans.

Along the way, we spied various entry-points for the Otago Central Rail Trail, a 152km-long trail, which traces the former route of the Otago Central Railway.

Opened in 2000, the open-all-seasons trail takes in “old historic gold-mining villages, country pubs, rugged scenery”, according to trail officials.
When the road turned to dirt and gravel, it's mostly well-maintained for those sections, although there were chopped-up patches – especially when we took a wrong turn getting closer to St Bathans.

Another of Otago's small towns created out of the gold rush, St Bathans has few residents – maybe 10 on a good day – but it's big on rustic charm, awesome scenery and the Blue Lake. This man-made lake, reportedly created as a result of sluicing operations around what is claimed to be the southern hemisphere's deepest mining hole, is a stunning landmark so we drove down the steep dirt track to its edge, to take some photos.

The Vulcan Hotel, built in 1882. (Image: Simon Darby) The Vulcan Hotel, built in 1882. (Image: Simon Darby)

If history is your cup of tea, St Bathans Hall, built in 1892, is New Zealand's oldest mud brick hall … but it was the pub, the Vulcan Hotel, built in 1882, that we were more keen on visiting. After a beer, a few of the area's famous cheese rolls (find out for yourself), and an interesting chat with the lovely lady behind the bar, we were ready for the easy drive back to Queenstown.

What's your go-to spot for fun in the snow? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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