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The rusty belt

Doing what we Wanaka do

by Thor Iverson

The luxurious colon

Just what exactly is “luxury muesli,” anyway? 24-carat gold nuggets amidst one’s rolled oats? Or does it make your…no, wait, on second thought, never mind. I’ve felt some pushback from musing on muesli’s digestive effects in the past, and perhaps the world isn’t truly ready for such ruminations. (And maybe they feel the same about unsavory digestive puns. You know, the kind that leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.)

Anyway…it’s “luxury muesli” in our bowls this morning, and our bodies are virtually brimming with whole grains and crunchy earth-mother goodness. We’ll need it.

The mirrored crown

In a country full of ascendant byways, “the country’s highest sealed road” is bound to be quite something. And indeed, the breathtakingly beautiful and precarious trip from Queenstown and over the Crown Range is just that, flitting its way dramatically upward through golden mountain slopes tufted with tussock. It eventually flattens, shooting relatively straight along the Cardrona River to emerge high above Wanaka, a small but popular town draped across the southern tip of its majestic alpine lake. It’s a good thing the road’s downhill, too, because we’re running on fumes by the time we reach civilization. (Note to selves: next time, gas up before leaving Queenstown, because there’s nothing along the way.)

[Crown Range road][Crown Range road]
On, along and above
the Crown Range road
[Crown Range road]

We’d been to Wanaka before, though only for a few minutes on a seemingly endless drive to the glacial wilds of the West Coast, and had greatly admired something it shared with its nearby “sister lake” Hawea: an almost impossible sky-tinted blue, like something out of an unlikely but riveting painting of the ideal mountain pond. Today, it’s not quite that blue – whether due to season, sun angle, or mineral content we can’t tell – but it’s hardly less beautiful for it. We park near the beach, and emerge into a sun-warmed (but wind-cooled) paradise surrounded on three sides by towering mountains. Wanaka is vacation town for Kiwis and tourists alike, and buzzes with activities and the planning thereof. We stroll along the beach to shaded, calmer groves of trees on the lake’s southwestern corner, then head north along the Waterfall Creek path for a gently pretty, leisurely stroll through trees, shrubs, beaches and grapevines…that, eventually, turns a little boring. What cynical and world-weary hikers we’ve become in such a short time!

[Lake Wanaka flowers]

Wanaka beach bouquet
[Waterfall Creek hike]

A very confused tree

Let napping dogs lie

Back to the car we go, to retrace our steps via a road only a few dozen meters from our walking path, leading us to the dramatic entrance to Rippon, a strong candidate for the world’s most beautifully-situated winery. Vines descend in orderly rows towards the lake, which reflects both the sky and the snow-capped mountain peaks in mirrored glass. It’s awe-inspiring. (linked image ©Gilbert van Reenan, Clean Green Images)

Unfortunately, the wines do not live up to the view. The tiny tasting room, cute in its kitchen-sink way but a little warm for wine tasting, sits next to a cluttered open shed which sees some midday activity from workers on tractors, but otherwise everything is quiet. We enter by stepping over a rather large dog blocking the entrance…who shows absolutely no interest in moving, and in fact very little reaction at all to our presence.. Wines are poured by a rather sullen employee, seemingly disinterested in conversation and not much more animated than the dog, and we move as quickly as possible through a few of the wines on offer. The wines carry a “Lake Wanaka Central Otago” appellation, which (given the distance) is a useful distinction from the more planted areas of the Central Otago though the number of wineries actually in or around Wanaka can be counted on one hand (with fingers left over).

[Rippon over Lake Wanaka]

The view
[malformed grapes]

A bunch of problems

Rippon 2002 Riesling (Lake Wanaka Central Otago) – Fragrant, showing flowers and makrut lime leaves, citrus (mostly grapefruit) and a long, dry finish. OK now, likely to be better in a few years.

Rippon Rosé (Lake Wanaka Central Otago) – Non-vintage gamay and pinot noir. Sweet-tart raspberry and strawberry with a candied (but dry) finish that turns to plastic. No good.

Rippon 2004 Gewürztraminer (Lake Wanaka Central Otago) – Light and delicate, showing roses and fresh banana. Very, very fragile, and probably not what most people are looking for from gewürztraminer.

Rippon 2001 Pinot Noir (Lake Wanaka Central Otago) – Gravelly strawberry and cedar with higher-toned black fruit in the background. It’s lithe, with a powdery texture that clarifies on the finish. Lovely, though definitely second-tier vs. the greater region’s best offerings.

Rippon 2000 Merlot/Syrah (Lake Wanaka Central Otago) – Sweaty blueberry and roasted black berry with chewy walnut bark. A little funky, too; rancid butter, perhaps. There’s sturdy tannin that definitely edges towards the underripe, but very little acidity, and this wine doesn’t appear to have much of a future.

Theresa tastes a different set of the wines (they limit visitors to five) so we can sample the full range, though the pours are so miniscule that sharing beyond the purely aromatic is virtually impossible, and pronounces herself even less impressed. There’s clearly the possibility of interesting things here – the riesling, the pinot noir, and an unusual osteiner, for which notes will appear later – but also a lot of haphazardness as well. Rippon has a well-known name and reputation, but it would appear that they’ve been surpassed by quite a few wineries.

Let begging dogs sit

We spread out on a nearby picnic table, unscrewing a fresh, chilled rosé from a producer we liked a little more than Rippon.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Rosé (Central Otago) – Big, juicy red fruit with some floral touches. Fun and late-summery, and a succulent foil with wildly varying picnic-style food.

[Rippon dog]

Dogged persistence
While we eat, the door-blocking winery dog lumbers over to our table and plants his morose face on the bench right next to Theresa. It’s a subtle but most effective style of begging, though we don’t submit. Instead, we peruse a collection of touristy handouts from the Wanaka tourist information office. These are wonderfully helpful features of virtually every village, town and site in the country – part of New Zealand’s incomparable tourist infrastructure – that are all any traveler will need no matter how little advance planning they’ve done. Theresa’s reading a particularly hilarious publication obviously aimed at attracting business to the land of the long white cloud, and at one point is moved to offer this tidbit: “Did you know that New Zealand is a leading producer of airport conveyer belts?”

We share Rippon’s small picnic area with a pair of Brits, who are in the midst of an unstructured holiday that they’re already finding to be a lot more fun than they’d anticipated. We share some ideas from our travels and point them towards the tourist office, happy to be in the position of giving rather than receiving advice for a change. We don’t actually sound like natives, but like so many who’ve fallen in love with New Zealand, we’ve become part-time evangelists. It’s a strange magic, but a satisfying one.

Steel away

Post-lunch lethargy is to be expected. What’s not is Theresa suddenly discovering a hidden reservoir of adventure. As we’re packing the remnants of lunch into the car, she enthuses, “let’s try the Mt. Iron walk!”

Um, OK.

In planning our epic New Zealand adventure, I’d pored over the voluminous resources available on day walks in virtually every location we’d visit (there’s that tourist infrastructure again). Understanding our rather dismal state of fitness, I’d focused on the easier, more scenic routes, fearing that our enthusiasm for walking would give way to the cold realities of gravity and inertia. What I’d not counted upon is an actual improvement in our physical state.

[Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World]

An aerial puzzle
But Theresa is unquestionably enthusiastic, and I’m game, and so back into the car we go, driving a few dozen blocks out of town to a small parking area just across from the unmistakable jumble of Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. Mt. Iron rises like…well, it rises like a big pile of rocks. Not too imposing, in the greater scheme of things. But it is more vertical than most of what we’ve attempted to hike, and this will be the most arduous pedestrian adventure we’ve ever attempted together (I’d done some mountain hikes in my younger, more slender days). I tighten my pack around my shoulders, and venture onward and upward…

…and am immediately greeted with my inevitable but as yet unexperienced travel injury. I’ve a habit of acquiring idiotic personal damage on vacations, and after many weeks I finally achieve this rather dubious goal by ducking into a convenient public restroom, but leaving without paying attention to the construction’s low-hanging beams. Bang goes my overlarge forehead into a knobby slab of wood, leaving me with a minor bruise and a major headache, and leaving the structure supporting the aforementioned beam in a rather irreparable shamble. Oops. But I don’t hike with my head, and so it’s once more onward and upward…

…until, after a lengthy period of dusty ascendance, Theresa stops. She looks at me, sweaty and plaintive, and somewhat pleading. “Do you want to keep going?”

Now, here’s where years of togetherness and understanding pay their dividends. The honest answer, of course, is “no, I’d rather walk downhill and slug down a pint of something carbonated and refreshing,” and “no” is obviously what she’d prefer to hear right now. But that’s not the answer that she needs to hear. Psychology is called for, and psychology is employed. “Well, we can stop if you want. Or we could go back. I’d certainly enjoy going back down the hill. But…well, you know, we’ve climbed a pretty significant portion of this hill,” (a complete invention of fact on my part, as I’ve no idea how much farther we have to walk to reach the summit) “so I think if we keep walking, we should be there fairly soon. Anyway, we started this walk, and we’re pretty invested in it. Wouldn’t it be awfully lame to just abandon it now?”

There’s a long, breath-collecting pause, and a contemplative swig from the water bottle. She looks at me, nodding, “you’re right. Thanks for not letting me wimp out.” And with that, she turns, restrapping her pack with determined ferocity and starting once more to slog up the hill, a newly determined violence in her step.

Before too long, we’re indeed at the table-like summit. The views make the exertion worth it, from the bright, sun-reflecting spread of Lake Wanaka to the far-away ribbon of Lake Hawea, the brown and grassy plains waving towards the Cardrona Valley in colorful contrast to the blue-misted and snow-capped peaks of the rolling Crown Range and heaven-piercing Harris Mountains, but the real reward isn’t the views, but the satisfaction of a new frontier explored, a new barrier shattered.

[fantail in manuka bush]

Fantail in manuka

A thorny problem

Our descent is far more precipitous than our ascent, and we’re glad we happened upon the easier of the two upward paths. A pair of truly insane mountain bikers careen over rocks and gravelly skidways, just missing us with a hasty “on your left” as they pass, and agitated fantails ensconced in thorny bushes flitter and sputter in an attempt to distract us from their nearby nests. The flora is occasionally otherworldly, with haunting groves of trees shadowed by the mountain and redolent with the sweet scent of manuka, but otherwise our world is one rocky, slippery, and seemingly endless descent. Yet, when we return to the car park, we’ve completed our circuit in the recommended ninety minutes. Some triumphs are small ones, indeed, but we feel proud, energized, and alive.


[Cardrona Hotel]

No room at the inn
Our intention is to break our drive back to Queenstown at the historic Cardrona Hotel, for a drink in what most locals have assured us is a remarkable historical setting. Alas, the hotel is closed for a private function.

Back at our rented house, it’s a dinner of an ad-hoc stir-fry (beef marinated in a wild thyme mustard from a purveyor in Cromwell, plus spice-rubbed cauliflower) with local wine.

Olssens 2001 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Better than the tasting room version, showing lightish strawberry and plum with medium-bodied earthiness and a fading structure. There are some hints of liqueur on the finish, and a vague sort of heat on the nose (though I wonder how much this is exacerbated by the heat in the accompanying food), but in the end the wine turns out to be quite accommodating with our cuisine.

As we sip the remnants of our wine over yet another beautiful Wakatipu sunset, we’re suffused with ache. But it’s a good ache. I’d arrived in Queenstown with a belt slightly too big for my contracting waist, and bought a new one (from a cute and friendly but somewhat incongruous Georgia Tech student whiling away the between-skiing months as a post-graduate, pre-career reward to herself), but less than a week later the belt, clinging to its last attachment, is already barely able to fulfill its function; if I lose any more weight, I’ll need yet another new belt.

Either that, or a power drill.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.