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Misty mountain stop

Aoraki approaches...we think

by Thor Iverson

Rain song

Upon us all, a little rain must fall. At least, that was the opinion of underappreciated seventies philosopher Robert Plant. But I suspect he didn’t mean this much rain. It’s a classic New Zealand deluge…clouds piling up against barrier mountains, then reeling over them to drench the heads, shoes and spirits of any unfortunates on their eastward flanks…and it’s the one and only bane of the tourist in this otherwise beautiful land. Thankfully, we don’t have to care that much, because today is a travel day.

There’s only one way to fortify ourselves for the journey ahead, and that’s a pair of over-the-top breakfast sandwiches paired with soul-reviving flat whites at Joe’s Garage. Let the rain fall. We don’t care!

…on second thought, perhaps we do. Departure from our Queenstown idyll is marked by that rarest of local occurrences: a complete absence of view. Lake Wakatipu is a dull mirror of blackened blue, and the Remarkables are remarkably invisible. It’s an anticlimactic way to say farewell.

On the way out of town, with the rain still thundering down, we stop at Peregrine so Theresa can taste a sampling of their remarkable lineup. I point her towards the bottles she’s most likely to enjoy, and as a sort of karmic reward get to try a wine that was not available for tasting on my previous visit.

Wentworth 2002 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – This is the prestige cuvée at Peregrine, a sort of “reserve” bottling that carries the original name of the estate. It’s dense and even a little hard, with concentrated, spicy black plum, bitter leaves and cherries. Mostly, it’s way too young to evaluate, much less enjoy. I suspect the intent is that this will outlive the Peregrine pinot due to superior structure. I’m less sure, because I think it’s a very open question whether this is actually better, despite the surplus framing. Time will tell.

The reason for the open Wentworth soon becomes clear. Peregrine honcho Greg Hay is in the room, and standing next to him is James Healy, formerly of Cloudy Bay and now of Dog Point. If there’s royalty in New Zealand winemaking, Healy’s probably somewhere in the hierarchy.

Ghost vine

At Cromwell, we choose a slight detour to come up the eastern side of Lake Dunstan. Not because the scenery is any different than it is on the western shores, but upon the advice of Felton Road’s Blair Walter, who mentioned some interesting things happening on the northern end.

He wasn’t kidding. In the eerie, deserted settlement of Bendigo, with crumbling rock walls, huts, and rotting wagons on a dry, desolate hillside, can be found the dirty little secret of Central Otago winemaking. Well, OK, not dirty…and not that little, either. There’s a virtual sea of vines here, perhaps more unified and expansive than anything in New Zealand outside Marlborough, and yet other than a single sign at the beginning of the loop road, there’s no indication of who owns or farms what. It’s a disconcerting sight, primarily because there are no wineries – in fact, no buildings at all – and the vines seem as orphaned and desolate as the ruins in the abandoned gold fields above them.

[abandoned cart]

After the horse
[lindis pass]

Lindis a hand

The plain truth

Just north of Bendigo, we once more head into uncharted territory; the westward road would take us to Wanaka, and then, far beyond, to the glaciers and rainforests of the West Coast. Instead, we head northeast, through the tussock-carpeted hills of the Lindis Valley. At first, it seems an unbroken monotonic vista, but as we ascend – virtually alone on this long, winding road – towards the Lindis Pass, subtle shadings of green and brown emerge. It’s stark, but it has a fierce beauty. And it’s yet another new terrain in a country that is absolutely littered with variation.

Eventually, the road straightens over the wide plain between Omarama and Twizel. This is the Mackenzie Basin, marked by a remarkable expanse of flatness bracketed on all sides by mountain ranges...including the mighty Southern Alps, the tallest peaks in all of New Zealand.

Cooking up a storm

After Twizel, the road turns and climbs a pine-forested hillside along the milky green soup of Lake Pukaki. The signs of glacial runoff are unmistakable, though the glaciers in this area are – as everywhere else – in ultra-rapid retreat. We hike through head-height ferns to the water’s edge, but are not rewarded for our journey, as the northern end of the lake is obscured by dense clouds. Clouds that block the sight we crave: Aoraki Mt. Cook, the highest peak in the country, and a national symbol for both the native Maori and all subsequent settlers.

[lake pukaki]

Pukaki rink

Fully fernished

[pukaki headwaters]

Pukaki mix
At the lake’s head, where shallow rivers churn their opaque turquoise into the basin below, the land is almost absurdly flat. Scrub brush and gnarled, thorny bushes dot a desolate landscape of rocks and rivulets. Yet in every direction except southward, along the lake, cliffs and mountains rise vertiginously into the mist, their peaks dripping with grayed-out snow. And now the rain, which we’d left behind as far back as Cromwell, returns in force.

Mt. Cook Village is a small hodge-podge of buildings, ranging from dorm-like and functional to luxurious. At the center of it all is The Hermitage, a complex of tourist lodgings, restaurants and shops. It’s a beautiful structure that blends into the landscape, though as (almost) the sole proprietor in this location, it can and does charge virtual hostage rates for both lodging and dining. We avoid much of this by renting a self-catering chalet, a crisp and modern A-frame structure just a few meters from the main hotel. It’s apparently check-in time, as busloads of Japanese, Chinese and English tourists mill around the lobby, lending a bit of a cruise ship feel to the environment. Outside, keas frolic and fight, but the surrounding peaks remain hidden.

We unpack, walk to the hotel for overpriced drinks at the comfy Snowline Bar (which would, under better circumstances, have a spectacular view), then return to our chalet for dinner as hordes pack the hotel’s three dining rooms.

Lagavulin 12 Year Scotch Whisky (Islay) – Deeply complex and enticing, though vividly warm; it, rather than a roaring fireplace, is the true heat source in almost any room.

Carrick 2003 Pinot Noir “Unravelled” (Central Otago) – Leftovers from yesterday, and the wine – almost remarkably – seems to be gaining depth and complexity from the extended aeration. That’s unexpected in what is, still, a lighter, earlier-drinking bottling. There’s plum, earth and cherry, plus some citrus rind and good acidity. A fresh, eminently drinkable pinot, sold at a reasonable price.

[pukaki plain]

A thorny issue
[mt. cook obscured]

Missing Mt. Cook

Rain continues to fall, clouds shrink the horizon, and mountains brood behind their misty veils. Will tomorrow reward us with a glimpse of what we’ve come all this way to see?

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.