“Look!” I shoved the map triumphantly under Guilhem’s nose. “We don’t need to take the main road back to Wanaka! We can go this way!”
Te Anau was a far South as we were going to make it on our trip and we were busy planning our route back to Christchurch via Wanaka. The little place had wormed its way into our hearts with its stunning views and pristine lake, and we were determined to stop off there on our way North.
We had already driven the route along Lake Wakatipu and I was looking for something a little more exciting. A fine white line snaked away from the main yellow road on the map, linking a village named Garston to the slightly bigger town of Cromwell – not far from Wanaka.
We knew the road was unlikely to be paved. But put two adventure-seekers in a car together and “no that’s not an option” isn’t a phrase that comes up very often. We fed Elgrand’s bottomless stomach and set off.
There weren’t many roads on the map however finding the one we wanted wasn’t as straightforward as it looked. And it is surprising how easily you can get lost in the backroads of a place which has about thirty buildings. We made a few circles around Garston before popping out at an intersection with an arrow pointing right. Cromwell: 80km. The road in question was closed off by a large gate, colourfully decorated with a panoply of signs.
“Track not suitable for cars”, one announced. “4WD may be required” warned another. “Share the road with cyclists!” “Beware of livestock!”
We looked at each other with the confidence of the ignorant. We were used to driving on snowy, mountain roads back home. How bad could this be? Guilhem hopped out and opened the gate; I drove through and it swung shut behind us. 80 kilometres of wilderness stretched out ahead.
The road rose almost immediately. It was rougher than I expected, and steeper. Elgrand rattled and shook as I negotiated the switchbacks up the grassy mountains, the rear wheels sending loose stones flying. Doing any more than 30km/h was impossible; we would have done an out-of-control one-eighty and ended up facing back down the hill.
The view was spectacular as we rose above the valley, the vastness of the New Zealand Alps slowly coming into sight. After 10+km of climbing and what felt like forever the road finally curved up onto a slight plateau. A parking spot, a wooden refuge and an absolutely breath-taking landscape welcomed us.
Maybe the fact that there was absolutely no one else around should have warned us that this was far from a well-worn highway but we were too busy being tourists to think about it. At 3pm lunch was well overdue; stomachs were rumbling and as a picnic spot we couldn’t possibly have done any better. While I decided against setting my backside down on the cobweb-covered plank in the outside john (and picked a bush instead), Guilhem rummaged around in the hut and found two old chairs amidst the broken bunks, mouldy mattresses and other junk piled up inside. We high-fived and settled down to munch.
By the time we had eaten, taken some photos, put the chairs back where they belonged and picked up our rubbish it was closing in on 4pm. We had almost 70km left to go before dark.
Guilhem pulled the map out as I got back behind the wheel. “We should head off this mountain and then follow a river down in the valley.” Sounded picturesque.
It was. The sun was lowering; the light was gorgeous and the sheer emptiness around us was impressive and almost moving. We didn’t say very much, just took it all in. The road followed the crest of a hill before dropping down in sweeping curves. The surface was no worse than the one we had just been up and Elgrand handled it like a chief.
Then we hit the valley floor. All of a sudden our track went from rough gravel to downright rocky. The van jolted and bounced: I slowed from 30 to 15km/h. I wasn’t particularly worried, but this wasn’t quite what I’d expected. A quick glance sideways showed my co-pilot squinting at the map. “The river should be somewhere”, he told me.
And a minute later, there it was. Not to our right, or to our left. But right in front of us. To be fair it wasn’t quite the Rhine. But it looked like we were going through it regardless. Fun times!! Elgrand the improvised camper was about to try his hand at being a rally car. Not bothering to hide my excitement, I kept my foot steady and went for it, slowly but confidently. Seb Loeb can go back to karting: we rolled through and onto the rocks on the other side. That was cool!
It became slightly less cool when 500 metres up the track the river decided it was better off on the other side of the valley after all. Then, oh no, actually let’s cross again. And again. The trail which 5 kilometres ago could have been described as a little bumpy deteriorated until it was like driving through a waterlogged quarry. My hands were starting to get sweaty. I hadn’t sign up for an episode of The World’s Most Dangerous Roads… Yet Elgrand was still managing as I switched from automatic to semi-manual every time we hit water. I lost track of time as I concentrated on the challenge. There was no hiding from the reality of our situation: it was rough and it was seriously testing our vehicle and my driving.
Guilhem fiddled around with the GoPro on the dashboard to record our off-road adventure; the device was set to take a photo every 20 seconds. If we died out there at least people would know how.
A white 4×4 suddenly appeared ahead. Wow, we weren’t alone in the wilderness! Slight issue: it was a single track. I veered left and hugged the edge of what was masquerading as a road. “Not so close!” my co-pilot warned. Too late. My left wheels dropped into the gravelly ditch and churned. Without even attempting to pull aside the white Toyota drew up to within three centimetres of Elgrand’s bonnet and stopped dead. Great. The guys in the car equipped to deal with this shit couldn’t drive. I tried to reverse and only succeeded in burying us deeper into the gravel.
Two slightly older men got out of the jeep; their lady friends peered out from the back. I wound down my window and proceeded to have a conversation in German in the middle of the Kiwi outback. They were worse tourists than us, and they were petrified. I don’t know how long they had been driving for (I was about to find out) but the one I spoke to was at his wits’ end. “Is it much further?” He asked. “How’s the road? Does it get worse? It’s horrendous back there.” He pointed a thumb in the direction we were about to head. “It’s pretty bad,” I told him reassuringly. Now please ask your mate to drive your ALL TERRAIN VEHICLE through the field so we can get out the hell out of each others’ way.
It wasn’t happening. In the end they backed their monster far enough to allow me to slingshot the van out of the ditch, and reverse back to a slightly wider section as they inched past without setting a tire in the grass. Needless to say, Elgrand still almost lost a wing mirror; the vehicle was wasted on them. What we could have done with a car like that! But we were stuck with our ill-designed van and had to set our rally fantasies aside. The Germans disappeared in the rear-view mirror.
After a little (read: a shitload) more rocking and rolling we breathed a sigh of relief as the plain opened up ahead of us and the rock pit morphed into a slighter tamer farm track through fields. We joked that Germany must have some pretty slick roads if its citizens thought this was bad. They were really going to struggle with what we’d just driven through…
Our relief was short-lived. River meant water, and water in a field meant soggy, churned-up marshland. We were also about to realise that the rocky section it had just taken us half an hour to negotiate amounted to about a fifth of what we still had to drive through.
Ten minutes later my hands had gone beyond sweaty. Give me rocks any day… Elgrand’s powered rear end skidded sideways through the furrows; often it was easier to drive in the field rather than follow the deep ruts. Worst of all, the fords were no longer shallow and transparent, but sunken brown creeks. Twice Guilhem jumped out to check the depth. At the second one the water splashed up over the bonnet as the van’s nose dipped and all of us including Elgrand forgot to breath until about 200 metres up the road. At least the GoPro caught the shot!
Then we turned a corner and faced our biggest challenge yet: the road on the other side of what must have been the fiftieth crossing kicked up. It wasn’t much of a slope but it was wet and muddy, and veered off sideways at an angle. We had no other option, and stopping wasn’t going to help. I took a deep breath, tightened my hands on the wheel and urged Elgrand slightly faster through the water. His front wheels gripped the ground and I thought for a minute we were going to make it. Come on…! Nope. The rear wheels started spinning and sent a spray of mud backwards into the water. The van spun sideways and I had a very panicky moment when the whole right side tilted dangerously down the slope. I slammed my foot down on the brake and we thankfully stopped moving mid-way up the incline, albeit at a not-to-reassuring angle. Forwards wasn’t happening for now. Backwards meant reversing into the river.
Guilhem and I looked at each other. Our automatic, rear-wheel drive vehicle was stuck on a muddy slope in the middle of a deserted mountain range. Mobile phone signal was a dream as distant as the nearest house, probably more so. Our German buddies would have been too hopeless to help even if they had been there (come to think of it, it was surprising they’d made it as far as they had). It was by now past 5.30pm. Driving back the way we had come was an option we weren’t even prepared to contemplate.
To be fair, our Paris Dakar moment must only have taken 10 to 15 minutes. I slowly backed out of my precarious position, straightened up, tried again. Got halfway up before spinning out but at least avoided the sloppy right-hand side and stayed vertical. Reversed a little further, rear wheels almost in the river for a better run up… Elgrand revved, and roared, and skidded sideways… and found purchase somehow, somewhere, and we were up and over.
Guilhem staggered up the slope behind us with just as much difficulty as the van and got back in, drenched from standing in the river and covered in mud from the spinning tires. To say it was an intense moment was an understatement. But we were back on our way.
There were a few more sketchy sections. Two or three fords required closer inspection before making any forward progress. There was thankfully no more water over the bonnet.
A terrifying, 300-metre long, 30% incline finally promised to take us away from the river. We stopped at the base of it and walked up first, knowing that if the ground was even slightly wet we risked taking a dive over the edge or possibly worse, having to drive all the way back to Garston. My nerves couldn’t take any more. I handed the keys over and closed my eyes. It was dry. Scary, but dry. We were actually over the worst. Guilhem was almost disappointed he didn’t have to do many Loeb manoeuvres as after two and a half hours in no man’s land we drove through the first signs of civilisation
(Possible overstatement here: Upper and Lower Nevis each boasted two or three scattered buildings bearing recognisable signs of gold-mining history, and very little of current life.)
The road was once again a relatively rustic yet pretty harmless gravel track. The slopes of Nevis pass – the highest “paved” road in New Zealand at 1300m – were incredibly steep but reassuringly even and dry, and took us back to the real world as quickly as we had driven out of it.
Elgrand looked like he’d been to war. I suppose in car world he probably had. It had only taken us about four and a half hours to drive 80 kilometres. But what a ride!
To say we were lucky would be a little tame. I understand why we are the most hated – and probably the most rescued – type of tourists in New Zealand and will (maybe) pay more attention to signs on closed gates in the future. If there had been the slightest rain in the days before our drive we would never have made it through with Elgrand. As it was we didn’t even have to check if he had chains hiding in one of his many secret compartments. We also thankfully never found out where the spare tire was located. My Scottish gran and gramps must have been looking out for us as we played the silly road-trippers down New Zealand’s Nevis Valley…
I still wonder what happened to the Germans. Somehow I doubt they found the chairs in the hut and sat down to admire the view.