Hire and higher

The e-Golf at the bottom of the Ohau Snow Fields access road, newly recharged from the descent....
The e-Golf at the bottom of the Ohau Snow Fields access road, newly recharged from the descent. PHOTOS: PAM MCKINLAY
A heady mix of German technology and New Zealand topography provided food for thought on a skiing holiday, Tom McKinlay writes.


There were seven of us in the excellent Twizel bookshop, so it was getting a little claustrophobic. Like being in lift, but with much better reading material. The shop is not big as measured by floor space.

Tom McKinlay on the Ohau chairlift.
Tom McKinlay on the Ohau chairlift.
The first title I recognised was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which is terrific but not as good as The Bone Clocks, in my humble opinion. So I asked the shop's one staff member - only room for one - whether Mitchell had any new books due out. Without a pause, she told me its name and that it was about two months away. Good shop.

In the end I bought just the one book, knowing there were already two new and unopened titles with my stuff back at the farmhouse we'd rented for our holiday.

It was This is not a drill and had a bright pink cover with a dead penguin at the bottom. The penguin on the spine was its usual perky self. The book's subtitle is "An extinction rebellion handbook'' and it's a collection of essays by Extinction Rebellion members and their fellow travellers.

One of the first things I read in it was a quote from the late Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.

It started like this: "We stand now where two roads diverge'', and continues "The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth super-highway on which we progress with great speed, but at the end lies disaster''. However, if we take the other one, poet Robert Frost's "less travelled'' one, we might yet preserve an earth on which we can survive. (I'm paraphrasing and tweaking a little towards the end.)

On my holiday, I travelled on the same roads - regional New Zealand's relatively smooth state highways - as everyone else but I stopped more often in Twizel than most because my family and I were in an electric car and the one-time hydro hub has a public rapid charger.

We had hired a Volkswagen e-Golf for a few days as our Nissan Leaf would not have carried us where we wanted to go. Ours is an entry-level Leaf of the modest 24kWh variety. The e-Golf was a 200km-per-charge 32kWh chunk of German genius. Man, it was hard to give back at the end of the week.

The woman at the rental company desk had questioned whether I'd need chains with an EV. "You'll just be around town,'' she said. I assured her that I did want chains and set off for the company's car park, keys and chains in hands right and left.

Even as an EV owner, there's something slightly unsettling about switching on an unfamiliar car and hearing no engine noise. The e-Golf's austerely Teutonic silence was just a little oppressive, but was soon sorted by the only remotely Kraftwerk CD I had with me: The National's Sleep Well Beast, directed with a waft of the hand (no actual touching required) across the face of the control screen to track five, Turtleneck. Sample lyric: Keep the weed next to the bed; Light the water, check for lead.

Anyway, so we finished our Twizel charge - up to 95% of battery capacity - and continued to Ohau and its skifield.

I hadn't anticipated a trip to Ohau when planning the holiday. Our Book-a-bach farmhouse was midway between Tekapo's Roundhill skifield and the Mt Dobson slopes. But it was early July still and winter hadn't really arrived, so neither of them were particularly well groomed just yet. Ohau looked to be first up and best dressed. It was also the nostalgic choice. I first learned to ski there as a boy, introduced to the snowplough by Felix the Swiss instructor.

Ohau was 100km from where we were staying, but after a Twizel top-up we arrived at the bottom of the steep switchback 9.6km skifield access road with about 145km of range still showing. By the time we reached the skifield car park, that was down to 45km. Slightly less than I had budgeted for, but the Twizel charger was only about that distance away, so all good.

And as it turned out, there was no cause for concern whatsoever, as the battery regenerated under braking like an office worker with a triple shot. By the time we reached the bottom of the access road, the e-Golf's range estimator was promising about another 105km of motoring. That was good for several reasons, but foremost among them was that the road out to the state highway is a Mario Kart track par excellence. It would have been a crime to crawl along it, eeking out the juice.

In between going up and coming down, we skiied. There was pretty much only one way down the mountain, on the main trail. But that didn't bother us. We were just there for the day, and the lack of natural snow meant the field was punctuated by some very pretty rock gardens and very few other skiiers. I waited in a lift line not once.

Back when Felix was teaching the snowplough and we all wore jerseys knitted by my mum, Ohau was a t-bar joint. That's been replaced by a chairlift, which I'm not sure is a good thing. T-bars give you something to do. On a cold day, chairlifts are a bit of a trial. It was a cold day. I took my goggles off to get a better look at a clearing patch of sky, alpine cloud whipping across it with a wild cool quick energy. When I put them back on they were frigid.

Good stuff's been happening at Ohau. They installed mains power a while back to reduce greenhouse gases, among a raft of initiatives. As they say on their website: "Snow fields, in particular, are windows through which critical issues such as global warming can be observed''. They've banned plastic straws, make their own food from scratch and have a glass crusher to make aggregate.

Skiing is one of the most fun things you can do. There's that moment when you muster your courage and come off the edges, float weightless through the middle of the turn, then find purchase again. And repeat. And repeat.

I wonder sometimes if that mid-turn moment when gravity pauses, inhabits, in some more mundane way, the same space as the dancer. Like, during the Royal New Zealand Ballet's recent performance of black swan, white swan when Kihiro Kusukami, playing Rothbart, would leap and move and the whole theatre would hold its breath, forgetting and learning physics all over again.

I must ask my sister's partner Andrew. He's a proper skier, poised, graceful, sure and weightless. Like the pinball wizard they've never seen him fall. He grew up in Wanaka.

Andrew, his partner (my sister), their kids, my brother, his partner, their kids, and the four of my family were all on this holiday together. Baching it across two quite nearby bachs.

The retired farmhouse I was staying in was roomy and warm and homely. The shower was a bit rubbish and my bed had some interesting topography. But it was nice.

We'd remembered to bring the extension cord and an RCD plug, so we charged the e-Golf overnight for free.

Day two we decided to check out Roundhill. It was early in the ski season so the pot holes on the gravel access road hadn't yet made an appearance and I was in a VW Golf. They handle very sweetly indeed. And I was in an EV so had all that torque all the time. Was it as much fun as skiing? No, but then I had passengers on board. Otherwise, it could have been.

Roundhill had its shirtfront on but was otherwise a hairy hill, festooned still with golden tussock. But it's a t-bar field so gets points for that, and we were there for just an afternoon, so 10 or a dozen times up and down the same run was OK. Especially as, again, there was very little in the way of a wait required before a tow back up.

Ice from the Tasman Glacier accumulates at the terminal lake outfall, paused before oblivion.
Ice from the Tasman Glacier accumulates at the terminal lake outfall, paused before oblivion.
OUR final day in the Mackenzie Country involved a colder change, complete with rain. So we all flagged a final day's skiing in favour of other options. Some checked out Tekapo's new multimedia Dark Sky Project and hot pools, while my family headed for Aoraki and a gander at the goings on in the Tasman Glacier's quickly expanding terminal lake.

It was raining quite steadily by the time we arrived, the heavy mountains rising abruptly into low cloud.

The terminal lake itself was a tawdry affair, like the end of empire, all about things falling apart.

Grubby lumps of ice, some quite large, having calved off the glacier, were now beached at the mouth of the outfall river, waiting to melt a little more before being carried away to oblivion.

Most of us having failed to dress appropriately, we trudged back to the car in heavy wet jeans and squelching shoes, congratulating the international tourists we passed on bringing umbrellas.

The only EV (right) in the Ohau Snow Fields carpark.
The only EV (right) in the Ohau Snow Fields carpark.

Then we returned to Twizel to charge again, choosing hot chocolates to pass the time.

I read a few more pages of This is not a drill; from one of the later chapters on what seriously addressing planet-heating emissions really means.

What it probably doesn't mean is blatting around the Mackenzie Country in designer German automobiles, in order to slide around on manufactured snow. That's Marie Antoinette, let-them-drive-electric bullshit, I'm pretty sure.

And maybe the proof of that was sitting at the Twizel charger.

When we returned there this last time, another car was already hooked up. A matt black incognito something with no licence plates. It turned out to be VW's next EV, the ID.3, in New Zealand for testing, according to the breathless social media chatter. It's scheduled to go on sale next year, the bottom of the range model carrying a 45kWh battery, while the top-notch version will pack 77kWh.

There seems little prospect that kind of bigger-is-better ethos will ever be sustainable in an equitable way - or any way at all - on a mid-century planet of 10 billion.

The private car is a one way ticket to oblivion, This is not a drill reckons.

Or maybe that's just if we all continue to think we need to own one, and drive it daily. What if the private were more public?

What about if we only grabbed one on the odd occasion it was strictly necessary; via some method of sharing.

That probably involves a thorough-going redesign of urban transport for city dwellers, so we can get about our daily lives without the need for a car, saving the money we'll need to spend on the holiday hire.

Then it could be back behind the wheel of an exotic terrestrial space rocket a couple of times a year for a trip to wide-open spaces. I'd be down for that.

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