Monday, January 17, 2011

Great Drives: Possum's Last Run

About The Route
Best time to Go: Weekdays from February to December
Places To Stop: Great scenic viewpoints found at 2.8 km, 9.3 km, and 10.9 km. At 10.9 km is the passes peak with a plaque documenting the history of the road and area, followed by the village of Cardrona at 25.1 km as well as the Possum Bourne Memorial located 7.5 km from Crown Range road.
Total Distance:  39 km  
Altitude: 1121 m
Route: Starting point is the village of Arrow Junction, 44°58'55 S - 168°51'17 E, where highway 6 junctions with Crown Range Rd. Crown Range Rd. winds drivers north-east, over lush green mountain tundra, finishing at the ski resort of Snow Park, 44°52'45 S - 169° 4'9 E.
Road Type: Rough tarmac road
Warnings: Highway will get snowfall in New Zealand’s winter months of July and August Watch for suicidal Possums, biting birds and epic rainfall.

To say that New Zealand has a car culture would easily be an understatement. Along with the Ford and Holden faithful who proudly adorn team jackets every time they take to the road in their Falcons and Monaro’s, one can predictable catch sight of highly modified Mitsubishi’s and Subaru’s at just about every traffic signal. The land of the Kiwi bird is also home to such racing legends as F1 Champion, Bruce McLaren, motorcycle land-speed record holder, Burt Munro, and WRC driver Possum Bourne.

Now you may be thinking, who would name their kid Possum? Well Mr. and Mrs. Bourne had no hand in the name their son would become well known for throughout the world. Like most teenage boys in New Zealand, young Bourne dreamt of becoming a racing driver. At the age of fourteen, he stole his mom’s car late one night, and went out street racing with friends. Streaking along one of New Zealand gloriously twisty roads, a possum had waddled out into his racing line. Now in New Zealand, running over possums is a national past time, a sport if you will, however the young Mr. Bourne swerved last minute to miss the doomed rodent, careening off the road and promptly turning mommies car into a ball. Ever since, New Zealand’s most famous rally driver has gone by one name – Possum.

Possum would go on to win several Kiwi, Aussie and Asia-Pacific Rally championships, driving along side greats like the late Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Kenneth Ericsson on Subaru’s World Rally Team. While competing at the “Race to the Sky” hillclimb in 2003, Possums life was snatched away when driving a recce run of the course. Another competitor was coming down and the two collided on a blind corner.

While touring in New Zealand last year, I had decided to make a pilgrimage to the memorial of the Possum, situated on the corner where he died. While just about every road in New Zealand is worthy of a Great Road write-up, the road leading from Queenstown to the memorial was particularly special, combining New Zealand’s highest mountain pass with majestic scenery and a glorious charge up the hill climb that was used for the historic race.

Now usually for these great drives I have the privilege of driving something sporty and exotic such as a Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4, or Mitsubishi Evo. However, on this instance I would be driving something a little different. The best way to tour through New Zealand is at the wheel of a campervan. However, I didn’t want some traffic slowing mobile hotel room on wheels. Instead after much research I went with the BaseJumper 2 from Wilderness Motorhomes. Not only did the BaseJumper 2 provide us with a queen size bed, full kitchen and bathroom, it did it all in a compact Fiat Ducato van with a very competent 3.0L diesel engine. The BaseJumper proved the best of both worlds offering luxurious accommodations and performance capabilities that held up no car.

From Queenstown, we head east on highway 6 towards the village of Arrow Junction where our journey begins. Just a kilometer out of Arrow Junction is the turnoff to Crown Range road, and it did not take long to find the good stuff as a magnificent hairpin complex challenges drivers right off the bat. These were not tight and narrow Alp type hairpins, but an open series of bends and hairpins that can be tackled in without downshifting to first. Once on top of the initial ridge, the road begins to traverse up the mountainside towards an early summit, providing a wonderfully winding road through challenging corners with an excellent view a deep vineyard covered valley that is the heart of the Central Otago wine region.

Up the lush grass covered mountain tundra we pulled off at the peak, for a look around, admiring the incredible views of the valley below and rocky peaks above as well as a quick read of a plaque, describing the history of the regions agricultural past and transportation challenges due to the mountainous terrain. Today however the main industry is tourism, as our next destination, the village of Cardrona is home to one of New Zealand’s most popular alpine resorts.

Off the peak, we plummeted down into a deep chasm that widened out into the Cardrona Valley, an impressive sight with high mountain ranges seem to lean overtop of a lush green valley without a tree to be seen. As we came through during the off-season, the small village of Cardrona was all but a ghost town, with only a small café open to offer a quick Flat White coffee to refresh the mind before challenging the race to the clouds.

However, there are two ski resorts in area, both with roads that exit Crown Range road just after Cardrona, one going up the east range, the other up the west. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure which mountain was home to the memorial, as there is little in the way of signage. So, on a hunch, I went left up the west range, and charged up what was a truly magnificent gravel road. The road was so great, with challenging corners and massive drop offs, there was not doubt this was the right way. Sliding my way higher and higher, up past the cloud level and into the ski resort itself, there was still not sight of the memorial when I was set straight by a resort employee telling me, “Nah mate, Possum’s ova on the otha side of the valley.”

All the better, another run down would be just as fun, and from the excellent view across the valley, the proper road up the east range looked just as salivating. The trip down opened my eyes to the steepness of the road. The distinct smell of burning brakes filled the air as I lean the big camper van into hairpins of doom, brake drifting to stay on the road. Across the highway we diverted, heading up towards Snow Park Ski resort, the new gravel road while looking similar from afar, was actually a much higher speed road, making the onslaught of high-speed corners all the more challenging. At least I had my brakes back though.

Another charge up the mountain, I could feel the racer in me urge to get out, as I began to left foot brake the van into hard banked corners, there was most certainly a sense of motorsports and speed in the air on the stretch of rally heaven. While popping my eye’s up off the road at select points to search for the memorial, my attention was snatched away on a very fast double apex open hairpin, the eye’s of Possum looking down on me as the sound of dishes and cutlery clattered behind me as I wheeled the BaseJumper 2 around the tragic corner. Perched high on a rock cropping, a statue looked over the valley, with a kind grin on his face. There is no pullout until the road cuts back, where visitors can hike down to the memorial. The Bourne family found the perfect place for the statue, as Possums figure has almost perfect vision of the entire course with the beauty of the valley filling in the entire background. Here’s to you Possum.

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