A whistle-stop 1,700-kilometre road trip around New Zealand’s beautiful South Island in a 997 C4S is highway heaven.
A month in God’s Own Country: it’s January and New Zealand’s summertime climate is balmy, traffic is light (even though it’s peak holiday season), flora and fauna are amazing, nothing bites or stings and the only snaking is the sublime hill roads. And to top it all, I’ve been let loose in a 997 C4S. Porsche paradise!
My boy Alfie has been living and working in Nelson at the top of the South Island for nearly two years and demanded a visit. After the 24-hour flight from Heathrow on Christmas Day, Mrs T and I relax aboard his 28ft yacht for a few days before traveling to Christchurch to rendezvous with 911 aficionado Brent Jones at the plush Hotel Montreal. Brent, who’s just finished making a replica of the RSR R7 that finished 4th at Le Mans in 1973, has sportingly offered us his 997 so we can go sightseeing around South Island’s beauty spots.
As well as an itinerary, Brent’s briefing includes an instruction on how to operate the radar detecting devices installed in the 997,something of a necessity on account of the teeth-clenching national speed limit of 100kph – just 62mph in old money. Coincidentally, we witness an armed standoff outside the Montreal as five squad cars apprehend a trio of miscreants, and their deployment of assault rifle, dogs and pistols is an indication that the NZ cops don't mess about.So, thus primed, we set off from Christchurch on the main A1 east coast highway.It’s mostly two-lanenorth-to-south with passing lanes, flanked by a single-track railway line and the Pacific beaches about 5 kilometres over to the right. Traffic is relatively heavy, much of it going our way because, further north, the road is still out of use due to last November’s earthquake at Kaikoura. Seventy-five percent of the big trucks are American in origin: Kenworth, Mack, Freightliner - and right-hand drive too. Blue lupins line the verge, with acres of prosperous vineyards beyond, dotted with tall yuccas and a haze of airforce blue linseed flowers.
We turn off left at Waipara and head for the Lewis Pass on State Highway 7. I’m glad of the radar detector, because the cops are vigilant and several times the apparatus alerts us of surveillance.Not that we’re going particularly fast, it’s more to do with habitual wariness. It bleeps, I slow to well below the speed limit –to the chagrin of the tailgating boy racer – and around the corner there’s the Holden patrol car. We’re on sweeping driving roads through the valley so we press on to our first port of call, Hanmer Springs. This is a classic spa resort, set in lovely hill-tramping country, but the spa itself is Butlins-with-hot-springs, tacky and overpriced, though the actual pools are OK provided you like people watching and an immersion in a series of hot tub smelling of bad eggs.
We hit the road early. The route heads on up to Maruia Springs and Maruia Falls, and because it’s used a lot more on account of the earthquake the surface is a bit iffy in places, but nevertheless it’s mostly smooth asphalt, meandering beside the river and interspersed with a few hairpins going up and down over the hill tops. At the summit of Lewis Pass we’re obliged to give way to oncoming traffic through a very narrow defile. There’s a real feeling of passing into a different weather system crossing the Lewis Pass from East to West, and suddenly we’re in the clouds. We drive through a forest of black beech, one of NZ’s indigenous trees. Their trunks are blackened by a secretion deposited by beetles, attracting insects because it’s very sweet, and an important feature of the whole eco system.
Large yellow advisory speed signs preface many corners, and a bend involving the slightest difficulty will have a sign with a recommended velocity for you to negotiate it at, ranging from an 85kph sweeper to a 15kph hairpin. Like all NZ road signs, they’ve been in kilometres since the country went decimal in 1967. So we’re in a right-hooker 997 with speedo in Kph, which in itself is a strange combination. As for these suggested speeds, in a four-wheel drive 911, it’s possible to better them by some way,unsurprisingly. So I might drop it into 5th for a “65kph” bend and hoof it round at 85, just for the hell of it, but in any case the C4S chassis is particularly sure-footed and takes everything in its stride.
Down from the higher slopes the climate changes and we’re seeing enormous ferns again. We’ve got the road pretty much to ourselves as it’s winding through the forest, mostly beech, birch and fir, while the sun’s burning through the cloud. Now and again, beside the meandering river we’re starting to see little abandoned coal mining settlements. At Reefton there’s a down-to-earth atmosphere, complete with a living facsimile of a miners’ encampment, where they’re trying to promote a town that was on its knees after mining finished in 1951 - and that’s not just coal mining but gold mining as well. There’s a really good ironmongers too, which is always the test; in Reefton I can buy a proper knife for those impromptu picnic situations.
It’s 415kms from Christchurch to Nelson on this particular route. The Buller Gorge heads north via Murchison on the 69 and then the 6 to Nelson - a town so laid-back it just wants to hug youand buy you a glass of local Pinot Gris. There’s a plethora of amazing birds and plants - and possums, which are a pest apparently, along with stoats, which they trap to protect the indigenous creatures, like the sonorous Bellbirds whose dawn chorus is a campanologist’s paradise. A mellow breeze counters the glorious summer heat and, reunited with Alfie, we swelter on the dancefloor at DeVille’s during the BattleSka Galactica gig. Further up the coast on the 60 there’s a distinctly hippie vibe at Motueka and Takaka, and we catch the Richter City Rebels’ eight-piece brass ensemble at the Mussel Inn,then crash at a cosy backpackers’ at Collingwood on Golden Bay. Glorious beaches, tidelines higgledy-piggledywith washed up driftwood, the ocean’s ever-changing sculpture park. It’s all too beautiful.
Leaving Alfie and the sunshine behind,we approach Westport on State Highway 6 on the Tasman Sea coast, and the vegetation has become way lusher with masses of tree ferns, and a limestone escarpment beside the Buller river with huge cliffs and overhangs to our left and single-file cuttings to negotiate. Date and banana palms and upside-down Monkey Puzzles tower in a riotous jungle, flanked by flaxes and tree ferns,while the road twists and turns endlessly along the craggy coastline with glimpses of black sand to our right, cliffs all covered in bush.
We climb up to the lighthouse at Cape Foulwind – noting the treacherous rocks looming offshore from the murky sea - and a little further on we pause among the tourists to view the amazing Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, incredible layered limestone formations jutting out into the sea where they’ve been sliced and undercut over millions of years. You would not want to get caught in the tidal surges, currents and blowholes here! The main road’s pretty straight now down to Greymouth, where we’re billeted in the bush in an Airbnb caravan. It’s snug as we scoff our takeaway, but gusting winds and the rain pelting on the tin roof make it impossible to hear the telly! So much for the privations of camping!
Aptly named, Greymouth was a port serving a mining community at the mouth of the river Grey, flowing into the Tasman Sea, and a total contrast with the vibrancy of Nelson. But now it’s brightened up, we’ve got blue sky and the road has flattened out, with a bank of exotic trees on one side and sea on the other. Broad rivers are in full spate, churning milky-water channels and grey pebble eyots, mostly spanned by single-track bridges;the railway line shares one so the tyres squirm on the inset metal rails.
A short distance south is the artisan town of Hokitika. We watch craftsmen and women create hoards of jade jewellery, while next door glass-blowers fashion penguins and kiwis in similar production line volumes. So many similar greenstone shapes to choose from, and apparently they all mean something in Maori folklore.There’s a driftwood sculpture contest on the beach, but in fact the waves themselves make just as an artistic job of it.
At modest main road speeds the 997 is proving economical but, mindful of a potential absence of filling stations the further south and the more remote we go, we refuel at Ross – 96 octane is as good as it gets, anywhere. It becomeshillier,andthe road windsthrough densely packed forest. We’re in a designated ecological area, getting into the Southern Alps, backbone of South Island, and the tall trees are covered in parasitic plants, from mosses to lichens to yuccas. Signs advertise salmon and trout fishing in three big lakes.
We ascend a serpentine road up Mount Hercules, mostly 4th gear, a bit of 3rd, 80kph, just the kind of road this car is made for. And for natural astonishment, Route 6 must be one of the world’s great driving roads - it’s 417km from Westport to Haast where the 6 tracks inland towards Wanaka. Meanwhile, our next geophysical phenomenon is the Franz Joseph Glacier. We turn off and join the ice warriors on the glacial trail. Tinged pale blue, it’s a wall of ice, a mile or so from the viewing embankment, filling an entire 12km valley and 300m deep. We learn that it’s receded that mile in the last 100 years, due to ‘global warming’, leaving behind a sprawling, icy river.
The 20 kilometres between the Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier is unadulterated ecstasy, a succession of hairpins going up one side of the mountain and down the other, traversed as quickly as possible at 3,000, 4,000 rpm, 3rd gear, 4th gear, sheer dynamic bliss as the C4 kisses the apexes and hugs the white lines out. There are far fewer tourist traps at Fox Glacier, and despite the short distance between them there’s very different foliage and taller trees here, all covered in the most incredible mosses and ferns,though the bush is less dense. A beautiful tumbling stream cascades beside the pathas we stroll the wooded walk.
Motoring south on the coast road again,there’s a succession of broad river valleys with fast flowing currents and single-track bridges over them.We’re heading into sub-tropical forest again.The plant life is just crazy, so effusive, lustrous and shiny,with so many different textures of leaves and fronds, encompassing every shade of green.Despite minimal traffic there are occasional road-kills – possums mostly, and a few pheasant-sized wekas.Now, where’s that penknife? Just short of Bruce Bay we turn onto an unmade road. Our Air bnb accommodation is a cabin set just behind the beach levee in a wooded water meadow. The beach is largely stony,strewn with huge pieces of driftwood; whole trees and root systems have been washed down the rivers and out to sea and then flung back again. The quantity of driftwood on the high tide line deposited during previous storms is a wooden palisade, stretching as far as the eye can see around the bay. This coastal strip has a backdrop looking east at Mt Cook and Mt Tasman – NZ’s two highest mountains (Mt Cook is 3,724m) -glimpsed whenever the cloud and the mist clears,revealing a little snow right on the tops, with the ridges enfolding and superimposed on each other into the distance. There’s a whole weather system evolving just in this one bay, where it appears to be raining at the cape to the south, yet it’s brilliant sunshine where we’re standing,whilethe air is full of sea spray from the crashing waves.
Our cabin Airbnb landlady’s sons are petrolheads of the 4x4 persuasion and want to know all about the 997 C4. I can’t tell them how many were built, though by now we’ve had time to take stock of Porsche volumes in NZ, and although I’m told there are more Porsches per head of population than anywhere else worldwide, the number we actually spot on the road in the course of the month is not large: maybe a dozen Cayennes, half-a-dozen Boxsters and a 996 GT3. After breakfast we hit the road again. It curls up and down the cliff sides, through densely packed forest and bush. There are few cars on this stretch because it’s not on the way to the honeypots such as the two glaciers or Mt Cook, or even Wanaka. Amazingly, theroad from Westport to Haast was only completed in 1965 so it’s comparatively recent, and the surface is good, too, though there are none of the little run-offs on the hillside hairpins that supplement similar roads elsewhere.
Approaching Haast, we go off route and motor swiftly – as in twice the speed limit -towards Jackson Bay,along a succession offlat straights with the sea just to our right. It’s going to be a dead end, but it’ll be our last chance for a beach walk on the Tasman coast. We stop at a little settlement where amongst the holiday ‘batches’ (cottages)there are 50 or so parcels of land for sale. A container-sized stack of lobster pots suggests local fishery, and there’s yet more of the bleached driftwood on this haunting esturine cove. The solitary beached vessel is a scruffy yacht that its enterprising owner has tacked a pair of outrigger hulls onto.
Retracing our steps back to Haast, we turn inland on the 6, where there’s an extremely long single-file bridge over the Haast River. Haast proves to be not so much a town as a collection of rafting and river boating opportunities, an activity centre with a handful of cafés advertising whitebait patties.Spurning these delicacies, we press on along the river valley, where the tarmac steams as the sun dries it. According to our road map, the mountains on either side are all personified – the Snob, the Joker, the Pivot, the Deuce, and so on, forested all the way up with some of the tops in cloud. They’re also very steep, and Mount McFarlane at 2,057m is snow capped. At the limit of the tree line there’s the tundra line, then above that there’s the snow line. A different kind of forest edges the road, with taller trees including beeches. The climb up and over the Haast pass is un-dramatic compared with those at Takaka and French Pass, and at Makarora we’re suddenly in a broad valley with serrated pinnacles ahead, heralding the vast, turquoise waters of Lake Wanaka sprawled in their midst. We pause for lunch at a roadhouse, and although there’s no high octane at the pumps I reckon we can make it to our next overnighter at Queenstown, 100kms still to go.The winding lakeside road switches from one bank to another at ‘The Neck’ to run alongside another inland sea, Lake Hawea. Glorious vistas in every direction.
There’s quite a lot of new building as we come down to Wanaka; virtually all houses in New Zealand are constructed of wood, rather than brick, say,and all the more charming for that, though the irony is that in England you can hardly get a mortgage on a house that’s made of wood. Wanaka is a popular resort town at the southern end of the eponymous lake,with all sorts of outdoor activities available,and the promenade is the standout feature. Queenstown’s the target, though, so we motor on. There’s a broad plain between khaki hills, and I suppose winter snow suppresses plant growth up there, but there’s a profusion of wild lupins, blue, pink, white and yellow. We’re entering another pass into the Crown Range between Wanaka and Queenstown, which is really a winter sports road. Successive signs indicate places where you should stop and put your tyre chains on, though of course right now we’re approaching mid-summer. As we head down from the pass towards Queenstown the landscape is a lot mellower with mown meadows and sheep grazing, and nearby peaks still with snow on them. There’s a lot more farming, big properties andit’s evidently much more prosperous.
Queenstown is a blast. So lively, with open-air gigs, buskers, fire-eaters, jugglers, amiable crowds milling around the harbour on Lake Wakatipu. The last coal-fired steamer sails across the lake twice daily to Walter Peak, and we relax deckside on a launch-bar, sipping the pinot and absorbing the holiday vibe. We’ve checked into the wonderful Hulbert House hotel,a late Victorian (1888)lodge, reached via a 45-degree hill, so it has a fantastic view of lake and downtown Queenstown. It’s recently been unrestrainedly yet tastefully restored, designer boutique style, amazingly well appointed, very comfortable, astonishing views out across the bay, and really thoughtful design, including specially woven carpet covered in Chinese motifs, fantastic super-size versions of Edwardian wall papers hung with archive photographs of miners, and we decide it’s quite possibly the best hotel-B’n’B we’ve ever stayed in. The restaurant’s not open in the evening so we eat scrummy Japanese downtown at Tanoshi Teppan. Fab breakfast at Hulbert House, though.
It’s 265km on the SH6 and 85 from Queenstown across the Otago plains to Palmerston on the Pacific seaboard. We make for Cromwell, passing Highlands Motorsport Park as well as several vineyards, and pull into Misha’s vineyard to buy some wine for Brent. After Dunstan Lake and its big dam there’s more terracing around Clyde, and as well as the vineyards and wineries there are apple and cherry orchards, plus a goldminers’ monument. And then we make a fairly major change of route at Alexandra, abandoning the 6 in favour of the 8 and then the 85 towards Ranfurly, as our Hulbert House host Vicky predicted there’ll be even less traffic going this way.She’s not wrong. Fast, two-lane blacktop with some nice cambered curves in the undulating landscape, the tourist hot spots now far behind us. Agriculture is the major facet of the rolling Otago region– livestock on rough pasture cladding a strange moorland moonscape, corrugated hillsides with jagged peaks beyond. Farms up here seem pretty vast too. A big farmstead nestles in trees: no ostentation, grey house, grey barns. We pause for lunch at Ranfurly, and afarmer and his wife sit down next to us in the crowded café. They want to know about The Grand Tour (too much money) and whether Matt LeBlanc can carry Top Gear (of course!), and we discuss our proposed route. ‘You have to eat at Fleur’s Place at Moeraki,’they say. Being a fishing village, there’s no mistaking Fleur’s speciality. Meanwhile it’s another two or three hours still to Palmerston and the Pacific, 100km of blissfully deserted roads. Palmerston’s Victorian church spire greets us, and a beacon on top of a conical hill must be a lighthouse. We’ve crossed from coast to coast and arrived at Shag Point, and then it’s north on State Highway 1, which, if you’re so minded will take you from Dunedin in the south right the way to Picton and the Wellington ferry,700km to the north. Or it will, once the road’s repaired at Kaikoura. Following our farmer friend’s advice, we head for Moeraki, a hamlet best know for itsbeach boulders, enormous concretions created over millions of years, as well as Fleur’s Place, where our selection of fresh fish is one of the trip’sgastronomic highlights. Apparently Rick Stein thought so too.
Downtown Oamaru is a big surprise with its immense, majestic limestone buildings, a legacy of Victorian aspiration when they thought they were matching San Francisco and LA. Fabulous neo-classical architecture, civic and commercial, built when they envisaged a major port, many now given over to indoor markets and art galleries like the SteamPunk Museum and motor-racing orientated Classic Car collection. We overnight at the Pen-y-Bryn, B’n’B plus haut cuisine gourmet dinner in a charmingly restored Victorian lodge.
It’s 250km from Oamaru to Christchurch on the A1, heading north towards Timaru, and at Geraldine we veer left off the main drag on to the 72, the signposted ‘scenic route’ to Christchurch via Mount Hutt.Long, long straights traversing the flat coastal plain. It’s warm and sunny and – unusually - the 997’s sunroof is open. So, inevitably, it’s where I get nicked for speeding. The rushing wind noise from the open top obscures the Beltronics’ warning bleeps, and there he is, lurking in a farm track. He’s in so much of a hurry to nail us that he gets the Holden in a muddle on the verge as he spins it around. No mercy of course, despite playing the dimPomcard: ‘I’d like to send you on your way with just a warning, but you’re in the system now,’ he gloats. So, pulled for doing 129kph on an arrow-straight road. The fine is 230 bucks, ‘same as our dinner last night,’ remarks Mrs T. I count myself lucky: 140kph is a ban.
Driving Brent's 911 RSR around Reuaeuna Race Track
There’s also an opportunity to have a go in his newly-built 911 RSR replica on Ruapuna circuit; it’s a faithful copy of the Martini RSR with the ‘Mary Stuart collar’ rear spoiler that came 4th at Le Mans in 1973, the replica built in Christchurch last year by Jason Burke at Burke’s Metalworks and assembled and fettled by Wayne Graves’ independent Porsche specialists Autothority, using NOS parts sourced from TwinSpark Racing in Holland. It’s a real pleasure to drive on track, and Brent has since raced it successfully in NZ historics.
Back in Christchurch weoffload our stuff at the sumptuous George Hotel and I take the 997 around Hagley Park for a splash-’n’-dash before returning it to Brent. It’s an awkward denouement. Car abluted, I try to move off from the carwash, but it won’t budge. I phone Brent. The assumption is that the clutch has gone, and he’s philosophical: ‘I’ve done a few track days with it, and it’s 10 years old,just one of those things,’ he says. ‘Lucky it’s happened here and not in the middle of nowhere.’ Trailered ignominiously to Christchurch specialists Archibald’s, they dismantle it a few days later and discover that the dual-mass flywheel has split in two. ‘The rivets that hold it together had all sheared off,’ Brent reports; ‘half the rivets were partly cracked, and the others have given way. They haven’t seen that happen before. But I suspect that a few track daysand a few slalom runs on Porsche club events have contributed to its demise.’ Brent is remarkably sanguine, and we spend the last few days of our trip at his holiday home at Akaroa on the spectacular Banks Peninsular. Our 997 road triphas covered 1,757km – 1,091 miles – on the most fabulous roads and through the most gorgeous scenery. I can’twait to go back.