Southern Road Trip - the Lindis Pass to Wanaka - Part 1

The Lindis Pass

We're heading south from Omarama on State Highway 8 towards Queenstown. While it's not a huge haul at 170kms distance, it's a journey through time. The long straight road out of town heads towards rolling hills beyond a flat barren landscape. This is the very southern end of the vast Mackenzie country before entering the twists and turns of the Lindis Pass and its distinctive geology.

The Scenic Lindis Pass

The landscape will change on this route, as in the exposed rocks look different. This is known as Otago schist. It's a low grade of the rock, which was formerly a greywacke that has undergone some heat and pressure, as it gets closer to the alpine fault. Such schist is of a higher grade around Queenstown for instance, as it's closer again to the pressures of the faultline. The rock is also a popular building block and as you head further into central Otago province, it's not uncommon to see said rock on building facades.


Sheep Stations, Dunstan Downs, Birchwood & Morven Hills

Dunstan Downs looms up on the left. It offers farm stays as does Birchwood, which is a reasonable way up the shingle road on your right before the sweeping turn into the Lindis.

The Downs and Birchwood, like other sheep stations on this route are iconic for their longevity, as they are for their remoteness. Believe me when I say, this part of the country can be very cold cold with likely snow storms in winter. It's exposed and a lonely place to be if you puncture in the dark !

I'm a great believer of always having blankets in the boot of the car and a hip flask anyway.

Morven Hills Station on your left, heading further south into the Lindis Pass, is one of New Zealand's most famous sheep runs. Once an incredible 400,000 acres, the huge stone woolshed still stands and is a great photo opportunity, though the farm has been broken down into smaller runs since.

'Snow on the Lindis' is a a popular book by Madge Snow who grew up on Malvern Downs, which had been part of the enormous Morven block. Madge married Max Snow and they then took over the running of Morven Hills. Madge later retired to Wanaka.

Dunstan Downs high country sheep farm with Merino Sheep known for its high value yarn

The Lindis Pass

Soon enough you'll find yourself at the summit of the Lindis Pass. The climb from this side hasn't been too onerous and certainly defies the fact you're 971 metres (nearly 3,200 feet) above sea level. The hills all have a similar shape, style and colour and the carpark and information board, is well worth a stop.

Are there shops or any other services nearby?

Although nowhere in New Zealand is more than a hundred and thirty miles or so, as the crow flies from the coast, the summit of Lindis Pass is about as remote as you can get. There're no shops or services of any sort and very few people in any direction.The only buildup of 'population' is aboard the tour buses that travel the same highway.

Continuing south, what's next after the Pass?

The road is a little steeper on the southern side and a couple of the corners are tight and can creep up on you quickly, so best to pay attention the the suggested speed signs. The hills are close and barren and in the summer months, can look very dry and dusty. The road twists and bends for a while too.

Depending on the seasons, the road can be quite busy, with people heading to the southern ski fields in winter, or the lakes in summer. Remember to pull over for traffic behind you, as others can be quite impatient and use the passing bays, 'cos the road itself doesn't offer many chances to pass.

Tarras, Cromwell & the Ranges

Cromwell and Wanaka are about equal distance, as in an hour away from the Lindis summit.

We're going to go to Wanaka first. Tarras village is a junction spot for Wanaka and ultimately Cromwell, with both destinations being just under half an away.

This area is very dry, famous for its merino wool, award winning pinot noir wines, with the wider space the site of the first gold rush in New Zealand when gold was found in the Lindis river in 1857. Tarras is a cool place to stop too.

With the Dunstan mountain range to the east and the Pisa range to the west, the ninety degree turn here from Tarras onto State Highway 8A, sees you staring at distant high peaks and the main divide beyond. The road traverses farmland, the mighty Clutha river and soon enough, Wanaka town. As you come over the brow of the hill, the lake itself sprawls in front of you. It's a stunning place and a busy waterfront..and you're going to want to spend time here.


The name “Wānaka” is a South Island variant of the word “wānanga” which refers to ancient schools of learning. 

The first human settlements in the area were Maori, many of them being green stone hunters heading to the West Coast rivers. However as was often the case within Maoridom, a North Island war party traveled south around 1836 and destroyed these people and villages. A Maori chieftain named Reko guided the area’s first European visitor, Nathaniel Chalmers, in 1853. 

The first gold rush started in 1863 with the discovery of gold in the Lindis River and Cardrona Valley and by 1870 Cardrona was the region’s largest town with a permanent population of 400 people. The population of Wānaka wouldn’t reach 400 until nearly one hundred years later in 1960.

Originally known as Pembroke when first surveyed, the name was changed in 1940, to reflect it's Maori links, Wānaka is a South Island variant of the word “wānanga” which refers to ancient schools of learning. 

Tourism kicked off in the area in 1867 with the opening of the first hotel by Theodore Russell and some years later a paddle steamer by the name 'Theodore' was plying the lake carrying tourists.

Fast forward to modern day and Wanaka is a year round tourist attraction, with a borderline continental climate and its proximity to snow, rivers and lakes.

Lake Wanaka

What's on offer in Wānaka?

The lake for starters. Summers here are hugely popular and attract visitors from all over New Zealand and overseas. The village waterfront is a safe and sunny swimming spot, while Glendhu bay and others around the lake also offer some of the best water skiing, sailing and fishing anywhere in New Zealand.

Glendhu is an iconic camping spot, with people paying a premium to book the same site years after year.

Is it just a watersports destination ?

Wanaka offers pretty much every recreational pursuit imaginable.

Mountain biking, para sailing, skate boarding, hiking, climbing, jet boating and in winter, skiing, snowboarding, you name it, this place has it. Naturally it attracts a seasonal workforce and with that comes a youthful sort of vibe.

The place has also enjoyed an enhanced reputation with the global success of some locals in the challenging international snow sports arena.

How good is the skiing?

Two words, 'crazy busy'.

Wanaka is surrounded by world class skiing and snowboarding areas and is producing world champions with it's snow sports programmes, with names like Wells, Sadowski-Synnott and Porteous, already legendary.

The mountains here generally have good snow cover, with Cardrona, Treble Cone and the Pisa Range and while all comfortable drives from Wanaka, are best undertaken in a 4WD vehicle. Chains are usually required.

Cardrona offers skiing and boarders for all grades, with excellent chairlifts and on mountain facilities. One of its popular runs looks over the Queenstown Arrowtown basin and the lower part of Lake Wakatipu and accesses skiing into the Soho Basin.

Treble Cone, or TC, is similarly resourced, though offers terrain that is a little more challenging, while the Pisa range tends to concentrate on cross country skiing, as well as having an excellent terrain park.

Cardrona Skifield

What Makes Wānaka Special?

Wanaka is a genuine resort town. It is fully resourced and serves a population of more 12 thousand permanent residents, a number of whom are retirees, though this can swell several times over depending on seasonal preferences.

There're world class restaurants, a diverse shopping centre, bars, cafes and excellent accommodation options, with lots a private home rentals also available.

Puzzling World

Not far out of town is the remarkable 'Puzzling World'. Established in 1973, it boasts the world's first mega maze, a bunch of truly bizarre and unique illusion rooms with all manner of weird challenges to sense and sensibility, plus a great cafe to match. This place is an absolute 'must see'!

Warbirds Over Wanaka

Another enormous attraction for Wanaka is the biennial air show 'Warbirds over Wanaka', which is held Easter weekend of even numbered years, meaning the next event is 2024.

The founder of 'Warbirds' is Sir Tim Wallis, who lived and worked in the area and is known as a pioneer of the New Zealand deer industry, as well an aviation legend.

Neville Peat's most excellent book, 'Hurricane Tim', captures Wallis's remarkable story as a famed helicopter pilot and his 1996 crash in his Spitfire which almost killed him, notwithstanding a previous aviation mishap years earlier which broke his back. He was told he'd never walk again, yet he did.

The Alpine Fighter Collection at the Wanaka airport is Wallis's legacy and the event itself attracts participants from all over the world. 'Warbirds' pulls thousands of spectators and features all sorts of flying genres and given the mountain location, is one of the great air shows anywhere.

Warbirds over Wanaka

Lake Hawea

Lake Hawea via Albertown, is at least a quarter of an hour away and is at the base of the Wanaka / Hawea / Haast Pass highway. Less populated and less busy than Wanaka, with around 1900 permanent residents, it is nevertheless a sought after camping and holiday destination.

The lake is also a beautiful spot for boating, swimming, kite surfing, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking or just lazing on the beach. The camping ground here is well placed. Lakeside, good services and far enough out of the rat race.

Time for a wine and a lie down..

Good idea, as there're a bunch of wineries around Wanaka. A couple that jump out are Rippon, on the road to Glendhu bay and Maude's Wine tasting room on Golf Lnks road. Rippon Vineyard specialise in biodynamic wines and offer a tasting room at a lovely venue by the lake, while Maude are above the township and overlook the lake. Wanaka Wine Tours also provide an excellent tour of the local region.

Which is better Queenstown or Wanaka?

For a long time Wanaka was possibly viewed as a second cousin to nearby Queenstown, though long time locals will always argue they've had the better deal, since day dot. Though things have changed in Wanaka. The place has grown exponentially and is now rivals Queenstown as a destination to base yourself for daytrips.

Queenstown has an international airport, a global trade in tourism and a genuine resort vibe. The population's more than 120,000 and the place pumps.

Personally I prefer the less frenetic Wanaka, or even Arrowtown, though I'd never turn my nose up at Queenstown and its place as the Adventure Capital of New Zealand. Anyway, there're two ways of driving there from here, which are experiences in their own right..and I promise we'll do that soon enough.. (in part 2 of this adventure)


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Take a look at the self drive itineraries options provided by First Light Travel

Contact FLT’s travel advisers directly, online, to customise your own version. If you still have questions, the many articles on FLT’s dedicated New Zealand travel blog could help to answer them.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 16 Mar 2023 (Last updated: 16 Mar 2023)

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