Twizel then Westerly Ho! to Ohau and Mt Cook


The Mackenzie Country township of Twizel (pronounced Twyzyl) virtually sprang up overnight. The name comes from the word Twizla, meaning fork in the river and was built in 1968 to house construction teams working on the Upper Waitaki hydro electric scheme.

Lake Ruataniwha - a Twizel Winter


There was a school of thought that the town would be deconstructed once the development was completed and while houses were selling cheaply and some apparently transported off site, Twizel's demise never eventuated.

The legendary head of the works in Twizel was the late Max Smith. It was well known he wasn't a fan of the bureaucrats in the capital city Wellington, especially their procrastination. So he went ahead and did much of the work, that they subsequently approved anyway, while at the same time diverting his diggers to create the magnificent and now internationally renowned rowing venue, Lake Ruataniwha.

When 'Wellington' found out what had been going on behind their backs, they were beside themselves with anger and although Smith was given his marching orders, there's no doubt he'd established the legacy that is Twizel today, of a valuable service center and popular tourist base.

How to get to Twizel?

Twizel in on State Highway 8, the main inland route on the South Island, which runs through the Mackenzie Country and south to Queenstown.

Twizel is near smack in the middle between Tekapo and Omarama and a simple turn off from the highway, takes you into town.

Twizel has excellent accommodation and and a handful of great dining options.

The accommodation includes unique luxury apartments, private home rentals and clean, tidy holiday parks, while dining famously caters to all palates.

There're only sixteen or so hundred people living here, though that number varies depending on the seasons. Much of the town in woven round a village center, meaning most things are within easy walking distance.

Picturesque Twizel

What is there to do in Twizel?

Generally Twizel is a base for visiting elsewhere, though there're some 'must do's' nearby. High Country Salmon, a short drive along the highway and the beautiful man made Lake Ruataniwha are well worth a visit, as is a cycle along the hydro canals.

The hugely popular Alps to Ocean bike trail runs by also and Cycle Journeys in the town has all the information on this, as well as assisting all your biking needs. My buddy Tarn Jones works there so make sure you tell her, I sent you.

If you've packed a fishing rod, you can also cast a line in the canal and you never know your luck !

The area, mountains beyond and vastness, is awesome when seen from the air and the nearby Pukaki Airport is home to a bunch tourist flight opportunities. Aviation Adventures are my favourites. They offer scenic trips in a genuine red cat biplane and a similar yellow one as well, as well as other options in their Cessna aircraft.

One of the most popular flights on offer, is the Dam Buster. A trip over the impressive Benmore Hydro Dam, including lunch at The Pink Glider Cafe in Omarama and back again.

The pilot is Chris Rudge, an aviation enthusiast. He's arguably the only guy in this country to have logged over a 1000 hours flying Hot Air Balloons, Gliders and Fixed Wing Aircraft. He's also flown choppers and seaplanes. His Mum and Dad were glider pilots, so it comes as no surprise that Chris is what he is, a great bloke and a good mate.

Alps to Ocean Cycle Way

Nearby Lake Ohau

About half an hour away is Lake Ohau, the turnoff is well sign posted as you head south on State Highway 8. Reaching a depth of 74 metres, Ohau is fed by the Hopkins and Dobson Rivers, originating deep in the Southern Alps. The views change with the weather and the lake can go from a flat calm to boisterous in moments when the 'nor wester' wind kicks in.

There's a small village along the lake shore with privately owned homes, while beyond and toward the mountains is the iconic Lake Ohau Lodge.

The Lodge has been here for decades and  has been owned by Louise and Mike Neilson for near 50 years. They've ensured it a very popular place to stay, with all levels of accommodation, a magnificent view, cool vibe  and superior dining. Walking, hiking, fishing and especially biking in the area, are major activities.

Lake Ohau

When is the best time to visit Ohau ?

Any time of the year is good to come here. Summer offers long, languid evenings on the generous deck overlooking the lake and up to the mountains, with a cocktail or cold beer in hand toasting the moment.

The season offers everything from a honeymooners retreat, to an adventurer's playground.

Autumn and Spring both offer their own stroke of colours about the place, while winter here takes on a whole new meaning.

Winter at Lake Ohau Lodge.

The Neilsons also operate the nearby Ohau Snow Fields.

Situated on Mt Sutton that stands high behind the Lodge, the area boasts terrain that is suitable for all levels of snowboarder and skier. Uphill lifts are modern enough and the base area has a quirky and warm cafe.

In days of yore, when the Eames brothers operated the place, the trip up the access road from the Lodge to the skifield was part of the day out. The route was a mixture of steeps and switchbacks and the brothers ran a fleet of Landrovers to ferry people up and down. It wasn't for the faint hearted, though you got the impression the drivers thought it huge fun!

These days an easily accessible sweeping shingle roadway, gets you from top to bottom. You'll likely need chains in winter, though there's always someone around to offer advice, or maybe give you a lift and save you the drive.

Time to backtrack to Twizel and think about Mt Cook

The Mt Cook Highway

The road to Mt Cook starts from State Highway 8, not too far north of Twizel. From here it takes about 45 minutes along the side of Lake Pukaki, to reach the Mt Cook Village.

Of all the spectacular scenic roads in New Zealand, this is one of the best. The permanent snows of the high mountains and the colour of the adjacent lake waters are awe inspiring.

The road is mainly straight, as it undulates through farming country and although of highway status, is susceptible to snowfalls, especially in the winter months.

The dominant peak approaching the Mt Cook Village is the imposing massif of Mt Sefton, with Mt Cook itself, viewed up the Hooker Valley that streaks away in the distance.

Welcome to Mt Cook Village

You're now 750 meters above sea level. The weather here varies greatly, from hot summer temperatures to freezing days in the minuses, in the winter. More than 200 people live here, though seasonal work can affect that number, yet the Village has a designated school and is the only one currently operating inside a New Zealand National Park.

There is no supermarket or mall, though the dominant building is the Hermitage Hotel does have some shopping available.

What do you do at Mt Cook?

Mt Cook is an adventure wonderland. Apart from the out of doors activities, the 'must visit' while here is the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre attached to the Hermitage Hotel. You'll pay to get in though it is worth it.

In May 1953, New Zealander Ed Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, became the first to successfully summit the world's highest peak, Mt Everest. On completing the climb, Hillary famously told the expedition leader Sir John Hunt, 'we'd knocked the bastard off' and became even further ingrained in New Zealand folklore.

What you'll see here is Hillary's long history with adventure, mountaineering, his projects in Nepal, the Everest zenith, from his humble beginnings, to his ongoing works and charities, up until his death aged 88, in 2008.

Hooker Valley Hike - with Mt Cook in the background

ALPS 2 OCEAN Cycle Tour

Mt Cook is also the start of the Alps 2 Ocean cycle tour.

This is not in the easy category and requires some biking skills and fitness. It's a 300 plus km journey from high mountains, lakes, vast landscapes, valleys and farming country, to the Pacific coast at Oamaru. It takes some days and can include stays in Twizel, Ohau Lodge, Omarama and Kurow. There're hot pools, swimming spots, vineyards and even a helicopter trip features on one leg of the trip.

You can choose a fully supported trip with a guide and vehicle backup throughout, or book your own journey.

Either way, it's a mighty effort through grand country.

How fit do you need to be go walking in the area ?

There are a selection of walks close to the village, though don't go rambling without a warm jacket and strong footwear, especially in the winter.

Moderately fit will handle walks like the lower Hooker Valley and a couple of the nearby observation points, however don't attempt anything else without checking at the Park headquarters. The New Zealand High Country is an amazing beast, though not one to be trifled with. You've been warned !

What is the best practise ?

Always check with the Park Headquarters and the Guiding operations, all of which the Hermitage has details on.

There're great tours operating out of the Village and this is definitely the way to go.

Everything from scenic flights, glacier landings, skiing the Tasman glacier and beyond (in season), the glacier boats on Tasman Lake and the icebergs, to individual and guiding missions (in season).

Any other tips?

If you're lucky enough you'll run into the incredible Mr & Mrs Hobbs. Mary and Charlie have been at Mt Cook forever and a genuine personalities about the place. Both are sought after professional mountain guides and skiers, while Mary is also a most accomplished author, active in all manner of causes and ' bloody good sort'. Charlie is also something of a legend and between them they have 'The Old Mountaineers Cafe' in the village. Despite the challenges of Covid and lockdowns, they've endured  and the Cafe is still a focal point.

You simply have to tell them..I sent you..

Whatever you, stay a day or three and enjoy!

Looking forward to exploring MACKENZIE COUNTRY? We can help with that!

Our New Zealand Self Drive Itineraries are a great place to start or Contact Us to discuss a bespoke itinerary developed with our expert travel consultants.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 24 Feb 2023 (Last updated: 1 Mar 2023)

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