Featured photo: SIR GEORGE GREY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, AUCKLAND LIBRARIES
It is a now a direct, all-sealed, and exceptionally scenic link between Queenstown and Wanaka, but Otago’s Crown Range Road is perhaps more famous for a pub built on the original miner’s track in 1863.
By then reduced to a single country pub and the remains of the old butcher’s shop, Cardrona survived as just a footnote to the vibrant goldmining industry that had drawn thousands of prospectors to the remote river valley in the 1860s.
By the end of the following decade, the gold-rushes were over, only a few stoic Chinese continued mining, and it was left to Baxter and long-time Cardona publican Jimmy Patterson to keep the memories of the district’s glory days alive.
It was the gold-rushes that created the Crown Range Road, because what began as a miners’ track slashed the usual time it took to get from Queenstown to Wanaka and Central Otago, where the succession of new goldfields was being discovered.
Even today the Crown Range Road is the ‘alternative’ route, the preferred option being east down SH6 and the Kawerau Gorge to Cromwell, north to about Luggate, then west to Wanaka on SH6.
That’s 120km, whereas SH89, renamed the Crown Range Road some decades ago, is only 70 kilometres, and where the main road goes out and around the Pisa Range to get to Wanaka, SH89 goes due north straight over the top of the range whose name it now bears.
The reason the Crown Range Road has never supplanted the much longer main route to Wanaka is that it had to climb steeply from its start near Lake Hayes, eventually peaking at 1119.7 metres above sea level.
That elevation meant the road had to be routinely closed – June 1 was the usual date – for the snowy winter.
The road is often touted as the highest state highway in the country, but actually it’s not: That distinction rests with the Desert Road, SH1, in the North Island, though the Crown Range’s highest point is two metres higher than the Desert Road’s.
Like the Desert Road, the Crown Range was not that big an engineering challenge along the tops where it followed a succession of terraces, but it was a different story at either end.
The Queenstown end rises in a spectacular zigzag, first blazed on foot and horseback by the miners, then gradually widened first to accommodate drays and eventually motor vehicles.
The top of the zigzag presents panoramas of Queenstown, Frankton and Lake Wakatipu, crosses the terraces at the top, then climbs sharply again to the summit and startling views of Lake Wanaka before dropping down into the Cardrona Valley.
Much of the early widening of the road was done by Chinese labourers taking a respite from the diggings, and it was driven by the need to get the produce – mainly grain – from the farms on the surprisingly fertile high terraces to the markets to the north and south.
A further deterrent to users of the Crown Range Road was its narrowness, and the fact that its sealing was not completed until 2001.
That year the Queenstown Lakes District Council sealed the final stretch past Cardrona, in response to the new tourism gold-rush that had already begun by then and was to be given a massive lift by the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.
But it was not just the tales of hobbits that brought new attention to Cardrona and the Crown Range Road: The slopes of nearby Mount Cardrona had by then begun developing an international reputation as a high-altitude skiing and snowboarding field, later enhanced by the establishment of a world-class cross-country skiing facility at nearby Snow Farm.
Through it all, from its establishment in 1863, the Cardrona Hotel has overseen the evolution of the Crown Range Road from miners’ track to farm access to tourism and skiing attraction, and in doing so it has become an icon in itself.
The hotel came into being the year after gold was discovered in the adjacent Cardrona River in November 1862, and within a few months there were 300 miners working claims with names like the Banner of War, the Empire and the Raspberry and Soda.
By then the road itself had become the main thoroughfare for miners and industries servicing the Arrowtown fields.
Often touted as the most photographed pub in the country, the Cardona Hotel has clung to existence even as the three other pubs in the settlement that once numbered 3000 people closed, and in timber-starved Otago their lumber was re-used to build the town of Pembroke, as Wanaka was called until 1940.
By 1890 only the Cardona and All Nations Hotels (opened in 1873), plus a couple of stores and a blacksmith were still in business, and of those only the Cardona survived into the new century. This hotel is a classic of the gold-mining era, featuring a wooden façade fronting a building of local schist.
From 1926 until his death in 1961, the hotel was owned by Jimmy Patterson and his wife Ettie La Franchi, the daughter of All Nations Hotel owner Gioachino La Franchi who also operated a gold-dredge in the valley.
The Pattersons were famously discreet in their supply of liquor to travellers, allowing those heading over the Crown Range Road just one drink, and two for those heading into Wanaka.
When they took their annual holidays to Christchurch, they left the pub unlocked with a sign on the door inviting visitors to help themselves to the beer under the counter.
The pub has since been made iconic by Dunedin’s Speight’s Brewery which acquired it earlier this century, then set about building replicas of it in various parts of New Zealand.
The Cardrona River may well have run dry for James K Baxter when he picked cherries on its banks in his youth, but the pub never did.
Neither did Baxter run dry, not until his final years anyway, and despite joining Alcoholics Anonymous in 1950.