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The Farm Road to the Sky

In New Zealand, we take it for granted that if we want to go skiing or snowboarding, most of us will end up driving one of the country’s notorious ski field roads to get to the snow.

It’s a part of our daily ritual – the queue of cars at the bottom of the road all putting chains on in the morning is always a sign you’re going to have a powder-eating day on the slopes.

But it’s not often that we really think about how, & why our road was built. We don’t consider the herculean efforts that go into building kilometre after kilometre in some of the world’s harshest environments, with precarious drops either side. As we drive up the Cardrona road, we see signs that name each corner & section of the road, but don’t often ask how they got those names.

So we sat down with Cardrona’s founders, John & Mary Lee, to get the inside scoop on those names, & what happened 40 years ago to make them think building a “high quality farm road” up to a non-existent ski area was a good idea. Spoiler alert: most people didn’t think it was…

Cardrona wasn’t a ski area built by skiers. John Lee wasn’t a skier at all. “When I met John, I thought that was the end of skiing for me because he didn’t like it,” says Mary.

The idea for a ski area came about because of the lack of community resources for the Cardrona Valley, sparked originally by losing the local school bus when there were not enough children to sustain it.

Some of the locals up to check out the handiwork so far...

“Every farm had to pay 100 pounds and every family had to pay 50 pounds to keep the school bus going, & that wasn’t sustainable. So tourism was the answer to bring people to Cardrona. To get the school bus going, I decided to buy Mt Cardrona & build a ski field there,” says John.
“The other option was to make more children," Mary jokes.

The other reason to buy Mt Cardrona was to get a doctor to move to Wanaka. At the time, you’d be lucky to receive the medical attention you needed in time – it was a real issue for the community. Auckland doctor & friend of John’s friend Pat Frengley, Dennis Pezaro, told John if he could get a piece of land near Wanaka, he’d come down & be the doctor down here. A 60ha spot of land up the Cardrona Valley was owned by Don Mackenzie, who also owned Mt Cardrona. John & Dennis secured that land while negotiating the Mt Cardrona purchase, & Dennis ended up practicing medicine in Wanaka for 40 years.

Building the road took a lot of hard yards with the bulldozers!

A farmer could, as his right, put a road in on his own land back then. So John put the road in, & once it was done, he made an application to the council for resource consent for a ski field. They couldn’t look at the road as part of the application, because it was already there!

The road took almost five years to build. “I kept running out of money!” says John. At the time, many people told the Lees that they were fools to put another ski area in the same region – that & his money woes nearly permanently halted the project.
Doppelmayr Austria’s international engineer came down to have a look at Mt Cardrona in the ‘70s. As he & John walked the ski field, the engineer told John that once in every three years around the world he saw a piece of terrain that caught his eye, & Cardrona was one of them. That gave John the confidence to keep going.

John Lee & Pat Frengley working on the road.

John kept the road at a really mellow incline. He knew that if he was to get tourists to Cardrona, they needed to come up in buses, so he designed the road with buses in mind.

Almost 40 years later, we still see vehicles of all types heading up the road John & his friends built together all those years ago to send their occupants skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, sightseeing & more. John & Mary’s quest to build something that would help their community is a spirit you see right through the resort today – a spirit of working together to make a place everyone wants to visit, for the benefit of all Cardrona’s people.

This article is from our 2018 Heart of Gold magazine - pick up a copy on the mountain!

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