Wanaka used to be Queenstown’s poor relation; the former was the town where New Zealand families had cribs while the latter had a larger permanent population and attracted the tourists.
That has now changed, and generally for the better. Wanaka may be the smaller sibling, but it has grown and developed while still retaining its character so you know you’re in New Zealand, while at the other end of the Crown Range road you could almost be in any resort in the world.
Wanaka was always a better summer destination with more sun and warmer water; but Queenstown had the ski fields which made it more attractive in winter. If the credit for turning Wanaka into a year-round destination could be given to one person, it is John Lee.
John and his wife Mary developed the Cardona Alpine Resort, bought and renovated the Cardrona Hotel; were at the forefront of the campaign to seal the Crown Range road; built the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground on Pisa Range where motor vehicle and tyre companies test their products in winter conditions during the Northern Hemisphere summer; built the Snow Farm cross country skifield and lodge and developed the Snow Park all-terrain field for snow boarding in winter and mountain biking in summer.
A long and sometimes torturous plod through the resource consent process has just been rewarded with the granting of consent for a 3.88 km long gondola which will take people from the Cardrona Valley to the Snow Farm.
The Upper Clutha Valley Environment Society has been among a small minority of opponents to the Lee family’s resource applications. But the society won’t be appealing the decision because members’ energy is being directed at appealing another recently approved consent for the Parkins Bay development of a golf course and accommodation at Glendhu Bay.
John was profiled in the weekend ODT and because its stories don’t stay on-line long I’ll copy it in full.
JOHN LEE says he lives and breathes the Cardrona Valley.
‘‘It’s my life,’’ he says.
The 72-year-old’s lifelong connection to the rugged and scenic highlands surrounding the historic former gold-mining town of Cardrona is the driving force behind his mission to bring the boom times back. During the past three decades, Mr Lee has developed a range of alpine attractions designed to draw people and their all important spending habits back to the Cardrona Valley.
The former high country farmer turned alpine entrepreneur was granted resource consent this week to build a gondola to service the Lee’s family-run skifield operations on the Pisa Range. With the gondola approved, Mr Lee, his wife Mary, and their son Sam are now pushing ahead with plans to develop a 300ha skifield and resort, with up to five chairlifts servicing the southern facing slopes above the Roaring Meg Stream.
Mr Lee originally announced his plans for a gondola and the tentatively titled Roaring Meg Resort to a small gathering of five Wanaka journalists in December 2003. Less than five years on, the Lees are readying themselves to begin construction on a 3.88km gondola, which will be capable of delivering up to 1000 people an hour to his 1500m high Pisa Range alpine playgrounds.
Mr Lee has developed a range of businesses in, around, and above the Cardrona Valley, since he decided in the 1970s that the prospects for highcountry farming were limited. In 1964, he bought Waiorau Farm from his father and built up a 5000-strong merino flock on the Pisa Range high-country station. However, with almost 80% of the property above 1200m, winter and its accompanying snowfalls cut into the farm’s productivity.
The mechanisation of agricultural practices was forcing families and people out of the area, and Mr Lee decided a change in approach was vital if Cardrona was going to become a viable township. Mr Lee figured he needed to take his father’s greatest farming liability and turn it into an asset. By using snow as a resource to create viable business effectively reversing the hemispheres Mr Lee was able to bring in valuable international dollars.
Mr Lee bought Mt Cardrona Station, on the western side of the valley in 1970 for $44,000, with the vague notion of developing the mountain tops for skiing despite having little interest in the sport himself.
By 1980, he had built a farm road into the upper reaches of Mt Cardrona, where helicopters then flew people up to the peaks and they skied back down to the road. A $1.5 million government development loan funded a double chair-lift a year later making Mr Lee Wanaka’s skifield pioneer.
He bought the historic Cardrona Hotel in the 1970s as a holding operation, renovated it, then sold the business for $12,000. The hotel has since gone on to establish itself as an ‘‘iconic’’ Southern watering hole, thanks in no small part to its association with a Speights advertising campaign.
Mr Lee sold Cardrona skifield in the late 1980s for a ‘‘couple of million’’ and turned his attention back to the Pisa Range and Waiorau. He was granted a recreational permit for the area despite opposition from the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand, which was against any commercial development on land above 1200m.
Ironically, the one thing which helped him to gain consent to develop the Pisa Range highlands at the time a 13.5km mountain road has become an ‘‘outmoded’’ means of transport and will be replaced by the $16.6 million gondola.
Mr Lee has established three multimillion-dollar developments on the Pisa Range, with one the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground (SHPG) a straight business operation sold off in 2004 to a Christchurch group for $20 million.
SHPG is a vehicle cold testing facility, used by multinational car and tyre companies, such as Toyota and Dunlop, to test their products in snow, ice, and winter conditions during the northern hemisphere summer. It is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
For the past 17 years, Mr Lee and his wife Mary have put their efforts into developing the Snow Farm as a nordic skiing operation. It has since branched out to include summer-time activities and is used as a high-altitude training destination for triathletes, and occasionally professional rugby teams.
Sam Lee has managed the operations at Snow Park for the past five years and has quickly grown the terrain park into the southern hemisphere’s foremost alpine freestyle skiing and snowboarding resort. It includes a 50-bed backpacker lodge, and luxury apartments, alongside a bar, restaurant, and cafe. During summer, the Snow Park is reconfigured to the Dirt Park, with mountain-bikers replacing snowboarders and skiers.
The proposed Roaring Meg Resort will complete what John Lee calls his ‘‘Alpine Disneyland’’, and the long-term vision is about providing a destination, where everyone not only the skiers and snow junkies can enjoy the environment.
However, for the short term, the Lee family’s focus remains on ‘‘our catalyst for everything’’ the gondola. Construction is expected to take two years. Mr Lee says it will get around tourists’ hatred of New Zealand’s skifield roads.
‘‘This gondola will help raise the international rating of our skifield operations and it will bring more visitors to Wanaka and Cardrona,’’ he said.
Visitors, like their host, will be able to live and breathe the Cardrona Valley even if it is only for a short while.