The ‘best roads in the world’ rally that left Semenuk and Meeke in awe

David Evans has something of a love affair with the Otago Rally in New Zealand, and it's easy to understand why

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Short of dropping into Antarctica, I’ve landed about as far south as it’s sensible to go without a much bigger coat. And two sweaters. It’s New Zealand. Queenstown, to be precise.

I love this place. Always have. From the moment I watched a TransWorld Sports documentary on how gold prospecting was being overtaken by adrenalin-fueled tourism with folks clamoring to climb things. Then jumping off them or jet boating around them. That was 30 years ago. I first came here 20 years ago and would quite happily have stayed had the World Rally Championship done the decent thing and dropped its other events in favor of a dozen or so attempts at the Otago Rally.

So often in life, the reality simply doesn’t match the hype. If you’ve tried chocolate-covered pretzels, you’ll see where I’m coming from. The good thing about rallying down here is that you get affirmation that the roads inland from Dunedin really are some of the very best anywhere on planet earth.

Drivers come down here, they do their thing in Brent Rawstron’s Rossendale Escort then they do their best to miss their flight home in the hope of re-booking the same seat for next season. That’s because, quite simply, the best seat in the whole house of rallying.


Having missed out on the chance to drive in a WRC event in New Zealand, Meeke finally realised a boyhood dream in Otago

Don’t take my word for it, listen to Kris Meeke.

I’ve been fortunate enough to know Meeke for his entire career and we’ve been mates for – more or less – all of that time. I’ve always known one of his only regrets in the sport was missing out on a Rally New Zealand. So, when Otago organizers Roger and Norm Oakley were talking to Rawstron about who might drive the car this time around, Meeke was the obvious suggestion. They jumped at it.

So did Kris.

Meeke is all about the sport. He grew up in a world which smelled of Castrol R and sounded like a BDA. His father Sydney remains one of the most respected engineers and car builders in the history of the sport. Meeke Jr has inherited that same enormously capable technical brain – but he’s also blessed with an extraordinary ability to drive a rally car quickly.

If anybody could gauge just how good the roads were and whether they were worth the wait, it was Meeke.

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon and we’re standing overlooking the Southern Ocean. The sky’s bright blue, the horizon couldn’t be clearer – if your eyesight was strong enough, you’d be staring at South America. Just when the scene couldn’t be cooler, Meeke switched off the Escort and sat for a moment, just taking in the last two days.


Partnered by Noel O'Sullivan, Meeke took victory in his Escort

He crossed the line of Otago-closing Kuri Bush stage with a ‘yeehaa’ and a smile. The smile’s just getting bigger and wider.

“Best rally I’ve ever done,” he said. “Best roads I’ve ever driven.”

A full Meeke debrief on Otago is coming to DirtFish this week and I urge you to read it. It’s packed full of the sort of emotion and insight which marked Meeke’s career in the world championship as one of the most captivating to follow and report on.

The verdict was the same from Meeke’s fellow megastar Brandon Semenuk. The Canadian was driving a Subaru Impreza H6, one of the six-cylinder naturally aspirated cars so popular among the clubmen in this part of the world. For the two-time American champion and mountain bike God, Otago was a rally vacation and a chance to see roads which had captivated him when he’d been down under on his bike.

Semenuk, like Meeke, is desperate to be back. But next time he wants to bring the weapon he’s used to dominate North American rallying for the last couple of years. Predictably, the potential combination of Vermont SportsCars’s finest and fastest Subaru on these stages is one which has the locals frothing (it’s Kiwi for excited).

Again, stay tuned for Semenuk’s Otago thoughts as he prepares for this week’s Olympus Rally.

There is, of course, so much more to the Otago Rally than the rockstars who roll in and rule Dunedin on an annual basis. It’s about the culture and the community. One family who encapsulate that are the Smiths. Mark Smith works for Jeff Judd’s Magnum Motorsport firm building classic Escorts and Impreza H6s. His partner Deborah Kibble drives one of those Imprezas. And so does his son Tim. Tim’s brother Jack (mentioning him and his moustache to keep the peace) runs Hayden Paddon’s PR campaign. And does a very magnificent job.

I first met Deb a few years ago – shortly after I’d met one of my all-time heroes, Richie McCaw – at shakedown on New Zealand’s last WRC counter. She was incredibly kind and assured me I hadn’t made quite the arse of myself I thought I had when confronted by the world’s finest flanker.

Arriving in Dunedin last week, Deb presented me with a hat and hoodie from Kurow Rugby Club. I was speechless. Genuinely, lost for words at such kindness. Fortunately, Tim got where I was coming from. He was the same with Semenuk.

“I’ve always been into mountain biking,” he said. “I would stay awake until three in the morning waiting for his latest video to drop. He’s a legend and to have him down here with us is something else.

Semenuk, like Meeke, went down an absolute storm in Otago. And they went down a storm because they were just like everybody else: just drivers driving

“Jeez, look over there, it’s Brandon f*****g Semenuk… in Dunedin and he’s driving the same car as me. With dad working with him on the car, I’ve spent a fair bit of time with him since he got here and what an amazing guy, just totally down to earth and normal.

“And some driver, too! I got to follow his lines on some of the stages before we had a fuel pump problem. Talk about using all of the road! I was driving along thinking: “Where the f*** is this guy off to?” The cuts and the use of the ditches was just amazing – it’s been a real lesson for me and an absolute privilege.”

Semenuk, like Meeke, went down an absolute storm in Otago. And they went down a storm because they were just like everybody else: just drivers driving. And then talking about it. And having the opportunity to talk about it with legends of Kiwi rallying like Neil Allport, Brian Stokes and Andrew Hawkeswood. I know Jack’s dad pretty well, but what an honor to meet Neil and Brian, names I’d grown up reading about in this rallying dreamland.

I love that aspect of life in this part of the world. There’s no nonsense. Just get out there and do it. And whatever you’re doing, you’re going to be doing it in one of the most insanely awesome parts of the world.


Semenuk had so much fun, he now wants to bring his ARA all-conquering Subaru back for a crack at NZ's best roads

Driving back from Dunedin to Queenstown before the long trip home, I stop off at the Kawarau Bridge. It’s something of a clichéd pilgrimage, but it has to be done. This is where the madness started. Or it’s where the likes of you and I could come, for the first time, to dive headfirst into a 50-meter gorge. Prior to this, A. J. Hackett had tested the patience of the police up around Auckland as he and his mates tested their elastic on smaller bridges. Once they’d got the math and physics all buttoned up, they went to Paris and jumped off the Eiffel Tower. And from then on, the world knew Hackett’s name and everything he was about.

I love the guy. I love what he stands for: get out there and get on with it. Sadly, there’s no chance to fly without wings today. It’s time to switch a beautiful Southern Hemisphere fall for spring in Croatia.

What a week it’s been. Thank you again to the Oakley boys for an outstanding rally, which included 16 single-use stages running on time, to the minute. Brandon, Kris… same time next year?

Thought so.

One more thing I’ve just got to mention… anybody out there that fancies a shot at Otago in one of Juddy’s Impreza H6s, hit us up and we’ll connect you. You’re looking at around £5,000 to hire the car, a wee bit more for tires, fuel, entry, flights and a bed. And for that you’re going to buckle up for the best 170 miles of your life in a spectacular part of the world with Speights, Steinlager and Super Rugby on tap. Do it.