The NZ roads even better than WRC Rally New Zealand

David Evans' first visit to Dunedin and the Otago Rally has left him stunned

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Cows? No, deer. What’s that log? It’s a seal. Are they birds on that jetty thing? Try blue penguins. And where’s over there, if we swim straight? Chile.

As first days in New Zealand go, this one’s been fairly standard. Fogged by jet-lag and a nagging need to wonder what day it is rather than what time it might be, Colin Clark and I have made it through the first day of our Otago Rally recce.

These words were, of course, supposed to have been with you a year ago, but COVID lingered on and prevented Roger and Norman Oakley, the sibling driving force behind this event, from inviting any overseas visitors to their event.

With borders very much open, a trip way down south would provide a very welcome bridge from México to Croatia. It’s never a hardship to cover a rally in the land of the longest and whitest clouds.

But, let’s face it, we all know the best roads in the best country for roads are north and south of Auckland. Otago does what it can, but it would and will forever be in the shadow of the stages which make up the nation’s World Rally Championship counter.

Or so I thought.

And how wrong I was.

I’ve done the South Island a few times, but rarely strayed far from the vineyards of Blenheim or the bungee ropes, jet boats and slopes of Queenstown. Heading east for Dunedin offered a new chapter in my rallying journey.

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But before we got to the roads and the recce, we had to find coffee. And cake. The Galley offered a perfect flat white and, more importantly, a view of the waves crashing over the breakwater which protected Friendly Bay from a considerably less friendly South Pacific Ocean.

We decided to investigate. And put Oamaru’s claim to being New Zealand’s penguin capital to the test. The place didn’t fail on the flightless seabird front, there must have been 100 of them packed together on a broken down old jetty.

Or at least we thought – and think – they were penguins. But sitting here typing this, I’m now wondering how those birds made the six-foot leap out of the ocean?

The penguin intel might be wide of the mark.

The seals were for real. And a bit shouty.

In fairness, we were minding our own business and walking the beach in an effort to, quite literally, catch a wave when that ‘log’ started moving. Then hissing and spitting at us.

Steering clear, we made the wall and watched the sea doing its thing. A quick visit to Google maps revealed just how far south we were… Patagonia was straight ahead, while King George Island would greet us if we drifted a wee bit to the right. That’s King George Island, Antarctica.

Safe in the knowledge that Sir David Attenborough’s job is entirely safe, we headed for higher and more familiar ground.

Saturday’s northern stages were the objective today and Earthquakes Road was a proper eye-opener. It’s super-quick and loose as loose; first on the road is going to be lively to say the least.

Shag Valley was similarly quick in places, but had an almost park-like feel to it. Running the way we did was interesting, but when we turned around to drive back towards the start, we were stopped in our tracks.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, weather-wise, but zero degrees and heavy snow were definitely a bonus for a sweater-lover like myself.

And the snow in St Marys Range on the Otago-Canterbury border was spectacular – especially from Danseys Pass.

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Shag Valley and Earthquakes were cool, but the 12-miler that is stage six on Saturday rocked. Halfway through the stage starts to climb gently with a light dusting of snow on the rolling hills which sit just off the road. Interesting, but not enough to divert attention from corner, corner, corner.

That’s until one left-hander opens up and a handful of mountains sit staring at you. We stopped and stared. The morning mistiness had burned off into a stunning blue sky and the clash of white peaks, deep green valley and azure up top was mesmeric.

Danseys Pass was right up there with the best of the best roads I’ve driven down here. Having heard Hayden Paddon talk expansively about how good these stages were, I’d often wondered how they could be that good without the cambered nature on the North Island. Suddenly, I see.

Otago has been at her absolute best today. She’s drop-kicked jet-lag into touch with mind-bending beauty and penguins.

OK, maybe penguins.

Words:David Evans