Juicy lamb chops aside, New Zealand’s South Island offers awesome driving roads – without the bothersome traffic
Southern Cross

Muttering “Five... six... seven...” under my shortened breaths, I unwind the steering wheel and gently prod the accelerator until the throttle’s wide open. I have just hit the apex of the seventh hairpin turn over a mere two-kilometre stretch on the Crown Range Pass, just north of Queenstown, New Zealand.

It’s hard to wipe that silly grin off my face, thanks to yet another one of those magnificent driving roads that New Zealand’s South Island has to offer. Visitors come here for a variety of reasons: the breathtaking vistas, the expansive natural spaces, the exquisite wines or the cute lambs (for their chops). But few come here just for the roads, and neither did I. But having driven 3,000 kilometres on this island in a BMW X5 xDrive30d, I might just return for seconds.

My choice of vehicle turned out to be a fantastic option. A convertible might seem more holiday-ish, but it wouldn’t have made it past Day 2 on my itinerary. You see, the loop around the South Island took me to far-out places, which have bumpy dirt paths they call roads.

The first of such places was the Otago Peninsular, just east of the city of Dunedin. The drive was exciting – just imagine the curvy road through Singapore’s South Buona Vista, now increase the speed limit by 60km/h to 100km/h and then take away the guardrails. Oh wait, add a pristine blue lake to the left, separated from the road by a mere 30cm strip of grass. There you have it. And everyone here drives as if they’ve been possessed by the spirit of Possum Bourne. There’s simply no time to stop to take in the views, and worse yet, there’s hardly any room for driving mistakes.

Despite its large stature and massive body, the X5 was always pliant. Body roll was well controlled and the handling was sharp – not unlike that of, say, a proper grand tourer. (That’s probably why I got to my destination in good time.) After a 45-minute hurtle down the lakeside,
the tarmac abruptly ended and became gravel. And soon, the gravel turned to
dirt. Thank goodness for the X5’s high ground clearance – it negotiated the
bigger potholes and puddles of muddy water without busting its bottom against the earth.

Getting this far out allowed me to truly enjoy the tranquillity that New Zealand is famed for. Here, sheep outnumber
men nine-to-one and there’s a sense of Mother Nature untouched everywhere you go. And to truly immerse yourself in NZ’s natural wonders, there’s nothing quite like visiting the wilderness.

Those who want to seek out more thrills and spills will definitely enjoy
the activities in Queenstown. This is, after all, where bungee jumping was first introduced as an extreme sport (for commercial profit). If you visit in winter, skiing is also another option. But before running off the bridge or slicing through the snow, there’s another road worth checking out. It may be called the Devil’s Staircase, but it’s heaven to the driver (or motorbiker). This long winding road is flanked by the clear blue waters of Lake Wakatipu and offers a mixture of tight corners and fast sweeping bends, as well as a dash of crests and troughs.

The series of inclines and twists put the X5’s mettle to the test, and allowed the torquey 3-litre turbo-diesel to shine. There was always enough grunt, 540Nm of it, to whisk the car to New Zealand’s 100km/h highway speed limit. In fact, it achieves the century sprint in a respectable
7.6 seconds. Mated with an 8-speed automatic transmission, the drive always felt relaxed, until I wanted things to be a little more urgent.

The X5 covered almost 3,000 kilometres on 217 litres of diesel – putting its mileage close to BMW’s claimed 13.5km per litre. Not bad, considering my enthusiastic driving on many parts of the route.

Making my drive even more exciting was the experience of four different seasons in a day, during my drive up from the town of Wanaka along the West Coast. From scorching sunshine, to a thunderstorm, to brief snowfall, the journey was indeed surreal. Outside the vehicle, the changing scenery was unreal – from sheep grazing on rolling meadows, to vast vineyards, to snow-capped mountains, to a rainforest.

The roads snaked through a nature reserve and were flanked by overhanging lush greenery, with the sunlight dramatically impaling the thick foliage after a storm to create a low-lying mist.

Not that I was about to test the laws of physics, but the steady all-wheel drive system of the X5 instilled confidence when driving through the long straights and fast sweepers over wet, sometimes icy, tarmac.

New Zealand’s South Island is a must-go for the petrolhead on a self-drive holiday. An all-round ride able to tackle the wide variety of roads and conditions, such as a BMW X5 30d, would be just the ticket.

 

 

This article first appeared in Torque.

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