Freedom to roam: Exploring Mount Aspiring National Park in the all new Jeep Gladiator

The new Jeep Gladiator is put through its paces in scenic Central Otago.

Words and photos: Kelly Gillbanks

Additional photography supplied by Jeep

The beautiful sounds of Wanaka-born country singer Jody Direen soon dissolve any cultural barriers between this group of travellers. Just moments before we’d been a collection of strangers from around the world, but now we are belting out Nashville favourites like old friends.

We are camped under Mount Avalanche near Mount Aspiring National Park at the head of the lake, here to celebrate the launch of the All-New Jeep Gladiator and experience its capabilities. And to discover what “community” means to Jeep.

Dinner is a feast, prepared by renowned chef Pete Gawron (formerly of Saffron in Arrowtown), of spit-roasted lamb from the Catlins, skewers of prawns, lobster tails, grilled local blue cod fillets, Stewart Island mussels, and BBQ pork ribs. Ingredients for the delicious salads also came from surrounding farms and regional markets.


Later, standing near the flames of the firepit, hands wrapped around cups of hot tea and stars overhead so much brighter than in any city, the need for the creature comforts of home seems to fade.

I head off to my tent, tuck myself into a sleeping bag and listen to a creek rushing by. Even a small field mouse, who chooses to bunk in my tent and whose presence would typically send me into orbit, is welcome. Is this “community” or just exhaustion?

At sunset the previous evening, our adventure had begun at the end of long and winding Hanson Road near Frankton with our arrival at NZ High Country Weddings & Events. There, a skin-tingling pōwhiri from a local Māori kapa haka group followed by songs and dance left me welling with pride; the welcome my culture was extending to the foreign guests had moved them. They were also impressed by a meal of alpine salmon, slow-braised lamb, and beef short ribs, salads, veggies and breads.

It’s the first we had seen of the new Jeep Gladiator, and the sight of the vehicles stirred excitement among the group about hitting the road the next day.
The following morning we set off from central Queenstown in new Jeep Gladiators. As this new Gladiator range will not be released until mid-2020, we were driving left-hand-drive American models. Mine, a Gladiator Overland soft-top in a striking orange colour called Punk’n, was immediately nicknamed Pumpkin by me.

Pumpkin flew up and down the impressively steep flanks of the Crown Range once I became accustomed to piloting from the verge side of the car and, soon, we were pulling into a colourful line-up of Jeep Gladiators outside the historic Cardrona Hotel. Woodsmoke, brewing tea and cheese-scone aromas wafted towards us.

West Wanaka Road, on the west of Lake Wanaka, leads to the private Minaret Burn Track through West Wanaka Station. The tracks navigate clumpy grass and puddles so deep mud splattered the top of our windscreen. Cattle Flat, with views to the Southern Alps, is a good photo op before yet-another winding road, this time down to the beautiful blue waters of Lake Wanaka.

We are in the mountains, so the weather is changeable; brilliant sunshine, high winds, cloud cover and rain, all coming and going from one hour to the next. We shelter from light rain under a tent among the trees, and nothing deters our crew from tucking into a southern barbecue lunch, followed by cookies.

Mount Aspiring Station, through which we head back to the main road, is notable for the bravery (or foolishness) of its lambs and cows who charge the Jeeps as we pass. They didn’t get the “community” memo, obviously. No harm done.

The rain doesn’t let up, and water begins to cascade down the mountainsides before being picked up by the winds and blown into sheets of drifting mist.

At the aptly named Boulder Park, I witness an exhilarating demonstration of the Jeep Gladiator’s capability. Then it is my turn to drive Pumpkin across rocks, boulders and over scarily sharp drops. Something I’d simply never usually attempt. Seeing the Gladiators make light work of it makes me trust the vehicle, and I navigate the course with confidence – further proof of the Jeep’s authenticity.

I needed that assurance as flooding rivers engulf part of the shore track on our way out, leaving puddles and holes in the wake of uprooted trees. I accelerate through with a sense of safety, turning an otherwise nerve-wracking situation into an exciting opportunity.

At the Matukituki River, a helicopter waits to whisk us over the mountains to “Camp Jeep”, and dinner and fireside singing with Jodie. Now, I lie inside my tent under the bright southern stars, rolled in a sleeping bag with just a small mouse for company and sleep drifting nearer. I think about how such adventures put the world into perspective.

It’s light early, and we are up for a breakfast of cereal and fruit with yoghurt, eggs benedict, scrambled eggs, sausages, waffles and handmade breads.

Fuelled up on another massive and meaty breakfast, we head by helicopter for a magnificent scenic flight over the Avalanche and Rob Roy Glaciers, flying over the Boulder Park track that we mastered yesterday. Even from above, it looks daunting. Did I really drive that?

The helicopter lands at Raspberry Flats, near the head of Lake Wanaka, where we raft down the West Matukituki River passing Wishbone Falls and Shark Tooth Mountain. The water is cold but clear despite the rain and, thanks to the river being full, we have little need to paddle — just an occasional burst of teamwork to get us through a choppy drop.

We rejoin our convoy, and even in laid-back Wanaka, our Jeeps stand out for their 100 per cent mud-splattered appearance. It’s no matter as the sun is shining when we re-cross the Crown Range, and we put back the roof and enjoy the fresh air.

Back at the Sofitel Hotel and thinking about the trip, I decide to hang on to the knowledge that the small things don’t matter. But I am desperately keen to enjoy a much-needed shower – one little thing that does seem to matter.

Then there’s another feast, this time at Botswana Butchery where we dine on squid, beef carpaccio, salads, arancini, market fish, Angus ribeye, slow-roasted lamb shoulder and honey crème brulée.

Landing back in Auckland the next day, the city feels surprisingly different to how I left it and on my way home from the airport I search for a Jody Direen playlist and am instantly back around the campfire and my worries are gone. This is what Jeep calls freedom.


Photo by Songyang of

Brian Williams could well be New Zealand’s biggest Jeep fan. The retired builder from Cambridge owns 10 which he stores in a shed that’s bigger than his house. Brian founded the New Zealand Jeep Club 30 years ago and still spends most weekends driving in convoy with other Jeep lovers through the countryside.

He says he “lit up like a glow-worm”, while test driving the all-new Jeep Gladiator at the scenic Mt Aspiring Station. “It was like all my Christmases had come at once,” says Brian. “Driving the top-of-the-range Gladiator, I could feel the wind in my hair – and on my body and my legs as well. It’s a bit like being on a motorbike.

“I also loved talking to the Jeep engineers from the US and finding out from them about how the cars perform – all the nitty-gritty details.”
Brian’s love affair with Jeeps started when, as a young man, he was doing his military service at Waiouru. “I was driving 4WD vehicles in the snow, and I thought, ‘This is so much fun I’ve got to get one of these after I get out of the bloody army’. So as soon as I left, I bought a little 1942 army Jeep.”
His addiction grew from there and in 1990 he dreamed up the idea of a club where Jeep fans could trade car stories and tour the back roads in convoy. “I was thinking one night, ‘It would be a beautiful thing to see a convoy of Jeeps on a forest trail’. There’s camaraderie in the Jeep community: we help each other, and we help out others using the tracks too. One time I recovered a horse that had fallen into a gully using a winch hooked up to the Jeep. The owner was very grateful.”
Brian finds it hard to pin down his favourite Jeep. At Mt Aspiring, guests were fighting for a turn to drive his 1983 Jeep J20. He’s often told his classic Jeep Wagoneer with all the original fittings oozes cool. “Choosing a favourite depends on which day you talk to me. That’s the trouble – I love them all.”

The Jeep Gladiator is due to arrive in New Zealand mid 2020. To find out more about the Jeep range, visit 

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