Queenstown – Outdoor activities capital of New Zealand. Whether you want walking, Jet Boating, White Water Rafting or something a little more adrenalin inducing, Queenstown is likely to have it for you. If they don’t, it either has not been invented yet or they know where you can go to. Queenstown is also the home of the original Bungy Jump set up by AJ Hackett in 1988, more of which later on. Yes it has been going that long!
Two pictures of our cottage for the week. Picture (right) is the view from the front path to the rear.
The steep rugged slopes of the Remarkables mountain range slope down to Lake Wakitipu on one side, the Richardson Ranges on the other, and Queenstown nestles in the dog-leg bend of the lake. These high mountain peaks on all sides make it one of the most picturesque settings in the world. As with most lakes in this region, Wapitiku has glacial origins and in places is over 1200ft deep. However never let that get in the way of a good Maori legend. This one has it that the lake was formed by the imprint of a sleeping giant, Matau, burned to death by the lover of a beautiful Maori girl, Manata who was being held prisoner by him. It is said that because his heart did not perish and still beats, the level of the lake can rise and fall by up to 3 inches every five minutes.
Clockwise from top left: View back towards Queenstown; View from Marine Parade towards the Remarkables; Panorama with Remarkables on the left and Richardson Ranges on the right; Lake Wapitiku; Us on Marine Parade.
The town’s origins, as with many towns in this area, dates back to the 1850s when sheep farmers first arrived although there is some limited evidence of a Maori settlement before then. After a couple of shearers discovered gold in the Shotover River in 1862 the place rapidly expanded with prospectors arriving from all over the world, all seeking their fortune. Within a year a mining town had been built with streets and permanent buildings. At one point it was declared “Fit For a Queen” by the then NZ government, hence the name Queenstown. Within 40 years the gold had run out, people moved on and it was not until the 1950s that it started to become a holiday destination. Today the town is pulsing with tourists from all over the world in summer and winter, displaying the buzz and dynamism of a small city, yet with a population of 12,000 it is a small town. Queenstown is surrounded by numerous world class wine fields and the odd brewery and as I have already noted is the adventure capital of New Zealand.
As with any new destination our first visit is always the I-Site. Queenstown has an official I-site but there are several others, all offering different activities, trips and information. We headed for the official office as we were not looking for an adrenalin rush (just yet), just some information on local walking tracks. We got chatting to the guides inside. One young lad asked where we were from in UK and when we told him close to Norwich, he asked whereabouts. It transpired that he originated from Barnham Broom, which is a small village about six miles from where we live, for those readers not familiar with Norfolk. Small world. We had a brief chat, got the information we needed and wandered on for a look round.
The Marina Parade is exactly that, a pedestrianised area behind a small gritty beach, where people stroll, take in the views and occasionally take a dip in the lake. Caution though the water temperature is never above 10C, even in summer so it is very chilly! The main retail areas, bars, restaurants and coffee shops, sit up parallel streets at the end of the Marina Parade so it is impossible to get lost. Further round are more restaurants and a number of places selling boat trips round the lakes. The choice is enormous, from a 100 year old Paddle Steamer, still with its original Steam Engine, to jet boats that have a very shallow draft and can turn on a sixpence. Pick your thrill and pay up! Oh and did I mention walking tracks aplenty? At the other end of Marine Parade, on a plateau lie the Queenstown Gardens. These are a calm oasis amid the hustle and bustle of life in town with lovely rose beds, sadly past their best and a large pond with waterlilies just bursting into flower.
Clockwise from top left: A typical Queenstown street; A view of the right bank of the lake; TSS Earnshaw, an old Steamship still plying its trade on Lake Wapitiku after over 100 years, View through the War Memorial arch; The Bathhouse Cafe – gets Lyn’s approval;
Four views of Queenstown Gardens
We identified a 4 hour walk up to Ben Lomond which sits just above Queenstown and at 1750m would be a steep climb. Come the day and the weather, which had been outstanding during our first two days began to deteriorate, so on Monday morning, we could not see the top of Ben Lomond, nor much else to be honest, as the cloud came down and it was drizzling. Undeterred we set off on a lower level track called the Fernhill Track. This walking path cris-crosses a Mountain Bike Track and there are signs everywhere warning all to be aware. We eventually moved clear of the cycle tracks and followed a steep forested path up and down. At one point the path was so steep it was impossible to walk down, so we went down the slimy, muddy slope on our backsides. Happily for us no pictures exist of this little escapade. We reached a turning point where there was a sign saying the path was closed due to storm damage please follow another track leading back down. This track looked like it had already been damaged as in places it was near impassable. Narrow ledges to walk on with a cliff face on one side and a vertical drop on the other, one slip and it could have been all over for either of us. Well the narrative did say “moderate, difficult in places”. You’re telling me!! We eventually made our way back down into town pleased that we had found our way round but also relieved that neither of us had “fallen off a cliff”. The track was entirely covered in forest so for the time we walked there was no view of another hill, just trees, more trees…………and more trees.
Some of the tracks on our aborted Fernhill Walk
Over the last week or so you may have read about parts of NZ being under a state of Emergency following the arrival of Tropical Storm Gita. Gita started life as a Cyclone (they are called Hurricanes in the Northern hemisphere for some strange reason), which ripped through Tonga about a week ago, heading west. Gita arrived off the north of North Island earlier this week, went right round the top and then turned left down into the Tasman Sea. It then swept into the Cook Strait which separates the two islands. Wellington was badly hit with flooding and wind but most of it went over South Island and it swept across the north and west coast as far south as Hokitika, then went straight over the north of South Island to Kaikura and Christchurch reaching down as far south as Central Otago. (Thats where we are) In Queenstown it was drizzling on Monday afternoon but started a serious downpour on Tuesday afternoon, and stopped on Wednesday evening. The winds this far south were not as bad as in the north but this meant that any plans we had for some more walking just had to be binned. Oh and the summer temperatures just became autumn. However we always have a plan B and Tuesday was no exception.
Lake Hayes – A storm is brewing
After a morning writing (Lyn, her book, me my diary) and a coffee each, we were driving back to our cottage for lunch and came across Lake Hayes and the nature reserve. Always up for a bit of nature watching we parked up and started to walk. Two and a bit hours later, just as it was starting to spit with rain we arrived back, having walked the path all round. It was a lovely interlude and although it was bit grey and blustery some of the views were amazing.
Fun at Lake Hayes: Top Row: Lyn on a swing……..again. Centre: Me on the track; Lake Ahyes from the south side; Us on the track. Bottom: Lake Hayes from the Nature Reserve
As I mentioned above, the Bungy Jump was created by AJ Hackett and the first fixed site in the world was built at Kawarau Bridge, over a gorge of the same name. This site is about 15 minutes drive from here.
L-R: Kawarau Bridge-our expressions say it all!; The Kawarau Gorge they plummet into; Me, dry, in the viewing area.
The bridge itself is an old iron structure with wooded slats that form the wide pathway across the gorge. It is a fixed bridge, in that it does not swing when more than 5 people step on it. The drop off this bridge is a mere 43 metres, and this length of rope will keep you dry. For an additional fee they will lengthen the cords slightly and you can dip your hands in the water below. Hmmm. We stood, feet firmly fixed on the viewing balcony, watching as victim after victim was harnessed up, had the bungy attached then led like sacrificial lambs to the edge of the jumping platform. There, with the “encouragement” of the staff, the victim is persuaded to either jump off, or fall off the edge, and plummet down towards the waters surface. I am convinced at least one or two were helped carefully, but surreptitiously on their way. The elasticated cord pulls you back up once or twice and then the rope attached to the harness kicks in and controls your final descent into the tethered boat on the water. It was scary enough to think about when it is dry and warm. When we witnessed it, the rain was lashing down, the wind was cold and brisk and everyone watching was huddled together to keep warm. Most of those stood with us could not understand the wish or desire anyone had to do this. It is ridiculous! But Mr Hackett does not think so. The gift shop and cafe are stuffed with AJ Hackett T shirts, baseball caps, in fact anything you can write a name on and sell was there. The t-shirts were $50 each. Ouch! Oh and the price for this “experience?” $205, about £100. Purely out of curiosity I checked the website when we got home. On Tuesday evening, they were fully booked until Saturday! Lyn and I looked at each other and asked why? No chance, not a hope of either of us doing that.
Lyn here: Many years ago, my cousin Mike was one of the first bungy-jumpers from this bridge. Not sure if he did any others, but he loved an adrenaline rush and made his life ‘down-under’ (in Oz).
Some “volunteers” and their jumping(?) styles
The Bungy jumping company, very keen to provide more adrenalin rushes have installed a zip-wire which drops from the viewing area to a small plateau halfway down the gorge. There were not many takers for this experience, I suppose after the bungy jump a zip-wire is quite tame. Nevertheless they did have this sign on the entrance:
I will leave you to make your own judgement on this one!
Finally for this blog a word about a small town about 45 mins drive from Queenstown. Cromwell is noted in NZ for two things. It has a fine Motorsport Museum, which celebrates anything fast and smelling of petrol (including drivers, like Bruce McClaren), and more importantly it sits at the heart of the Central Otago Wine region, known for its Pinot Noir which is very nice and doesn’t smell of petrol. We did not have time for the Motorsports museum, but a wander into Cromwell and a look round left us wondering why we had not gone there instead of here!
The Cromwell that is here today is fairly new, the old Cromwell lies drowned in a lake. Cromwell once lay at the confluence of the Clutha and Kawarau Rivers, and a decision was taken to build a dam downstream to create a Hydro-electric power generation scheme. When the Clyde Dam was completed in 1992, and the with resultant filling of Lake Dunstan, about two thirds of the old town was submerged. A new town was built on flat land at what became the edge of the lake and on a rainy day this is a quiet, almost soulless place with the retail centre (The Mall) at its heart.
A number of notable old buildings were saved, demolished brick by brick and re-built in a heritage area by the lakeside and this forms the major tourist attraction in the town, but on a rainy day we found it hard to get enthused by what was a major project for New Zealand.
Top row L-R: “Welcome to Cromwell” – the sign reflects a big fruit and veg growing area; Some “rescued buildings” Bottom Row: Inside the old forge; “Putting you through now” Lyn operates an old switchboard in the Cromwell Argus office – it reminded her of her mother and one of her early jobs.
One consequence of all this rain is that it was so cold that it fell as snow on the peaks round about us. We could see evidence on Wednesday as some of the dark grey cloud gave way, but on Thursday morning when we woke up, the sun was shining and the views from our front window to the snow capped peaks was a beautiful sight. Don’t forget that this is high summer in New Zealand but the locals shrugged their shoulders and said, that’s South Island for you mate, four seasons in two days!