New Zealand #09 – Queenstown & Area
New Zealand #09 – Queenstown & Area
After seeing Milford Sound we drove on over to Queenstown as described in the last installment. This installment will be about Queenstown area as well as a cruise across the lake on a vintage steamer to a sheep ranch.
Our route in and around Queenstown
As we drove up route 6 toward Queenstown from our day at Milford Sound, our first look at Lake Wakatipu was at its south end where it fades into a lush green meadow. The lake itself is a 50 mile long zig-zag shaped lake that is quite skinny compared to its length. Starting at the north end where the Dart River flows in it heads almost due south for 18 mi (30 km) before turning abruptly to the east and 12.4 miles (20 km) later it turns sharply to the south again, reaching its southern end 10 miles (30 km) later near Kingston. At 50 total miles (80 km) it is the longest lake in all of New Zealand. It is also a deep lake with some areas being 1,250 ft (380 m) deep. The surface of the lake is at 1,020 ft (310 m) which puts the bottom of the lake at the deep spots below sea level.
In many regards it is similar to Loch Ness in Scotland and in fact several movies have used it as a substitute. The scenery here is quite stunning. The lake is a deep blue and it is surrounded by tall mountains some of which are quite remarkable. In fact the mountains seen to the south of the lake are actually called “The Remarkable” mountains. So, let’s see, the north island is called “North Island”, the south island is called “South Island” and some remarkable looking mountains are called “The Remarkable” mountains – these folks sure are creative in naming things.
Google map view of Lake Wakatipu’s “Z” shape
South end of Lake Wakatipu
Lake Wakatipu from hill behind Queenstown
Queenstown is a resort town nestled in the Southern Alps at one of the 900 bends on Lake Wakatipu. It is not large as cities go with an urban population of 14,300 which turns out to be the 27th largest urban area in New Zealand. The urban area is squeezed into a mostly flat area between tall mountains and the shore of Lake Wakatipu. This is mostly a ski resort town but in the summer offers many tourist opportunities for the warm weather travelers.
Ok, ready for a real shocker? The area was first settled by the Maori. Now who would have guessed? The town itself was first a sheep farm owned by William Gilbert Rees which he built in 1860. I know some of my readers are date challenged so I’ll put this in perspective. This was one year before the start of the US Civil war. Anyway, two years later gold was discovered in the Arrow River nearby. This gave Rees an idea. He converted his wool shed into a hotel which he named the Queen’s Arms (apparently this hotel has kept going and is now Eichardt’s). And, the boom was on. As miners and merchants flocked to the area the town grew up around that sheep shed hotel.
In more recent times, the winter sports industry has taken root. There are ski resorts around the town and to some degree some “Swiss Alps” architecture is starting to pop up giving the town a bit of a Swiss Village feel. But we were there in the summer so the ski crowd was not present.
Although not a ski resort one outfit built gondola up to a large restaurant on the mountain above the city. In addition to the restaurant is the mandatory gift shop (wouldn’t you know), a luge course where you ride motor less wheeled go carts. They also offer mountain biking, stargazing, hiking and of all things a Jelly Belly shop. You get to this attraction by riding the gondola from the city up to the facility. The views from the restaurant and viewing platforms are magnificent with Queenstown at your feet, the lake heading off in two directions all surrounded by mountains. Quite a sight.
Gondola coming up to the Skyline facility with Lake Wakapitu behind
“American Gothic” all done with Jelly Belly jelly beans
Queenstown from the Stratosfare Restaurant at Skyline
The grand scenery of the Queenstown area consists of Alpine lakes next to grand mountains and easily accessible infrastructure has attracted the motion picture folks. Many TV series and movies have had sections filmed in and around Queenstown. Jane Campion’s six-part mystery Top of the Lake was shot here in 2013 with scenes from nearby Moke Lake as well as some shots on Lower Beach Street, Coronation drive and a couple of stores on Shotover Street. I don’t know if you’ve seen this mini-series but it’s a really good mystery but somewhat creepy. In 2014 part of Series 14 of America’s Next Top Model was filmed here as well as scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy with scenes shot at Paradise near Glenorchy at the head of Lake Wakatipu. Several Bollywood films were shot here as well as some of the 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie and some scenes from the George Lucas fantasy film Willow. Now here’s a strange one. In 2017 a drama called Northern Lights was shot here even though the movie purportedly takes place in a town in Alaska. However it was entirely shot on location in Queenstown which I guess looks like Alaska. I’m so disillusioned.
Lovely Botanical garden (park) downtown by the harbor
The TSS Earnslaw is an Edwardian vintage twin screw steamer, built in 1912,plying the waters of Lake Wakatipu. It is the only remaining commercial passenger carrying coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere. Today it is used for excursions on the lake and to shuttle people back and forth between Queenstown and the Walter Peak High Country Farm tourist attraction. Over time the ship took on the nick-name of “Lady of the Lake”.
In the first decade of the 20th century the New Zealand Railways company decided they needed a passenger ship on Lake Wakatipu to augment their tourist business. The Earnslaw was designed by a navy architect based on a Siemens-Martin steel hull design that used Kauri for the decks. The engines are twin coal-fired triple-expansion, jet-condensing, vertically inclined engines – whatever all that means.
Construction was completed in 1912 and the ship was named after Mount Earnslaw, a peak at the head of Lake Wakatipu. At 51.2 meters long she was the biggest boat on the lake, and the largest steamship built in New Zealand. But getting the thing to the lake was a challenge. After the boat was finished, she was summarily dismantled down to individual steel plates – each of which was numbered. After being shipped to the lake, like a giant jig saw puzzle, the pieces were re-assembled which took 6 months.
Consistent with the times, this is a magnificent piece of craftsmanship. Polished wood decks, paneling and hand rails, ornate lighting fixtures, a grand piano in the rear lounge. In many this ship is similar to the grand yachts of US presidents in the early to mid 1900’s.
In 1968, the Earnslaw was nearly scrapped but before she made it to the breaker yard, Fiordland Travel (now Real Journeys) leased her. This was in 1969. Then in 1982 they bought her outright. She was taken out of service for a huge makeover in 1984. Her 12 meter high funnel was painted bright red, with the hull a snow white, and her kauri timber decks glassed in.
And she has royal connections. In March 1990, the Earnslaw carried Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Other royalty to have traveled on board have been the King and Queen of the Belgians and the Prince of Thailand.
The TSS Earnslaw made a brief cameo appearance in the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) as an Amazon River boat.
We took this ship from Queenstown across the lake to the Walter Peak High Country Sheep Station (and back)
TSS Earnslaw specs
Steam powered deck winch
One of the interior lounges
Stoking the boiler with coal
Piano lounge at the stern
Walter Peak High Country Farm
Across the lake from Queenstown is a sheep ranch called Walter Peak High Country Farm. It shares its name with a mountain behind it. The farm – or “station” as they call it – is next to a sheltered bay and the site used to be camping locations for Maori travelling to the Mararoa and Oreti Rivers on Moa hunting expeditions. European settlement commenced in the 1860s with initial farming attempts by Von Tunzelman. Stock deaths, snowstorms and lack of money eventually forced him off the land. He was followed by a quick succession of owners. Eventually, in the late 1880’s Walter Peak Station was taken over by the Mackenzies. This family is credited with developing many of the principles of successful high country farming during their 80 years working the property.
At its peak, the station was one of New Zealand’s most famous with 170,000 acres, 40,000 sheep and up to 50 fulltime employees. Today it runs approximately 18,000 Merino and Perendale sheep and about 800 beef cows The original homestead block of Walter Peak Station is now known as Walter Peak High Country Farm and is pretty much just for tourists. Over time various permanent homes were established here. The latest was originally built in 1902 but in 1977 burnt down in an accidental file but has been carefully reconstructed in its original form. I presume this is the house we see in the tourist area.
The tourist farm is right on the bay so as soon as you disembark you’re right there. Even though Walter Peak Station is still a working ranch running sheep and cattle, I suspect the “working” part is someplace else on the property as the part we went to is way too manicured to be a working ranch. It has a large dining hall where they serve gourmet lunch to hundreds of tourists. This building is designed to look the same as the farm house a few steps away. It’s not clear if the family still lives there or if it has since been turned into offices. A few hundred yards away is the sheep shearing shed that has been retrofitted with bleachers for the audience and a raised stage for the demonstration.
Walter Peak High Country Farm (tourist) Complex
Reconstructed 1902 farm house
View of Lake Wakatipu from Walter Peak Farm
We arrived pretty close to lunch time so headed straight to the dining hall for a hearty hot lunch which was actually quite good. From here we went over to see a sheep shearing demonstration in the shearing shed. This too was quite interesting. Sheep are quite skittish and are very hard to keep from wriggling away if you try to hold one down. But they have a major flaw. If you can sit them on their rump, with all four feet off the ground they are 100% helpless. They know this so as soon was their feet are off the ground they stop protesting and go completely docile. The shearers’ know this and thus always do their shearing with the sheep in this position. A good shearer can do a sheep in less than 2 minutes.
Once their feet are off the ground, they become docile
Shearing Demonstration I (in the online version of this blog this is a video)
Announcing her new haircut
Some very important workers on a sheep station are the sheep dogs. There are several breeds of herding dogs including Australian Sheppard, Border Collie, and Australian Cattle dog. These dogs look to me like Border Collies. But whatever they are they make the few commands my dog knows look rather pathetic. These dogs react to both voice commands and various whistle patterns. Each command is accompanied by the dog’s name so only the named dog is expected to obey the command. This is true for the whistled commands as well. In this way the farmer can tell one dog to push the herd from behind and the other dog to turn them into the pen.
One may think this is in some way demeaning for the dog but they love it. You can tell by watching them work that they are enjoying every minute and when they have been told to lie down and stay they just can’t wait to be told to get up and chase some sheep.
Without the dogs the farmer would be helpless with a large flock. It would take hours to get them into their pens for the night, or to collect them from their grazing pastures. When you watch these dogs work the concentration they have puts us all to shame. Not once did they check their Twitter Feed.
If you’re reading this on my web site, the image below is a video. I apologize for the quality (I’m not a videographer). The audio is particularly bad as it was quite windy and I just had the built in microphone on my camera so for the most part can’t hear what the handler is saying but watch the dogs. Check out the concentration and sheer joy they have doing this work.
Sheep dog demo (this is a video in the online version of this blog)
Arrow Town, Chinese Camp and Lake Hayes Valley
On our last day in the Queenstown area, we went on a bus tour into the surrounding areas before winding up at the airport for our flight to Wellington.
Much of the history of this area revolves around the Shotover River and a gold rush in the 1860’s that spread through much of the Otago area. Otago is like a province or state and in this case includes Queenstown. There are many stories about this time and place and some of them may actually be true. One story from this particular area is that a sheep rancher was out tending the flock when his dog decided to take a swim in the Shotover River and wound up swimming to the other side. Well, for some reason this turned out to be a one way dog and the dog had no intention of swimming back. So, this rancher and a hired hand went all the way around to a bridge where they could cross the river in order to fetch the dog. When they got to the dog, they noticed that its fur was full of gold flecks picked up in the river. What makes this story interesting is that the two men agreed to keep it a secret. Not so they could stake claims, but the sheep needed shearing and they didn’t want a gold rush to happen until after the sheep where shorn.
Another story goes that the head of a mining company hatched a plan to completely divert the Shotover River through a tunnel to help out his gold operation. This guy was somewhat influential and convinced ($$$$$) the local administration to permit this Endeavour. So, he brought in a bunch of folks and dug his tunnel. On the grand “diversion” day when the river would be diverted through the tunnel all went well except for one thing. The river would not flow through the tunnel as it did not slope downward. Oops.
The Shotover River through a gorge
Continuing, we went part of the way up the road which leads to the Coronet Peak Ski Resort to a little knob called Skipper’s Lookout. From here there is a grand view of the fertile Hayes valley with the snowcapped Remarkable mountains as a backdrop
Hayes Lake Valley with Remarkable Mountains in the background
We didn’t go on up to the ski resort, but instead backtracked back down the mountain and headed over to Arrowtown. As with most gold rush stories, most of the towns that sprang up all but vanished after the gold played out. However, as is also typical, a few towns found a way to hang on and make into modern times. One such town in this area is Arrowtown.
This town is on the Arrow River about a 25 minute drive from Queenstown via the Shotover Gorge. This town is terminally charming or as they say in their advertisements “Quirky”. Its main street (Buckingham Street) is lined with well-preserved buildings used by European and Chinese immigrants going back to the gold mining days. Of course the Chinese were all down at one end of town and the Europeans occupied the rest of the town including the main commercial areas until much later.
Before Europeans settlers came to New Zealand this was of course a Maori area but they did not have a village here. Rather they passed through the area on seasonal hunting trips. Over time, up till the 1860’s, a few European settlers came in and set up farms.
But in 1862 all that changed. Jack Tewa, a Maori shearer working for a farmer named Rees, found gold. Shortly thereafter either William (Bill) Fox or perhaps the team of Thomas Low and John MacGregor also found gold but the forceful Fox took credit for the discovery. Then the boom was on. By the end of 1862, 1,500 rowdy miners were camped by the Arrow River which is what started the town. In January of 1863 340 kg of gold was lugged out of the town of Fox’s (as it was called at the time). At today’s prices that is over $18 million worth.
Four years later, in 1865 a new gold rush developed on the other side of the mountains to the west. Always seeking the next big find, most European diggers headed over the Southern Alps as much of the easier gold in the Arrowtown area had already been scooped up. With so many people leaving the province, they needed to stimulate their flagging economy. That’s when the Provincial Government invited Chinese miners to come and work the mines. The small Chinese section they created down by the river in Arrowtown stayed settled until 1928, and its remains are now part of a major attraction for the town. The Chinese houses were pretty much all dirt floor affairs and constructed with a mix of thatch, stone and tin. A few had an indoor fire area where they could cook and of course none had running water. These were really tiny buildings, I’m guessing maybe 10 ft by 6 ft total – and most were only one room.
By 1867, as a more permanent town emerged avenues of trees had been planted making Arrowtown look more like European towns. Then in 1896 a large fire burned down the Morning Star Hotel, Campbell’s bakery and much of Pritchard’s Store. While the store was rebuilt, the spreading Morning Star site is now known as Buckingham Green.
After the gold ran out, Arrowtown became a farm service town with a shrinking population. But during the 1950s, as it became a popular holiday destination, families restored historic cottages and built holiday houses. Today Arrowtown has around 70 buildings and features left from the gold rush era.
Now that tourism has taken hold, the population has risen to a bit over 2,000 since around 2001 when it was just 200 folks. Fortunately, before the resurgence took hold most of the town was placed under strict appearance covenants by the local authority in order to preserve the appearance of the town. Unfortunately they still haven’t banned vehicle traffic from the main street.
The main drag, if you can call it that – and much of the history – is along Buckingham Street where a string of small town heritage buildings fade into a tree lined avenue of tiny miners’ cottages. The commercial buildings house shops, galleries, bars, and restaurants of which zero are from international chains – what a refreshing change.
Commercial section of Buckingham Street in Arrowtown
Miners cottages on Buckingham Street just past the commercial section
Antique tour bus still in use
St. John’s Wakatipu Community Church (Presbyterian) on outskirts of Arrowtown
Three houses in Chinese section of town. One with tin edged thatch roof and two with tin roofs. One made of stone, two made of wood.
Chinese house that looks like it was once plastered on the outside
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I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our New Zealand trip. The next (and last for New Zealand) if a few days in Wellington, the Capital.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip can be found here
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Thanks for reading – Comments Appreciated – Dan
(Info from Wikipedia, Road Scholar Lectures, and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way and attraction websites)
Keywords: arrowtown, blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblognz, hayes valley, lake wakatipu, queenstown, sheep dog demo, sheep shearing demo, shotover river, southern alps, tss earnslaw, walter peak, walter peak high country farm
Hi Dan - thanks for the great narrative! Queenstown and Arrowtown were really special places, and your shots are excellent. I too took video of the shearing and the sheep dog working, and also have wind noise, etc. But it was a lot of fun to look at.
I love the route maps you provide from your GPS setup on your bag. It helps a lot since as a passenger on the bus and without a map, it is hard to keep track.....
best to you and Ellen.
Many times I hang back as you say in order to get shots without a foreground of tourists (including our group), or to move into a position that would have been rude with the group still there as in jumping out in front of the group and blocking their view. Sometimes I also am attracted to things to photograph that the group sort of just walked on by. It was great having the "whisperers" so I could still hear the guide even though I was 50 yards behind.
Thanks for your comment
Cheers -- Dan
Your series on our trip is absolutely awesome. And I thought you were just hanging back from the group because your cameras were getting heavy?! Thank you for especially the dog herding sheep vid!!
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