Hype, Hope, Hank and His Hangover – Tekapo to Queenstown

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009

In recent years, New Zealand has developed something of a reputation: a place of uncommon obsession with the notion of hurling oneself off, under, down or through cliffs, caves, bridges, towers or thin air; and the veritable crack house of this addiction is the formerly sleepy, lakeside resort of Queenstown.

It’s questionable what the Victorian founding fathers of Queenstown would have made of this modern-day mania but, arguably, it was they themselves who set the ball rolling when they gave rivers names like ‘Shotover’ and mountain ranges ‘The Remarkables’. Frankly, then, it was probably inevitable that similarly extreme-sounding thrills would be sought by their lycra, rip-stop polyester and lifejacket-clad descendents.

The town is now a mecca for the World’s backpackers and thirtysomething corporate sabbatical-takers. It features in and on almost every piece of marketing material pumped out by the tourist board. It is, in every possible way, used as a magnet to lure the tourists in the face of the otherwise pedestrian reputation of Kiwi culture.

Now, ever since ET hit the big screen, I’ve had something of an aversion to anything which is hyped. Hype is necessary, in my jaded eyes, only when the underlying quality is questionable. And so it is that, despite previous visits to New Zealand, this would be the first time that the much-hyped Queenstown had featured in an itinerary – and now only because we needed to kill some time.

The drive from John is another easy day, passing such one-horse towns whose horse died many a long moon ago as Twizel and Omarama. Indeed the latter has moved with the times and converted itself with admirable versatility into a one-sheep town – specifically a mega-merino called Shrek, whose ‘fame’ would appear to be fairly limited to strictly sheepy circles. Accusations that he is merely a gimmick to fleece passing tourists would be scurrilous and, what’s more, a baa-rely humorous joke.

In actual fact, both Twizel and Omarama were actually established quite recently, to service the intense hydroelectric power generating activity in the MacKenzie Basin. Believe it or not, there are even some quite unusual points of interest in these towns; there are no ditches or kerbstones next to the roads in Omarama, for example, as the town is designed to be temporary and to be returned to farmland at some time in the future. Accordingly the tarmac is profiled in an unusual way to avoid the need for the missing kerbing and ditching, so much the better to remove without trace, apparently.

The most impressive attraction en route is however, and without a shadow of doubt, Lake Pukake. Half way between Tekapo and Omarama, its blue waters are the first thing to catch the eye from a distance, but it’s only after a further few miles of driving towards the lake that the really stunning views appear.

At the junction with Hayman Road on the right, marked only by a Salmon Farm sign, it’s suddenly apparent that nature has conspired to orientate Pukake so that it forms a perfect aperture in the mountains through which to view Mount Cook – the highest of all New Zealand’s peaks. As the main road is not blessed with safe stopping places, take the Hayman Road turning and there is ample space immediately to pull up and then walk down an access track to the lakeshore.

There are a couple of alternative routes on to Queenstown after Omarama, but a pleasant detour is to the up-and-coming town of Wanaka, which sits alongside the lake of the same name. Wanaka, reportedly, is much as Queenstown was before ‘adrenaline’ was ‘invented’ there, and is a very pleasant little place with far less of the soon-to-be-experienced congestion of its near-neighbour.

Locals appreciate the lower-density development, and also that the shallower waters of the eponymous lake make it warn enough for Summer swimming. In recent years, a few of Queenstown’s businesses have opened Wanaka outposts, including The Cow restaurant which has almost been replicated brick-for-brick. There’s a verdant foreshore park backed by myriad bars and restaurants, some good shopping in stores specialising in New Zealand clothing labels, a very fine wine shop and the usual selection of cafés and coffee shops. Carefully developed, Wanaka has the bones of both a very successful holiday destination and a most attractive place to call home.

The next place of interest is the tiny settlement of Cardrona, with its restored (or perhaps never-changed?) hotel and attendant shops. A good job is made of arresting passing traffic, with some strategically placed vintage vehicles catching the eye and lending the place a slightly other-worldly feel. It’s a good place to use up a few more megabytes of the memory card, anyhow.

The final approach to Queenstown necessitates the ascent of Crown Range Pass, the highest sealed road in New Zealand and from which there’s a splendid view of this corner of the Southern Alps, before the road descends again and presents more teasing vistas, which become less wilderness-like and more pastoral with every break in the trees or twist of tarmac.

As the town is neared, the traffic builds steadily with increasing swarms of clapped-out, graffiti-liveried campervans driven by backpackers who’ve not recently had to pilot anything larger than a rucksack, jostling for space with rental-car drivers unused to driving on the left, tour buses disgorging hordes of grockles at inconvenient moments and all manner of commercial traffic utilising what remain the area’s only through-routes.

Any natural beauty is therefore temporarily but wholly obscured by the battle for asphalt-space and the desperate avoidance of campervan collision. Indeed, it’s only when the centre of town or, more specifically, the lakeshore is reached, and the safety of a car park achieved, that the view seems to open up again.

While Wanaka is dominated by leisure-orientated businesses, Queenstown has to serve as the commercial hub of the region and therefore its range of facilities is both more comprehensive and prosaic. Ultimately, then, whilst its physical surroundings are slightly more spectacular than Wanaka’s, the ribbon development of motels, hotels, apartment blocks, industrial and trading estates, and more chain-store like town-centre retailing makes it ultimately a less picturesque place in itself.

For the non thrill-seeking, it also has to be said that there is not a great deal to do in Queenstown outside of the Winter ski season. True, there are some significant attractions accessible only from Queenstown, but they’re not actually in the town itself. The two principal town-based attractions are therefore firstly the TSS Earnslaw, built in 1912 in Dunedin and transported to Queenstown by rail in sections to Kingston. From there, following reassembly, she sailed under her own steam up Lake Wakatipu and she now plies the lake from the town’s wharf.

The second attraction is the Gondola ride which, weather-permitting, affords a birds-eye view of the town and the surrounding Remarkables.

It’s also worth mentioning the Botanic Gardens, a short walk from the town centre, which incorporate an ice rink, a tennis club, well-tended flower beds, a memorial to Scott and his Polar Explorers and, most notably, a ‘frisbee-golf course’ which seems to hold the attention of at least some visitors. Briefing sessions on the rules and protocols are held regularly in the entrance car park.

The trail which traverses the lower levels of the gardens, below and through the woods, affords expansive views of the surrounding mountains and of the town itself, from a position of comparative peace and calm.

However, the number one destination for day trips from Queenstown is Milford Sound, the cover girl of most glossy marketing for the South Island. Vertiginous cliffs soar from the waters of this sinuous West Coast fjord, laced with cascading falls running the gamut from little more than wisps of wind-blown spray to thundering torrents of solid water crashing into the sea below. At the head of fjord, Mitre Peak is an iconic backdrop and the star of postcards and holiday snaps galore.

There are, however, two factors to bear in mind when planning a trip. The first is that, whilst Milford is only 90 kilometres from Queenstown as the crow flies, the only road is a typically-tortuous circumnavigation of the mountains in between, and ends up being a 5 hour coach or car trip. Each way.

The second is that this is a hybrid alpine maritime environment, which brings with it the prevalence of really unpleasant weather, as the moisture laden sea air hits terra firma, is forced up over the mountains and, in so doing, cools, forms clouds and then rains like there’s no tomorrow.

From a sight-seeing point-of-view then, this can conspire to create a very long day out, the highlight of which is seeing nothing very much other than the lower reaches of waterfalls emanating from solid, cliff-cladding clouds just above. And, for this privilege, the coach company will still have charged a hefty sum.

The clever money, therefore, is on an air tour from Queenstown to Milford, which takes only half a day, avoids the obligatory coach-tour stops at en-route tateramas and deposits the passenger at a smaller landing stage for a far quieter cruise than those incorporated in the coach itineraries.

The cleverest bit, however, is that if the weather is rubbish and therefore the views of Milford will be compromised, then it also means that the weather will render flying impossible too, and no monies will be expended.

So it was that Air Milford was contacted to arrange a charter, with the instruction from their office that we should call to confirm our arrival in the area the day before the planned flight, and at that time an indication of the weather forecast would be imparted. Following that instruction to the letter, Hank the helpful owner advised that the cloud cover had been too low for the last two days and that flying was very unlikely tomorrow. He’d monitor the situation though and suggested calling again at 7am for a definitive answer.

He’d obviously checked the forecast and made his decision later that evening however, for the ever helpful Hank sounded distinctly hungover on the phone just after dawn the following day.

Somewhat disappointed, but also pleased that not a cent had been wasted, we had an early breakfast and watched the coaches pass by outside, taking their loads off for a foggy day in the fjords, which improved our moods no-end.

Instead then, we headed to Arrowtown which, despite the mountain-top cloud which prevented flying, was warm and sunny. A short drive from Queenstown, Arrowtown is really a village – little more than a single street of early-colonial buildings beside the Arrow River – but one of New Zealand’s few intactly-surviving gold-rush settlements.

It serves its visitors well, however, with a wide selection of quality shops, restaurants and cafés as well as more utilitarian facilities like the picturesque public library.

A short side-trip takes visitors up to the Coronet Peak ski area, closed outside of the winter season but with an open car park from which the view extends for miles in a mountain-backed 180 degree panorama.

Now, when the TSS Earnslaw arrived in Queenstown, it did so having been brought to Kingston, at the Southern end of Lake Wakatipu by rail. A section of that railway track still remains and, with the clouds which had stalled the Milford Sound flight descending rapidly, a ride on the Kingston Flyer from Kingston to Fairlight seemed like a sensible plan.

The drive from Queenstown passes the town’s airport and then the Kawarau Falls, close by which the new Westin Queenstown will open in 2010. The next waypoint is the access road to The Remarkables Ski Area and, from thereon in, the road hugs the shores of Lake Wakatipu as it snakes beneath the cloud-covered mountain tops. Fifty minutes or so later and the valley broadens slightly as the lake comes to an end at the village of Kingston.

As is so often the case in New Zealand, signage for what one might be assumed to be a fairly major tourist attraction (and therefore the intended destination of less-than-locally-knowledgeable folks) is limited, however since there is very little else of note in Kingston, it’s not an onerous challenge to locate the tiny station building and adjacent car park – helped of course by the steady plume of smoke from the vintage steam engine.

The uncharitable might suggest that the Kingston Flyer is, in itself, a microcosmic representation of the whole of New Zealand. It goes from nowhere to nowhere much else, at a glacially-slow pace, with no apparent purpose or self-concern. The line, from one end to the other, is a mere 14 kilometres in length – but takes half an hour for the hissing beast and its attendant snake of variously appointed carriages to clank and lumber along it.

And then it comes back, very much in the same manner but, erm, in reverse.

A flyer it is not, but a less jaded observer might however notice that the Kingston’s carriages are actually ahead of their time. To prove the point, witness the following, per British Airways service class nomenclature:

World Traveller –

World Traveller Plus –

Club World –

First Class –

Notwithstanding the lack of obvious practical achievement in travelling aboard the Kingston Anything-but-Flyer, the whole experience is rather charming. The rocking and rolling of the restored carriages is gently soporiphic once the rhythm is tuned into and, assuming that eyelids remain rolled up, the carriages themselves are wonderfully detailed.

Passengers can wander freely between them, look out on the retreating scenery from the open platform at the rear or stand on the similarly open stage at the front, immediately behind the engine’s tender and in direct line of fire for the passing smuts and sparks from the iron horse ahead.


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