Southern Shangri La: Discovering Queenstown

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

Then and Now

Trekking north across the Waimea Plains in the spring of 1853, young Scottish explorer Nathanael Chalmers and his Maori guide, Chief Reko, struck the Mataura River and followed it inland. It’s hard to comprehend what he might have thought when they came across Lake Whakatipu, an 80 kilometre long Z-shaped glacial lake formed in the deep valley between the Southern Alps, The Remarkables, and several other spectacular peaks. Maori had been there before, leaving fishing nets, baskets, and spears, but Nathanael was the first European to witness its splendour.

Affected as he may have been, the area proved too far inland for either Maori or Europeans to settle in permanently, something that would change overnight in 1862 when gold was discovered in the Shotover River. William Gilbert Rees ran a high country farm in the area, and the sudden influx of prospectors inspired him to convert his lakeside wool shed into a hotel and tavern, which he named “The Queen’s Arms”. Unsurprisingly, the hopeful pilgrims built their shacks and shanties around it, and this rustic encampment slowly evolved into a permanent township.

Welcome to Queenstown.

Queenstown in Winter 300x127 - Southern Shangri La: Discovering Queenstown

Although amateurs still try their luck panning for gold on the Shotover, the Otago Gold Rush days, like those hardy pioneers, exist only in dusty history books. Queenstown, fortunately, has discovered a new kind of gold in the form of tourism dollars, and reinvented itself as a resort town with modern attractions that require a modern type of hardiness. Now recognised as New Zealand’s Adventure Tourism Capital, in fact touted as “Adventure Capital of the World”, the township has a population of only 12,000 but annual visitor numbers approaching 2 million. That is over 150 tourists per resident… I guess there must be some business opportunities there!

And there are. In addition to the accommodation, dining, and other general industry, Queenstown boasts over 200 registered adventure tourism activities, including – deep breath – skiing and snowboarding, jet boating, whitewater rafting, bungy jumping, mountain biking, skateboarding, tramping, paragliding, sky diving and fly fishing. Too many to do justice to in one article, but I will touch on some of the most popular must-do’s, and hopefully shed light on a handful of less obvious ones, in my next post.

The primary thing to recommend this part of Otago is its jaw-dropping scenery. Go for a stroll and sit by the lake, and watch the vintage steamboat TSS Earnslaw make her broad, silent loop as she docks in Queenstown. Take a short drive to Bannockburn or Arrowtown, or follow highway 6 down to Kingston at the southern tip of the lake, and expect to be overwhelmed by photo-opportunity vistas around every corner. These are Queenstown’s draw card, the headline act – not the commercial freakshow it supports. And somehow, if you can get yourself there, these are still free.

Getting There

Queenstown Airport has been rated among the top ten airport approaches in the world, and offers both domestic services and trans-Tasman flights to Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. It also now ranks as New Zealand’s fourth busiest airport, with passenger numbers continuing to grow significantly each year. Substantial expansion work is currently being done to accommodate this growth. It is a mere 8km from Queenstown CBD and is obviously the ideal choice if you just want to jet in for a weekend on the slopes. Local sightseeing flights are always popular too, using chartered light aircraft or helicopters.

The most common path that tourists take, though, is to either drive down from the North Island, or fly in to Christchurch airport. Our earlier post, The Canterbury Tales Part 1, begins its journey there before heading westbound and down into the barren, beautiful MacKenzie Country. This is an approximate suggestion, but a highly recommended way to see the diversity of terrain the South Island is renown for.  From where we left off in Mt Cook, State Highway 8 will take you south through Lindis Pass, the highest point on any South Island highway, then take a right turn below Lake Dunstan toward Cromwell and State Highway 6. At less than three hours drive, you can have breakfast in Mt Cook and be in Queenstown for lunch. Now there’s a plan!

See you next time, when we namecheck Queenstown’s most famous activities, and unearth some local secrets…



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