June 21, 2008

Queenstown – adventure capital of the world

The Adventure Capital of the World, the famous resort town of Queenstown rests beside Lake Wakatipu at the foot of The Remarkables (2342m), one of only two mountain ranges in the world that run truly North-South, the other being the Rockies. Swathes of forest decorate the area between the town and mountaintops. Lake Wakatipu, a contraction of waka-tipua-wai-maori is literally ‘the freshwater trough where the giant demon lies’ or commonly ‘the hollow of the sleeping giant’. It is New Zealand’s longest lake (84km) and third largest (291 sq km) after Taupo and Te Anau. It is 410m at its deepest, putting the lake floor below sea level. Lake Wakatipu rises and falls up to 12cm every 5 minutes, caused by variations in atmospheric pressure. In Maori legend however, this is said to be the beating of a monster’s heart in the depths.

Top: Our hostel; Bottom: View of hillside houses in Queenstown

Queenstown cable car, which we didn't experience

The district was first settled in 1860, when pioneer run holder William Gilbert Reese set up a farm and homestead on the shores of what is now Queenstown Bay. Pastoral peace and tranquility was broken when gold was discovered in the Shotover River in 1862. Thousands of prospectors converged on William Rees’ settlement and the quest for gold began in earnest. The Shotover River is the second highest gold bearing river in history. The river was so lucrative it yielded a record-breaking 57.6kg of gold in just one day. The government bought the wild frontier town in 1863 and pronouncing it ‘fit for a Queen’ christened it Queenstown. Lake Wakatipu was the principal means of transport and at the height of the gold boom, four steamers and about 30 other craft plied the waters. Both the TSS Earnslaw (a famous steamer built in 1912) and the Kingston Flyer (a vintage steam train) were commissioned during the gold years. TSS Earnslaw still plies the deep waters of Lake Wakatipu while the Kingston Flyer operates out of Kingston at the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu, both as tourist ventures. After the gold rush, agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, with tourism taking over since early 1970s.

We took it easy in the first part of the day and simply enjoyed the magnificent scenery by walking around the town. The waterfront is especially picturesque.

The TSS Earnslaw

After drinking in the serene mountain views at the harbourfront, we explored the compact town, which is easily navigated on foot. Interesting buildings include Williams Cottage, Queenstown oldest home built in 1864 and remains very close to its original condition, with peeling wallpaper, original kitchen, Welsh dresser and coal range. Around the corner is the Church of St Peter, a pretty little wood-beamed building.

William's Cottage and Church of St Peter

After the calm of the morning, we signed up for the adrenaline-charged jetboating at the Shotover River. A minibus picked us up from the booking centre in town to the jetboat by the river. It was a 30-minute ride through the rocky Shotover Canyons, with lots of 360-degree spin. It was fun, though not as scary or as exciting as I imagined it to be. My only regret was not taking my camera along on the boat, as the view of the canyon walls towering over us was spectacular.

The famous red jetboat at Shotover Canyons

The spectacular Shotover Canyons

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