Queenstown via the McKenzie: The road much travelled
January 1, 1970
by TeresaGlobalTravels Teresa Lynch
Queenstown offers a host of recreational sports opportunities year round. Lake Wakatipu offers many wonderful sporting features; in summer, boating, sailing, water skiing, hiking, biking, climbing, jet boating, white water rafting, gold panning, 4WD and much more. These summer adventures continue into winter, along with skiing and snowboarding. It is a playground for all and, with its vast wine region, boasts an international reputation for travellers. Spreading in many directions, it can be approached by land and air with an international small airport, and roads that wend around precipitous lake and river-side cliffs from all directions. It is a place of incredible features that are just waiting to be tasted uncovered by intrepid travellers of all ages.
Road trip: One route to get from Christchurch to Queenstown
Our journey was a road trip from Christchurch via the ‘inland route’, commonly reffered to as going through the centre. I have featured some sights and information that is by no means limited in this timeless landscape on a day’s drive to the capital of adventure – Queenstown.
The centre and southern lakes
Setting off through the Canterbury plains, with their patchwork of grain fields and animals grazing in the paddocks, we wend our way towards the central and southern lakes. Turning off the main south highway we pass through the pretty town of Geraldine and glide through the foothills of the Southern Alps, the mountain range which runs the length of New Zealand’s South Island. We pass through the growing villages of the McKenzie Country, which encompass the beautiful lake side town of Tekapo at the foot of the Mt John Observatory and Omarama, the famed gliding capital of the world with its thermal air currents, perfect for the elegant sport of soaring in the cloudless sky. McKenzie was a sheep drover with a chequered and colourful history, fact mixed with fiction his name is famous on the lips of most South Islanders. So much so that a bronze statue of a McKenzie collie sheep dog has stood at the church of the Good Shepherd in Tekapo since March 1968. Yet there is no time for stopping on this particular journey – we continue south.
We stop at the pretty, colourful green-blue Lake Pukaki to view New Zealand‘s highest peak, Mt Cook (12,218ft, 3724m), known also by its original Maori name of Aoraki. In 1991, a rockslide on the summit reduced its height by 10m and created a very jagged peak. It’s always a pleasure to view the mountain and its stunning peak, often shrouded in cloud, but the challenge of many mountain climbers such as the famous Sir Edmund Hilary, conquerer of Mr Everest and my husband Manfred and his climbing colleagues. Aside from its aesthetic beauty, the whole Aoraki/Mt Cook area is an adventure playground for heli-skiing, mountaineering, high glacial walking, hiking, climbing, camping and fishing. On the West Coast side, the massive but beautiful Fox and Franz Josef glaciers sloping off Mt Cook and the nearby Mt Tasman offer many scenic opportunities. These include glacial flights, guided and unguided walks to and on the glaciers, routes for climbing the peaks and much more for both sedate and adventurous travellers. After musing and observing the topography and its playground I took some photos of the snow covered mountain scene in my viewfinder.
Omarama: The junction to the Waitaki River and the east coast
We drive off in the warmth of the winter sun toward Omarama and on towards the Lindis Pass. Leaving Omarama the road is straight, flat and long until it disappears into the moody, syrup coloured low hills at the approaches to the Lindis Pass where the shadows cast by the hills create a landscape that is frequently painted by artists and photographed to grace the covers of coffee table books and calendars. Off to the right (heading south) of this long stretch of road are the clay cliffs, pinnacles of silt and gravel separated by deep ravines formed millions of years ago by glacial action and seen only from a distance on this main road. To view them on the privately owned land you leave the main road north of Omarama and travel about 10ks to the entrance. However, the phenomenon has been observed by many travellers from the main road who have left their mark along the way by the creation of multiple small rock cairns on the grassy wide road verges. These cairns stretch for many kilometres and you stop noticing them as the road leaves the McKenzie basin and enters the Lindis Valley alongside the Ahuriri River.
The stark beauty of the Lindis Pass
The sub-alpine snow tussock grass covers thousands of acres from the undulating hilltops to the roadside. The view, as you drive along the road, is stunning in its starkness and words fail to describe its absolute beauty. To try and paint some sort of picture in words, the colours range from yellow to brown and green, and snow can often be seen hugging the tussock grass among the stony soil right to the road edge for much of the year except high summer. Trees are non existent on the Pass and are only seen in the valleys approaching from each side. They change colour with the seasons whilst lupines of yellow, pink purple and white fill the roadsides of the valleys in summer. Native birds frequent this conservation area and there is freedom to hike, bike and enjoy the space that has an empty moonscape feel to it. The road is windy making for a slower than normal trip but provides time to enjoy this ‘take your breath away’ scenery where stopping places are few except on the summit of the Pass. It is not unusual to see families having snow fights or tobogganing down the hill on the snow. But on this trip, there was only a smattering of snow, no colourful flowers, no time to hike or bike the off road trails and so on we drove.
Approaching Central Otago
Down the other side into Central Otago we travel as we leave the McKenzie behind. The ‘feel’ is different as we wend our way through the gorge to the greener sheep raising country of Tarras which can burn off to a brown dust-bowl in summer if a drought hits. Further down the road, we reach the grape vines of the ever growing Central Otago vineyards that are stretching further and further into rocky limestone hills around Lake Dunstan, once just part of the ‘mighty’ Clutha River, dammed for hydro electricity production as with many of the lakes we have just passed. Known for its history of gold mining and sheep farming, this has been hard territory to tame over the past 150+ years of New Zealand‘s settlement. A short time historically, by world standards, rough, tough and strong men with their women and children have pioneered farming in these valleys and river gorges, pushing even further south, east and west to where it is greener and wetter a lot of the year.
Central Otago though is known for its harsh, cold winters and hot dry summers and today, the sun shines for us on the edge of coming out of winter. The landscape appears to stretch and yawn as it wakes from its winter hibernation, greeting us with beauty and grace as we glide along beside the lake; old houses and new, side by side recognising progress from farming sheep to farming grapes. We cross the bridge into Cromwell with the Cromwell Gorge stretching south-east towards Clyde and Alexandra. The old orchards buried under the burgeoning waters of the lake, drowned in the wake of progress. Cromwell was a town rebuilt when the river was dammed but the memories of fresh fruit and hot summers linger on my memories as a girl growing up in the south.
On into the Kawarau Gorge
The road comes to a T intersection and we turn left towards Bannockburn and Queenstown – the right turns towards more orchards and even more grape vines in the shadow of the Pisa range as it runs towards Wanaka and the West coast. Bannockburn, a former gold mining area, sluiced clean of gold during the gold rush days is now growing in popularity as an area to holiday and settle; where wines are tasty and plentiful and the fruit sweet and juicy. There is nothing like a Central Otago apricot or a black Dawson cherry. We enter the Kawarau Gorge, narrow, steep and windy with imposing, rocky outcrops with little or no vegetation that jut out over the river far below. Tourist spots have been built to re–enact the gold-digging days and we bypass these as the sun is starting to set with our destination in our sights. The traffic is heavy as workers return home from Arrowtown, Queenstown, the snow fields and the infrastructure to support a high tourist volume. Soon we drive into the valley where the bungee jumping platform over the river contrasts with the vineyards and farms on this side of the gorge.
Memories of the past: The approach to Queenstown
We bypass the turn off to Arrowtown, pass by the small Lake Hayes with its growing real estate of the rich and famous stretching up the steep hill and down to the lake edge. Along the main road into Queenstown, new suburbs are bursting at the seams with houses packed in to provide accommodation for those who work or wish to live and holiday here. New roads and roundabouts carry the traffic home and the travellers inwards as shopping precincts grow alongside the roadway. Childhood memories from the 50’s and 60’s, of visiting relatives who owned an old stone pub above the Shotover river and sleeping in ‘Kirky’s’ kapok bed with my sisters, warmed my heart as we crossed the modern bridge and drove on into Queenstown. In those days, the population was low and the opportunities – different! Stories would be shared of the gold rush days, the personalities of the past talked about and more than a bottle or two of local beer would be enjoyed. As I got older we would ice skate on the pond in the park in Queenstown and once, with the girl guides, we enjoyed a trip to the head of the lake on the Earnslaw steam boat – still in operation today and fondly known as ‘the lady of the lake’. The ‘hooting’ of her horn still resonates around the mountains, the Remarkables, Ben Lomond and the many peaks along the valleys of this beautiful lake.
We have arrived
Soon we arrive at our destination, full of the joys of the day. We enjoy a meal and some chatting with my son and his partner as we discuss the journey down ‘the centre’. It is impossible to include all of the possibilities of this area in one article. There is so much to do in New Zealand and this was just 7 hours of travel, briefly described, of the most magnificent stunningly beautiful centre of the South Island.