Thursday, 29 November 2012

Glenorchy and Arrowtown

If the hustle and bustle of Queenstown gets too much, then there are a couple of charming, low-key townships which you can visit not too far away. In opposite directions to Queenstown lie the quaint towns of Glenorchy and Arrowtown.

Glenorchy lies at the head of Lake Wakatipu, which is a scenic 40-minute drive (45km) northwest from Queenstown. Glenorchy is the gateway to some of the finest tramping tracks that New Zealand has to offer including a circuit of the Rees and Dart rivers, the Routeburn Track, and the Greenstone and Caples tracks but apart from that, the township itself doesn't really have much to offer.

The area is also the site for the proposed Routeburn tunnel, which would carve an 11km tunnel through Mt Aspiring National Park to provide a more direct route to Milford Sound from Queenstown and reduce the journey times of the day trip, which can currently take up to 12 hours from Queenstown. The proposal has proven controversial as it would threaten the World Heritage Status of both Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, as well as draw tourism away from Te Anau and increase traffic through Glenorchy, which is essentially an "end of road" destination, thus spoiling the wilderness of the area.

En route to Glenorchy, there are a number of tracks down by Lake Wakatipu for lakeside walks, historic sites, fishing or swimming. We stopped off at Bob's Cove (Te Punatapu) in the Upper Lake Wakatipu Reserve to walk a short nature trail down by the lakeside, which was part of the original bridle track to Glenorchy.

In front of the shore of Bob's Cove with Mt Nicholas and Mt Turnbull

Fortune Cove, or Bob's Cove, derives it's name from Bob Fortune, a boatman who worked for William Rees, who was an early pioneer in the area. It was also the site of a short lived but important lime quarrying and burning industry in Queenstown for agriculture and building materials.

Apparently, Bob's Cove is one of the best places to observe Lake Wakatipu's seiche (a french word, used in the context of an enclosed body of water where it sways back and forth), the phenomenon which causes the lake's level to fluctuate approx. 15cm every 5 minutes, although we didn't really notice anything. However, the tranquil turquoise waters were more what I imagined Lake Tekapo would look like. Getting down to the lake edge we were able to get some nice views of the Remarkables and Walter Peak (1,815m).

Bob's Cove looking across the Tweleve Mile Bush

The remains of a lime kiln and gum trees possibly used for fuel 

Limestone hill on the right with the Remarkables and Walter Peak

Continuing along the Glenorchy Road, we passed some opportune lookouts for stunning views up towards the head of the lake with Pigeon Island (Wāwāhi Waka) and Pig Island (Matau) in the centre of the lake and the snow-capped Humbolt and Forbes Mountains on the horizon reflecting the sunlight back at us.

The view from Bennett's Bluff towards the head of the lake

Looking west to the Hummocks and Round Peaks

Pig Island is the long and flat one and Pigeon Island has the mound

Starting off at the waterfront near the wharf, we walked the Glenorchy Walkway along the edge of the lake and through some wetlands along a boardwalk around the lagoon, north of the township.

The wharf at Glenorhcy with Bold Peak (2,118m) in the background

Stone Peak (2,130m) towering over Glenorchy

The twin peaks of Mt Earnslaw dominate over the head of the lake

Lizzie in front of Mt Alfred (Ari) and Mt Earnslaw (Pikirakatahi)

The general area has a strong connection with Lord of the Rings as it's provided a number of landscapes for the trilogy including Isengard, Lothlórien, and Ithilien among others.

View across to the Humboldt Mountains

Taking advantage of the first weekend we've had since the end of the ski season we drove back to Glenorchy as we wanted to walk the Diamond Creek track and see Diamond Lake (14.5 km north of Glenorchy), as well as venture into Paradise. The Department of Conservation has a fantastic leaflet called "The Head of the Wakatipu" with details on all the tracks around Glenorchy.

Second time round in Glenorchy, there was far less snow on the mountains but this didn't make them any less picturesque. Following the Glenorchy-Paradise road past the lagoon, we crossed the Rees River over a bridge before turning left, in the direction heading towards the starting points for the Routeburn, Caples and Green tracks.

Starting off at the car park from the Glenorchy-Routeburn road, the track was really soggy underfoot and I wasn't happy when my feet got soaked in the boggy marsh despite wearing Gore-Tex walking trainers! However, despite my complaining we were warned by the Department of Conservation office in Queenstown that there had been a lot of rain in the area recently.

Downstream from Diamond Creek towards the Humboldt Mountains

Lizzie with Mt Earnslaw behind her

The walk to Lake Reid took us approx. 45 mins, following the bank of the creek with Mt. Alfred opposite us and amazing views of Mt Earnslaw (2,830m) straight ahead. Towering over the Rees and Dart Valleys, Mt Earnslaw lies on the southern end of the Forbes Range.

Lake Reid looking across to Paradise and the Dart Valley

Clockwise: the West Peak of Mt  Earnslaw (2,820m), the Comsos Peaks (above) and, Mt Nox (1,940m) and Mt Chaos (1,995m)

Once we reached Lake Reid it was really windy with gusts blowing from the Dart Valley and across the lake. Looking across to Mt Alfred, Lizzie spotted a waterfall on the mountain on the opposite side of the creek. Having had enough of being blown around and getting our feet soggy we headed back through the swampy track to where we parked the car.

Sometimes photos don't really do the scenery justice

As we were on the edge of Mt Aspiring National Park I was particularly interested in checking out Diamond Lake and Paradise, as the area was used for some of the Middle Earth locations such as Parth Galen and Lothlórien in the Lord of the Rings films.

Driving back along the Glenorchy-Paradise road in the direction towards Paradise, the road became an unsealed gravel road suitable for most vehicles, unlike some of the other backcountry roads as you venture deeper into Mt Aspiring National Park. Crossing Earnslaw Burn, we approached the entrance to the national park where there were some signs warning us about possible vehicle damage on the road and deep fords, however, we weren't really sure what to expect.

Earnlsaw Burn looking over to Cockburns Bush and Reef Spur

Sounds ominous!

Driving alongside Diamond Lake we climbed up above the beech forest eventually reaching the River Jordan, a small crossing to negotiate in the car but we decided to heed the earlier warning and walked on from this point, however, there were quite a few people crossing the ford in your run of the mill, everyday vehicles - I guess as they say "He who dares, wins"...

Mt Alfred on the other side of Diamond Lake

It's getting biblical as Lizzie crosses the River Jordan!

Having said that, there wasn't really much to see once we were in Paradise as it was mainly farmland but we did catch a couple more glimpses of the snow-capped peaks of Mt Nox, Mt Chaos and Poseidon Peak. Again, as with most areas in New Zealand hyped up as worth seeing, it was a bit confusing to know where we should be aiming for.

The striking peaks of Mt Nox and Mt Chaos

The Cosmos Peaks and beyond into the Dart Valley

It was a bit of a disappointing end to the day, as we didn't really find a walk for Diamond Lake but this may have arisen because of some confusion with the research on my part. As it turns out there is also Diamond Lake in Wanaka, which also is on the way to Mt Aspiring National Park. Although a slight irritation, it has given us another walk to try some point in the future, as it offers some amazing views of Lake Wanaka, the Southern Alps (Kā Tiritiri o te Moana) and Mount Aspiring (Tititea).

Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town that is located 20 minutes northeast of Queenstown. The main reason why the frontier town exists today is because of the unwitting discovery of gold in the Arrow Rover in 1862 by Jack Tewa (a.k.a. Māori Jack), and not by William Fox, although it is debatable as to who the first person really was. This quickly brought prospectors along the Crown Range and into the Cardrona Valley where gold was discovered later that year. As a result the population of Arrowtown rapidly swelled from a few lonely settlers to 6,000 fortune hungry prospectors!

Arrowtown is also famous for it's trees, which are spectacular in autumn

The Arrow River became known as the richest for its size in the world - a reputation which drew Chinese settlers to the area, where they were shamefully segregated from the rest of the main Bush Creek community, as part of the inherent discrimination of the time. Many immigrants came with dreams of earning a fortune and returning home to their families, however, the harsh reality was that very few realised their dreams and often died from over working or poor living conditions.

After the initial gold rush, a more permanent town began to establish itself by becoming a farm service town. Although the permanent population declined during the 1950s, Arrowtown gained a reputation as a popular holiday destination. Today, Arrowtown still has the feel of an old gold rush era town, but tourism is now it's main source of economy.

Buckingham Street has a number of beautifully preserved buildings

Historic buildings include the Lakes District Museum and Post Office

As part of the 150th anniversary celebrations, hundreds of local residents took a step back in time by participating in a re-enactment of the discovery of gold in the Arrow River. Watching the action unfold on the bank of the river, there were gold panners, Chinese miners, horses, wagons, dancing girls and even a pop-up saloon and tent village.

Best costume and accessory goes to...
The iconic Post and Telegraph Office

Apparently, a lot of the grand buildings built in Dunedin were built on the back of the gold found in the Otago goldfields. There's still gold to be found in Arrow River if you're prepared to look hard enough for it! Back in 2006, a nugget about the size of a crushed egg was found, fetching approx. $15,000 NZD.

We stayed long enough to watch an official welcome by Arrowtown's Chinese community and the dragon dancers. The Chinese Settlement at the western end of Buckingham Street, has a number of heavily restored buildings, which are the best-preserved gold-era Chinese community buildings in New Zealand. Many of the buildings were only meant to be temporary but the best preserved building is Ah Lum's store (separately registered as an historic place). Ah Lum was highly regarded by both the Chinese and Europeans miners, and he was a pillar of the Chinese community.

The Chinese Settlement is considered an important historic site 

Life must have been tough in one of these huts especially in the winter 

The 150th anniversary celebrations continued into the weekend, coinciding on the same week that the "Lady of the Lake", the TSS Earnslaw celebrated it's 100th birthday. There was also a gold-panning championship over the weekend in Arrowtown, among other events.

One of the horse drawn carriages used in the re-enactment 

A nice walk to do in Arrowntown is the Tobins track, which starts off by the Arrow River near the recreation reserve. Crossing a wooden bridge over the river, it's a brisk walk to the top where you climb to where it plateaus up at the Crown Terrace. After about 40 mins you reach the top of Tobins Track where there is a trig station and some benches for walkers to have a rest and enjoy the spectacular views of the Wakatipu Basin and the surrounding mountains.

A marker in memory to Thomas Tobin
Tobin built the track as a route to Wanaka

View from Tobins Track looking back over Arrowtown and to Queenstown - click here to view in hi-res

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Skiing in Queenstown

Part of the reason why we came to the South Island during the winter was experience some of the places we'd already been to our on original trip during a different season. However, we were never sure if we'd get the chance to do any winter sports partly because skiing/ snowboarding aren't the most accessible activities for beginners on a budget. To begin with you need clothes such as a ski jacket and pants, ski socks, waterproof gloves, a beanie, thermals and ideally some goggles, although some people make do with sunglasses. It helps if you know someone you can borrow clothes from as we did from our old "flatties", who kindly lent us their fancy gear when they weren't using it!

I loved the Speights branded Sessions ski jacket!

Then there's the equipment itself: a board/ skis, boots and bindings, and maybe a helmet. However, you can rent a lot of clothing and equipment from any number of shops, especially in Queenstown or at the ski fields themselves. Last but not least there's the cost of the mountain lift passes depending on how often you reckon you'll be carving up the snow. A season pass can cost around $1300 NZD (or £660 GBP at the time of writing), which is quite a huge outlay, but you can use it as often as you want throughout the season, although you might not be able to use the pass from one ski area to another. For example, a lift pass for the Remarkables wouldn't allow you to ski at Cardrona as they're run by different companies. The other alternative is to get a day lift pass as this cheaper if you're going to be skiing infrequently, but it does work out more expensive in the long run at $95 per day. Another thing to consider is how are you going to get to the ski area? If you don't have your own transport then there are buses which take you up to the mountains (at an additional cost), but some people try their luck and hitch a ride.

It's also definitely worth getting some sort of winter sports insurance, as with any adventure activity there's always some risk of injury, but it can get costly if you hurt yourself badly - we've seen quite a few people around town with arms in slings or walking around on crutches. We didn't get any ski related injuries, but I got a nasty inversion ankle sprain playing indoor football - so it goes to show it's not always the sports you think are the most hazardous...!

The ski season in New Zealand runs from June to October, however, it wasn't really until the end of August that we got an opportunity to give it a try, but this was still great as never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd actually be able to go down a slope on a pair of skis! The closest I thought we would get to doing a winter activity was when we went snow tubing at Lake Tekapo! I was quite fortunate to get a job at Outside Sports on Shotover Street for a short while, where I was able to make use of the staff benefit of using the rental ski gear for free whenever I wanted!

Snow tubing is not to be scoffed at!

Our very first skiing experience was at Coronet Peak, where we booked a one day starter pack designed for an absolute first timer. It covered all our equipment hire including boots, poles and skis (not clothing), two 90 minute lessons, and our lift passes. The aim was that by the end of our lessons we should hopefully be able to slide with confidence, learn how to stay upright, stop, ride the surface lift and maybe start to change direction - easier said than done, right?

The Coronet Express chairlift at Coronet Peak

Getting all kitted out for our first lesson on the snow!!

Coronet Peak ski trails
Actually, it was quite surprising how quickly both me and Lizzie picked up the basics. Granted there were quite a few comical moments when we tumbled over, especially when I was coming off the surface lift, but it wasn't quite like the visions I had of my legs going in opposite directions and not having any control of where I was going. Having spoken to quite a few people, the general consensus is that skiing is often easier to pick up than snowboarding, although there's obviously less equipment involved with snowboarding. As to whether it looks cooler, it's debatable, especially if you're spending a lot of time on your arse in the snow - not that I wouldn't want to give it a try!

Lizzie on a successful descent down the beginner slope

Once we got the technique sorted, we actually felt the group lessons were a little hard work, especially as there's no guaranteeing the people who you're put into a group with will pick it up as quickly. There was an Indian family we were stuck with who acted like money was no object, turning up to the first group lesson unfashionably late without their rental equipment and expecting the ski instructors to fetch it for them! They also held up the lesson as they had bought a load of ski gloves that wouldn't fit because no one bothered to try them on in the shop... What made this situation more of an omnishambles was that none of the family  listened to the instructor and just did their own thing - at least they're weren't booked onto the afternoon lesson. The moral of the story is that it might be worth paying a little extra to do some private lessons for some one-to-one tuition, especially if you want to improve your technique quickly.

The rest of the day was spent practicing our turning and stopping, which takes quite a lot out of you, especially if your leg muscles are not used to the action, but it was all good fun. According to the NZ Ski ability guide we had reached Novice Level 2 on our first day and the ski instructor would have been happy for us to try the chairlift and an actual green (beginner) run, so with this in mind we wanted to try somewhere different and go to the Remarkables.

Lizzie and me practicing our "wedge" technique

View from Coronet Peak ski field - click here to view in hi-res

Going it alone at the Remarkables, we were aiming to boost our confidence before heading onto an actual beginner run, so we spent a fair proportion of our first day there on the surface lifts practising what we had learnt at Coronet Peak, before plucking up the courage to try the Alta Green run. Admittedly, it was a little intimidating on the first attempt as some people can be a little less forgiving when they weave in and out of your path, or in contrast when there's also another beginner nearby and you're not sure where they're going next. Even though there was a lot of falling over (especially down by the Sugar Bowl chairlift as it felt quite steep heading down the slope), it give us the desire to keep improving so we could try the Casterway and Turquoise runs on our next trip to the Remarkables.

Lizzie going up the surface lift at the Remarkables

Riding the Alta Chair looking up towards Double Cone

Lizzie on the Alta Chair with the Sugar Bowl Chair in the background

The Casterway run looks steeper than it really is

On the top of Casterway at least 1900m above sea level!

The Remarkables ski trials
For the next couple of sessions we decided to stick with the Remarkables as the ski area gets the better share of the snow falling in the Wakatipu Basin, partly because it's higher and better positioned. As a result Coronet Peak is often considered inferior (although in my opinion it has better facilities) and at one point a storm towards the end of the season virtually stripped all the snow from Coronet Peak. It was lucky that an unusually late wintery blast brought more snow to Queenstown in the middle of September and saved Coronet Peak from premature closure!

On the second occasion that we went up the Remarkables the visibility was pretty poor and it even snowed quite hard so we ending up getting quite wet, even though our clothes were supposed to be waterproof. However, we didn't have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which days we could go skiing due to work so we just made the most of the time we had.

Ok, but where!?

Looking down the Alta Green run on a cloudy day

The same view on a clearer day

The general opinion has been that this ski season and the one before have been pretty poor due to a lack of consistent fresh snow from Mother Nature, especially at Coronet Peak where there are over 200 snow machines to make up the short fall, compared to the 58 at the Remarkables. However, my view is that Coronet Peak is a perfectly good place to start learning skiing, possibly better than the Remarkables as there's more space for those who want to practice before venturing onto the chairlifts. For those who are more advanced there's also the option of doing twilight and night skiing at Coronet Peak at the weekends (weather and snow-conditions permitting) where the trails are lit up by floodlights!

Coronet Peak is also a more little accessible for those with their own transport as the road up the mountain is at least sealed unlike the gravel 4x4 only road up to the Remarkables, which takes 20 minutes to drive (45 mins in total if starting from town).

You get some amazing views on the road up to the Remarkables

However, if its snowing up on the mountains you're advised to fit your vehicle with snow chains for the road conditions or alternatively you can catch a dedicated bus up to the slopes. If you're really unlucky you could have the bus ride from hell coming back down the Remarkables ski field...

For our last run on the slopes following the late snow flurry, NZ Ski were offering half price lift passes for one weekend towards the end of the season, possibly as a way to make up for the terrible ski season. This would be the last time that we would be able to go skiing in Queenstown as the season was coming to an end and the spring snow was becoming more slushy revealing the tussock and rocks beneath (even compared to the previous week), plus there were other things that we wanted to see outside of Queenstown with our time off work. It was fun while it lasted and it has given us the confidence to build our now found skills in the future and opened up the possibility of going skiing in some other countries in the future!

A beautiful day for our last time skiing
This tunnel is pretty fun to ski through!