South Island Wandering – Glenorchy

We bade a fond farewell to Michelle and Terry, the Fox Terrier. Basil the horse stood aloof, in a way that only horses can. I expect that he knew we had run out of apple cores!

It’s an easy drive from Alexandra to Queenstown and once on the outskirts we stopped off at the huge shopping/apartment complex in Frankton to stock up on supplies. Where we were headed supermarkets don’t exist and foodstuffs are limited in choice. We’d been there before; we knew what to expect.

Queenstown occupies a wonderful position on the northern shore of Lake Wakatipu with wonderful views of The Remarkables range of mountains. It definitely has a holiday place feel to it. Not quite donkeys on the sands and kiss-me-quick hats, it is undoubtedly a resort town. Too busy and noisy for the likes of us so we drove through to the other end of the vast 80 klms long lake.

It’s a wonderful drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy along a twisty up and down road, mostly hugging the shoreline. But whilst it was bright in Queenstown, by the time we reached Glenorchy 45 minutes later the cloud had descended and it was drizzling. Still, our accommodation was comfortable and, as the clouds cleared, with great views of the surrounding mountains.

And, in the clear of the nightime, yet again we were treated to the staggering sight of the Milky Way overhead.

Glenorchy is named after Glen Orchy in Argyllshire and occupies the head of Lake Wakatipu. The Dart and Rees rivers flow into the lake here creating an extensive wetland area. Glenorchy is popular with day trippers out of Queenstown and also with hikers wishing to do the many hiking trails around the area, particularly the Routeburn Track which is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and which takes you to Fiordland on the west coast.

It is gloriously situated on the lake, surrounded by mountains which, we were very pleased to see, had a dusting of snow on them. But it’s a small, quiet place with two pubs, a few small cafes and a general store, some holiday lets and homes and very little else. That’s why we like it.

The following morning dawned bright and we watched the pink glow of the dawn lighting up the east facing peaks opposite us from the comfort of our bed whilst sipping a coffee. What a great start to a day.

We decided to make an easy trek from the Paradise road to Diamond Lake. On a clear, still day Diamond Lake gives wonderful reflections of the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, although the day was bright, there was a breeze running which rather ruined the reflective nature of the water. Not to worry, it was still a lovely spot to be in.

From here we continued on to Paradise, which isn’t much more than a former hotel and a much photographed roadsign. The road is, however, rated as one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand – which is saying a lot in a land in which virtually every road is scenic.

Scenic or not, Paradise road is one of the many unmetalled, or unsealed outback roads you find all over New Zealand. They can be made of clay, pumice or gravel and I can never quite work out why some of the popular routes aren’t tarred over. Perhaps it’s down to cost but I wonder if it is an attempt to discourage tourists going off into the outback where they might get stuck or lost.

These roads are high maintenance, especially after heavy rainfall as has occurred recently. And we soon came across a Grader ploughing up the gravel to make it smooth(ish) once more. We stopped to have a chat with the guy working the grading machine. In fact, we saw him several times over the next few days and ended up getting quite chatty with him.

The Paradise Road eventually ends up at Chinaman’s Bluff from where you can hike up Mt Earnslaw but, after finding a fab picnic spot, we turned back and went to explore the next valley over, the Rees Valley, before heading home to catch the sunset. Once that show is over, and after a tasty dinner, you can stand outside in the cold and see the spectacular stars overhead as you sip your warming cup of tea. And it really was getting cold at night with a grass frost evident by next morning.

There were several reasons why we came to New Zealand in March and April; we’d had three summers in the country and thought it was time to try another season. The Southern Hemisphere Autumn seemed an ideal time and we thought that fewer tourists would be a bonus. We knew that we would be taking a risk with the weather but it has largely turned out to be very pleasant. A little rain, some cloudy days but not many and it’s been much warmer during the day than we anticipated.

We chose the beginning of April to go to this area of the South Island because we thought that the Autumn colours in the trees would be in evidence. New Zealand as a whole does not have many native deciduous trees and bushes but the best place to see what there is, so every guidebook/online travel site told us, is Arrowtown, about 20 mins drive out of Queenstown. Only it seems we were two weeks too early – the autumn show doesn’t start until the end of April. Not to worry, it was a nice drive past Coronet Peak and we had a challenging walk up the Sawpit Gully Trail.

It was on this trail that we learned a little NZ ecology. We met a man collecting seeds of the Southern Beech, a native plant. The problem is that, although the hillsides are clothed in green trees, the vast majority are foreign interlopers, such as the Douglas Fir. Some of these have been planted in the past but many have spread as wildings and they outcompete the native flora turning the countryside into an almost monoculture. This in turn affects native plants, birds and animals.

So, hillsides need to be cleaned of the interlopers. One way is to chainsaw them by hand. This not only takes time but also, if you leave the felled tree on the ground it shades out native tussock grass. A better way is to poison whole swathes of hillside, and let the trees rot where they stand which then lets the grasses grow. But you need native trees for the native avifauna so our man was collecting beech seeds to grow 6,000 seedlings for planting out once the hillside had been deforested. Bio control and regeneration is a serious business in New Zealand but at least they are trying to put right mistakes of past generations.

Arrowtown itself is a bit of a tourist hotpot. It’s a former mining town with a ‘quaint’ main street full of restored buildings which now house ‘gift shoppes’, cafes, tat shops, etc. For our Gloucestershire friends it’s a bit like Bourton on the Water without the Cotswold stone.

We didn’t stay long and quickly made it back to the calmness which is Glenorchy, picking up two Israeli guys just outside of Queenstown. They had hitched from Te Anau that day with the intention of trekking over the mountains to get back there. (I know, why not just stay where they were if they were so eager to get back there). They were very grateful for the lift as they’d been waiting by the roadside for some considerable time. Most tourists seem reluctant to give a lift to hitch hikers but I remember my younger days when I was very grateful for motorists picking me up. Anyway, you get to meet some interesting people that way.

The next day we headed out towards Kinloch, a tiny settlement directly opposite Glenorchy. It’s got a pub with accommodation units and a campsite and little else. We then drove further around the lake on an interesting gravel road which had been washed out only recently. As it was we only had to cross three fords to get to the Greenstone carpark but not before we had picked up another young couple who also turned out to be Israeli. They were intent on a four day hike along the Greenstone Track. Our goal was a much more modest day hike along the shore of the lake through farmland, up through some glorious old forest area to Lake Rere then back along the Greenstone River to the car.

It was a lovely walk in mostly bright sunshine but we were very tired by the end. That evening, just as we were going down the pub for a meal, it rained. Great, we thought, rain down here means snow up in the mountains. And, sure enough, by next morning there was a fair covering of snow above 1,000 mtrs. This was to be our last day in Glenorchy and, still a little weary from the previous day’s exertions, we opted for a final photographic tour, going to the start of the Routeburn Track and up the Dart River Valley.

In the afternoon we made a chance discovery of a really great hike in the Whakaari Conservation Area, just a few minutes out of Glenorchy. Our track took us past an old scheelite mine which still has some of the original machinery in place and a lovely hut which was used by the mine manager.

Scheelite is a calcium tungstate mineral (CaWO₄) with a number of uses, including the strengthening of steel. Scheelite was called Otago’s ‘White Gold’ in the early 20th Century so this, and the others in the area, was a very important mine. It closed after WW2. (You can tell I’ve been reading Wikipedia, can’t you.)

Further on up there were some old slate workings with fabulous views of Mt Earnslaw and the mountains which virtually surround Glenorchy. Had we discovered this track earlier in our stay we would have gone on further up into the mountain as it was clear it would be a great hike and there are even several huts you can stay at for those of an adventurous (or masochistic) bent. For us the day was getting on and it was time to descend and make our way back home. We were happy because you should always leave something to come back for.

The following day, as we bid a fond farewell to the town, the sun was sparkling on Lake Wakatipu and the mountains were all wearing ermine cloaks of snow. Glenorchy- a place of incredible beauty, of peace and of light. Au revoir – we shall be back.

2 thoughts on “South Island Wandering – Glenorchy

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