We are well and truly in Middle Earth. We have driven from Dunedin on the East Coast of New Zealand’s South Island through the middle of this gorgeous country and into Queenstown – in the very heart of The Land of the Ring. This town of about 30,000 sprang up in the 1860’s in the frenzied days following the discovery of gold in Lake Wakatipu and the Kawarau River. These days Queenstown is a mecca for adventure tourism with a plethora of options for skiing and snowboarding, jet boating, whitewater rafting, bungy jumping, mountain biking, hiking, parasailing and fishing…to name only a few. And knowing the Kiwi’s penchant for inventing ways to risk your life I feel sure that the next innovation in adventure sport is just around the corner.
We’ve arrived in time for a stroll through the town and the short trip up the gondola for a spectacular view of Queenstown and environs. In spite of it’s remoteness this area has not only been the backdrop for the Lord of the Rings movies but for a number of other well-known films including X-Men, The Water Horse, The Chronicles of Narnia and Prince Caspian. Willow is one of the earliest films made here and it’s a favorite of mine. It’s hard to go wrong with a story by George Lucas put to film by Ron Howard.
This magnificent mountain range is the back drop for many scenes in the Lord of the Rings and while sometimes referred to as the Southern Alps the name of this remarkable cordillera is appropriately The Remarkables. A fabulous ski area of the same name roams over three bowls and 540 hectares and is easily accessible from Queenstown.
And this is the way to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor. Lake Wakatipu was carved out by a glacier thousands of years ago. With steep mountains running right down to the water on either side, the lake is said to be almost 400 meters at it’s deepest point.
As with so many of New Zealand’s natural wonders, Māori culture attaches a legend to the origin of Lake Wakatipu. A giant named Matau abducted a chief’s daughter. A warrior who was in love with the daughter tracked the giant down, and one night set fire to his bed while he slept. It’s said that the heat from the burning giant melted the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains, which ran into the deep crevasse and formed Lake Wakatipu. The S-shape of the lake resembles the shape of the giant curled up in repose, and tiny Hidden Island against the shore opposite Queenstown is said to be his heart.
The legend is supported by the curious fact that water levels in the lake rise and fall about 12 cm. every five minutes. Although scientists say it’s the result of atmospheric pressures, I kind of like the Māori explanation for the phenomena – that a giants heart is impossible to destroy, and the rise and fall of the water is a result of Matau’s still-beating heart.
Riding the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak can best be described as short and steep. In fact it’s billed as the steepest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s a network of hiking and mountain bike trails from the peak and you can also book a stargazing session – something I will certainly do when I come back here.
If the low, green hills at the foot of The Remarkables look vaguely familiar it might be because they are the setting for The Shire in the first of the Lord of the Rings movies and also in the most recently released The Hobbit.
New Zealand seems to corner the market in terms of the number of ways you can throw yourself off of places and things. Here’s one. You can throw yourself off the top of Bob’s Peak hanging from a parachute. If you can catch a good updraft you can soar for hours above the the gorgeous Otago scenery. And if you don’t catch a good updraft….well… G Force Paragliding is the only company permitted to fly over Queenstown and launch from the top of the gondola.
Talk about your water hazard…Kelvin Heights Golf Course is almost completely surrounded by Lake Wakatipu. It’s one of the most picturesque golf courses in the world and is considered to be the most scenic course in New Zealand. It’s open year-round and can be accessed by grabbing your clubs and jumping on the five minute water taxi from Queenstown Wharf.
It felt a bit like being on a different planet here in Middle Earth so it was nice to see this comforting reminder that home is only 12,404 kilometers away.
I had heard that there is a luge run at the top of the gondola and if it had gone all the way to the base of the hill I might have tried it. But it is only a short run to the bottom of a chairlift.
The TSS Earnslaw is is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Central Otago. This 1912 Edwardian vintage, twin-screw steamer is our transportation to dinner. It’s the only commercial, passenger-carrying, coal-fired steamship south of the equator.
“There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril — to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.”
—Elrond (at Rivendell)
I am reasonably sure by now that if not walking to Mordor, we are at least heading in that direction. The lake is some eighty kilometers long and I feel certain that we will eventually come around a bend and hard up against the towering and seriously frightening Black Gate.
If Mordor it be, then a little liquid courage was in order. We had been cruising for half an hour or so. I was enjoying a local beer and having a pithy conversation with a shipmate when she stopped mid-sentence and her jaw dropped. I had my back to the bow of the boat and was afraid to turn around, certain that I’d see the Black Gate towering threateningly above us. Happily, it’s only our dinner destination, Walter Peak High Country Farm and what a gorgeous sight it is perched on the verge of gravel beach on the western shore of Lake Wakatipu, below towering Walter Peak.
We had a wonderful buffet dinner in this dazzling setting, made all the more stunning for being out in the middle of nowhere and only accessible by water. The restaurant, which is also a popular wedding venue is called The Colonel’s Homestead and our fabulous meal here included roast lamb and the best sticky toffee pudding I’ve ever had.
This is the sheep shed at Walter Peak Farm with it’s adjoining gift shop. We strolled over here after dinner for a display of herding and a sheep shearing demonstration.
Much of New Zealand is pastoral land dedicated to animal grazing. On the North Island pastoral lands are used mainly for cattle and dairy cows, while the South Island accounts for most of New Zealand’s sheep grazing. There are an estimated forty million sheep in New Zealand, roughly ten for every person. The number has declined in recent years due to the high costs of sheep farming and reduced demand for woolens. Global warming is certainly not helping the economy here.
There are 36,000 flocks of sheep in New Zealand with an average of 1400 sheep in a flock. And while they’re not quite as challenging to herd as cats, a good sheep-herding dog makes the job a lot easier.
We watched this uber-alert border collie worry at the heels of these sheep until they were all nervously huddled in one corner. The dog works on voice commands and whistles from the farmer but I got the impression that even without his master’s guidance he would know exactly what to do.
I read in the The Telegraph that there is a small movement afoot in New Zealand to have sheep shearing recognized as a sport, and to have it included in the Commonwealth Games “if not in the Olympics itself”. There is no doubt that sheep shearing takes physical strength, and watching only one sheep being sheared was certainly exciting – for me, at least – and it’s already a competition sport here. Men and women compete annually for the highest number of sheep shorn in an eight hour period, with current title-holders shearing 749 and 507 sheep respectively. They will need to consider shortening the contest to considerably less than eight hours but I wish them success in their campaign.
(These next three excellent photos of the sheep shearing demonstration are courtesy of fellow passenger, Joey Potoma.)
Poor thing. This little ewe has been throughly fleeced. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. But no worries! She’ll grow her fleece back four to nine inches within the year and will likely be shorn at least once again. One sheep can produce up to 30 pounds of wool annually.
This fleece weighs about ten pounds and will sell for somewhere around $1.50 to $2.00 a pound depending on market conditions. One of the reasons for the very thin margins on sheep farming is the cost of shearing. There have been various attempts to lower costs by automating the shearing process but none has been successful. There may be many ways to skin a cat but this is still the only effective way to shear a sheep.
I felt a real kinship with this gal. I was wearing my Icebreaker jacket. This New Zealand company makes fabulous active wear from high quality merino wool. Each garment is labeled with a ‘Baaa Code’ – really! – so you can go online and look at the sheep who donated it’s fleece. I think it’s intended to help you bond with your garment but it might actually work both ways. I had the uncomfortable feeling that this ewe might have recognized her fleece on my back.
We’ve enjoyed a wonderful evening of New Zealand hospitality and are on board the TSS Earnslaw once again for the short trip back to Queenstown. I’m a bit disappointed not to have experienced Mordor. On the other hand it didn’t seem nearly as welcoming a place to visit as Walter Peak Farm…at least in the movies.
We will be up and out early tomorrow to make our way to The Fjordlands. Hopefully. We’ve had some drama this evening. Rumors have been passing through our little fellowship that there is some question about whether we will be able to join up again with The Voyager. Adding some validity to the rumor is the fact that when one of our group realized he did not have his passport with him, it was a Very Big Deal for the tour leader. So big that the cruise line had arranged to retrieve the passport from his stateroom and have it sent by courier to our hotel in Queenstown. As we’d not needed passports for other shore excursions, it only added to the intrigue.
It seems that a rainstorm has washed out part of the only road into Milford Sound and there is some question about whether it will be open tomorrow. And to add to the suspense we have heard that rough seas might prevent the ship from making it into the Sound to pick us up. In that event, although it’s all speculation at this point we will be flown to Melbourne to meet the ship…or to Sydney and be given a voucher for another cruise at another time. It’s all adding to the excitement of our adventure and it might keep you in suspense until my next post. Stay tuned!