The tiny mountain-girt village of GLENORCHY, at the head of Lake Wakatipu 50km northwest of Queenstown, is quiet and supremely picturesque, making it a perfect retreat. For many, it is simply a staging post en route to some of the finest tramping in New Zealand – a circuit of the Rees and Dart rivers, the Routeburn Track and the Greenstone and Caples tracks.
While a fair number of tourists pass through each day (many to ride the Dart River Jet), Glenorchy remains small, with just a petrol station, a post office, a couple of pubs and cafés, some accommodation and a grocery shop. Just about every local operator plasters its promotional material with Lord of the Rings location imagery, as several movie scenes were shot hereabouts. Indeed, the area has been deemed stunning enough to act as movie backdrops for the Rockies and the European Alps and in movies as diverse as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Naturally, Peter Jackson returned in late 2011 to film segments for The Hobbit movies. If you need to see specific shooting sites, join the Queenstown-based Safari of the Scenes trips run by Nomad Safaris.
The Glenorchy region’s fantastic scenery owes a debt to beds of ancient sea-floor sediments laid down some 220–270 million years ago and metamorphosed into the grey-green schists and pounamu (greenstone) of the Forbes and Humboldt mountains. The western and northern flanks of the Forbes Mountains were shaped by the Dart Glacier, now a relatively short tongue of ice which, at its peak 18,000 years ago, formed the root of the huge glacial system that gouged out the floor of Lake Wakatipu. For a map of the area, For more information, see Buckley Transport.
In pre-European times the plain beside the combined delta of the Rees and Dart rivers was known as Kotapahau, “the place of revenge killing”, a reference perhaps to fights between rival hapu over the esteemed pounamu which littered an area centred on the bed of the Dart River. There’s still greenstone up there, but most is protected within the bounds of the Mount Aspiring National Park.
The first Europeans to penetrate the area were gold prospectors, government surveyors and nearby run-holders in search of fresh grazing. The fledgling community of Glenorchy served these disparate groups, along with teams of sawmillers and workers from a mine extracting scheelite, a tungsten ore used in armaments manufacture. Despite the lack of road access, tourists began to arrive early in the twentieth century, cruising across Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw before being decanted into charabancs for the 20km jolt north to the Arcadia homestead at Paradise – an admittedly beautiful spot, though the name apparently comes from the abundance of paradise ducks in the area. The road from Queenstown was eventually pushed through in 1962, opening up a fine lakeside drive.