Central Otago Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Wedged between the sodden beech forests and plunging cliffs of Fiordland, the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps, the fertile plains of south Canterbury and the sheep country of Southland lies Central Otago, a region of matchless beauty with cold, glacier-carved lakes, barren hills and clear skies. The hub of “Central”, as it is known to locals, is Queenstown, a flawed jewel with a legendary setting looking across Lake Wakatipu to the craggy heights of the Remarkables range. It has become New Zealand’s adventure capital, offering the chance to indulge in just about every adrenaline-fuelled activity imaginable. Near neighbour Wanaka is Queenstown’s more restrained cousin, draped around the placid waters of its eponymous lake. The whole region is riddled with the detritus of its nineteenth-century gold rushes, particularly around Cromwell and amid the big-sky landscapes of the Maniototo.
Central Otago is shaped by its rivers and lakes. Meltwater and heavy rains course out of the mountains into the 70km lightning bolt of Lake Wakatipu, draining east through the Kawarau River, which carves a rapid-strewn path through the Kawarau Gorge. Along the way it picks up the waters of the Shotover River from the goldfields of Skippers.
With a legendary setting looking across Lake Wakatipu to the craggy heights of The Remarkables range, Queenstown fills many roles. Bungy jumping, jetboating, rafting, skydiving, mountain biking, paragliding and many more activities have been honed into well-packaged, forcefully marketed products. But you don’t need to do any of that. Many are happy to relax along the waterfront and dine at the best cafés and restaurants around. The scenery is particularly wonderful, as acknowledged by film-makers who have flocked here over the years to shoot major feature films: several scenes from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the highest concentration of locations from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, more recently, large sections of The Hobbit.
Neighbouring Arrowtown wears its gold heritage well. There is something to delay most folk amid quaint streets, intimate restaurants, cool bars, indie cinema, historic Chinese gold settlements and day-long walks to the defunct gold mines around Macetown. All this provides a welcome break from Queenstown’s high-pitched ambience but perhaps the perfect antidote is the great outdoors. Some of the country’s most exalted multi-day tramps start from nearby Glenorchy, springboard for the magnificent Routeburn Track, the match of any in the country; the green and beautiful Caples and Greenstone tracks(combined to make a satisfying five-day circuit); and the rugged Rees–Dart Track, which opens the challenging Cascade Saddle Route.
Glacially scoured, the three-sided pinnacle of Mount Aspiring, “the Matterhorn of the South”, forms the centrepiece of the Mount Aspiring National Park. Permanently snowcapped, this alpine high country is linked by the alluring Matukituki Valley to the small resort town of Wanaka on the shores of Lake Wanaka. The town’s laidback atmosphere stands in marked contrast to frenetic Queenstown, though there’s no shortage of adventure operators vying to thrill you.
Lake Wanaka and Lake Wakatipu both ultimately feed the Clutha River which threads its way to the coast south of Dunedin passing through land transformed by New Zealand’s first gold rushes. Most of the gold has long since gone and the area is largely deserted, but there are numerous interesting relics around the modest centres of Cromwell, Alexandra and Roxburgh. Gold miners fanned out to found tiny towns in the Maniototo: St Bathans and Naseby are particularly enjoyable places to idle among the boom-time remains.
From June to October the region’s focus switches to skiing, with Queenstown acting as a base for the downhill resorts of Coronet Peak and the Remarkables, while Wanaka serves the Cardrona and Treble Cone fields, as well as the Snow Farm Nordic field.
The commercial pressures of Queenstown drop away as soon gets a few kilometres out of town. Heading towards Glenorchy, pause a while beside the lake at Bob’s Cove and admire the quirky plantings at Little Paradise Gardens. There’s more rugged exploration beside the churning Shotover River, once the scene of frenetic gold mining. The early gold discoveries were here, and the tourist motherlode is now mined through rafting trips, jetboating, mountain bike rides and 4WD tours. The Shotover rises in the Richardson Mountains north of Queenstown and picks up speed to surge through its deepest and narrowest section, Skippers Canyon, and into the Kawarau River downstream from Lake Wakatipu. The Skippers Road, which follows the Shotover River only in its upper reaches, branches off Coronet Peak Road 12km north of Queenstown. It is approached along Malaghans Road through Arthur’s Point.
ARROWTOWN, at the confluence of the Arrow River and Bush Creek 23km northeast of Queenstown, still has the feel of an old gold town, though on busy summer days any lingering authenticity is swamped by the tourists prowling the sheepskin, greenstone and gold of its souvenir shops. Nonetheless the town is very much a living community, with grocers’ shops, pubs and a post office and a great range of accommodation and places to eat. Arrowtown has a permanent (and increasingly wealthy) population of around 2400, but in summer, when holiday homes are full and tourists arrive in force, it comes close to regaining the 7000-strong peak attained during the gold rush.
The best way to appreciate Arrowtown is to linger on after the crowds have gone. If you’re visiting from Queenstown and not staying over, consider coming for lunch, spend the afternoon hiking, swimming in the river or biking up to the former mining settlement of Macetown, then catch a movie and dinner, making sure you get the last bus back.
If you can, visit in late April when the town is at its best, the trees golden and the streets alive during the ten-day Autumn Festival (w arrowtownautumnfestival.org.nz), with all manner of historic walks, street theatre and hoedowns.
There is considerable doubt as to whether American William Fox was actually the first to discover alluvial gold in the Arrow River in 1862, but he dominated proceedings, managing to keep the find secret while recovering over 100kg. Jealous prospectors tried to follow him to the lode, but he gave them the slip, on one occasion leaving his tent and provisions behind in the middle of the night. The town subsequently bore his name until Foxes gave way to Arrowtown. The Arrow River became known as the richest for its size in the world – a reputation that drew scores of Chinese miners, who lived in the now partly restored Arrowtown Chinese Settlement. Prospectors fanned out over the surrounding hills, where brothers Charley and John Mace set up Macetown, now a ghost town.
The initial wave of miners who came to Arrowtown in the early 1860s were fortune-seekers intent on a fast buck. When gold was discovered on the West Coast, most of them hot-footed it to Greymouth or Hokitika, leaving a much-depleted community that lacked the economic wherewithal to support the businesses which had mushroomed around the miners.
The solution was to import Chinese labour; the first Chinese arrived in Otago in 1866, their number reaching 5000 by 1870. The community settled along Bush Creek, its segregation from the main settlement symptomatic of the inherent racism of the time – something that also manifested itself in working practices that forced the Chinese to pick over abandoned mining claims and work the tailings of European miners. Even Chinese employed on municipal projects such as the Presbyterian church got only half the wages paid to Europeans doing the same job.
A ray of light is cast amid the prevailing bigotry by contemporary newspaper reports, which suggest that many citizens found the Chinese business conduct “upright and straightforward” and their demeanour “orderly and sober” – perhaps surprisingly in what was an almost entirely male community. Most came with dreams of earning their fortune and returning home, so, initially at least, few came with their families; a process of chain migration later brought wives, children and then members of the extended family. Few realized their dreams, but around ninety percent did return home, many in a box, sent to an early grave by overwork and poor living conditions. Many more were driven out in the early 1880s when recession brought racial jealousies to a head, resulting in the enactment of a punitive poll tax on foreign residents. There was little workable gold by this time and those Chinese who stayed mostly became market gardeners or merchants and drifted away, mainly to Auckland, though the Arrowtown community remained viable into the 1920s. Once the Chinese had left or died, the Bush Creek settlement was abandoned and largely destroyed by repeated flooding.
As gold fever swept through Otago in the early 1860s, prospectors fanned out, clawing their way up every creek and gully in search of a flash in the pan. In 1862, alluvial gold was found at Twelve Mile, sparking the rush to what later became known as Macetown, now a ghost town and a popular destination for mountain bikers, horse trekkers and trampers.
Macetown’s story is one of boom and bust. At its peak, it boasted a couple of hotels, a post office and a school, but when the gold ran out, it couldn’t fall back on farming in the way that Arrowtown and Queenstown did and, like Skippers, it died. All that remains of the town are a couple of stone buildings – the restored schoolmaster’s house and the bakery – and a smattering of wooden shacks. The surrounding creeks and gullies are littered with the twisted and rusting remains of gold batteries, making a fruitful hunting ground for industrial archeology fans
On first acquaintance, it isn’t massively exciting, but the grassy plateau makes a great camping spot. Indeed, arriving for a couple of days with a tent and provisions is the best way to experience Macetown’s unique atmosphere.
Lake Wanaka is drained by the Clutha River, New Zealand’s highest volume river, and the second longest – the mouth at Balclutha, south of Dunedin, is 338km from its source. Its flow is interrupted along the way by major dams at Clyde and Roxburgh as the river and SH8 (the fastest route from Queenstown to the coast) squeeze between the Old Man Range to the east, and the Knobby Range to the west.
The Clutha’s middle reaches flow through the Central Otago goldfields, a fascinatingly historic region, southeast of Queenstown and Wanaka, where the barren and beautiful high country is peppered with gold-town ruins from the 1860s.
The boomtowns were mostly moribund by the early twentieth century, but a few struggled on, mostly growing stone fruit and, later, grapes for what has become a burgeoning wine region full of unique flavours. With wine comes food and the region is increasingly establishing itself as a foodie haven. The range of activities seems pale compared to Queenstown or Wanaka, but mountain biking is hitting its straps with great rides all over the place and a few operators keen to rent you a bike or lead superb tours.
The reconstructed nineteenth-century boomtown of Cromwell, 50km east of Queenstown, probably won’t delay you long, but is a good jumping-off point for the former mining settlement of Bendigo and the wineries of Bannockburn. The twin towns of Clyde and Alexandra have fashioned themselves as bases for the popular Otago Central Rail Trail, while Lawrence relishes is position as the gold rush’s home town.
SH8 follows the Clutha River pretty closely and is typically plied by four buses a day running between Dunedin and Queenstown.
A large white clockface – visible from as far away as 5km – looms out of the cliff backing ALEXANDRA (affectionately known as Alex), 10km southeast of Clyde. Alexandra sprang up during the 1862 gold rush, and flourished for four years before turning into a quiet prosperous service town for the fruit-growers of Central Otago. Throughout the summer you’ll find fruit stalls selling some delectable apricots, peaches and nectarines, and in December and January some of the world’s finest cherries.
There are remote clusters of cottage foundations and sluicings all over Central Otago, and dedicated ruin hounds can poke around the detritus in places such as the Nevis Valley and Bendigo (ask locally), but the most extensive workings are found at BANNOCKBURN, a scattered hamlet 9km southwest of Cromwell that’s now more famous for its wineries.
Since the early 1990s, the warm, north-facing hillsides around the sluicings have been increasingly planted with grape vines. The wines – primarily Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris – have quickly established themselves as some of New Zealand’s best. Almost a dozen wineries are open for tasting (call in advance if you’re visiting in winter), all listed on the free Central Otago Wine Map.
The uninspiring service town of CROMWELL, 60km east of Queenstown via the Gibbston wine region, does its best to celebrate its gold-mining roots while hopping on the back of the region’s food and wine renaissance. Sadly, almost all of Cromwell’s historic core is waterlogged below the shimmering surface of the Lake Dunstan reservoir, formed by the Clyde Dam, 20km downstream (see The Wineries). But the immediate surrounds are beginning to find their place on the tourist map, thanks to the cluster of quality wineries, fruit orchards and old gold diggings.
Cromwell may only be 120km from the coast, but this is as far from the sea as you can get in New Zealand, something that gives the area something of a continental climate that’s perfect for fruit growing. A 13m-high, fibreglass fruit sculpture beside the highway highlights the long-time importance of nectarines, peaches, apples and pears, though these days cherries and grapes are probably more important.
Soon after Hartley and Reilly’s 1862 discovery of gold beside the Clutha River, a settlement sprouted at “The Junction” at the fork of the Kawarau and Clutha rivers. Local stories tell that it was later renamed when a government survey party dubbed it Cromwell to spite local Irish immigrant workers. Miners low on provisions planted the first fruit trees in the region, little expecting Cromwell to become the centre of the Otago stone fruit orchard belt.
The bland former gold town of Roxburgh, 40km south of Alexandra, sits hemmed in by vast orchards that yield bountiful crops of peaches, apricots, apples, raspberries and strawberries, all harvested by an annual influx of seasonal pickers. The season’s surplus is sold from a phalanx of roadside stalls from early December through to May.
The Kawarau River flows out of Lake Wakatipu near the Queenstown Hilton and winds its way past Queenstown’s airport before picking up the waters of the Shotover River and plunging into the Kawarau Gorge. The river stays confined for the next 30km before spilling into Lake Dunstan by Cromwell’s Goldfields Mining Centre.
The valley is a major destination for Queenstown’s whitewater rafting, sledging and bungy operators, but Gibbston, essentially the first 12km of the gorge, has gained an enviable reputation for its wineries. It is only since the 1980s that grapes have been grown commercially in Central Otago, one of the world’s most southerly wine-growing regions. The vineyards lie close to the 45th parallel in a landscape detractors pooh-poohed as too cold for wine production, despite the fact that the Rhône Valley in France lies on a similar latitude. A continental climate of hot dry summers and long cold winters prevails, which tends to result in low yields and high production costs, forcing wineries to go for quality boutique wines sold at prices which seem high (mostly $25–40) until you taste them.
Pioneer winemakers initially experimented in Gibbston, and although far more grapes are now grown around 30km west near Cromwell and Bannockburn, Gibbston remains a wine showcase. Half a dozen places have cellar doors open for tasting, several with superb restaurants.
You can drive to them all, but you’ll appreciate the experience a lot more if you join one of the wine tours that depart from Queenstown.
The steep schist and gravel slopes on the southern banks of the Kawarau River were recognized as potential sites for vineyards as early as 1864, when French miner Jean Désiré Feraud, bored of his gold claim at Frenchman’s Point near Clyde, planted grapes from cuttings brought over from Australia. His wines won awards at shows in Australia, but by the early 1880s he’d decamped to Dunedin. No more grapes were grown until 1976, when the Rippon vineyard was planted, outside Wanaka. It was another five years before the Kawarau Gorge was recognized as ideally suited to the cultivation of Pinot Gris, Riesling and particularly Pinot Noir grapes, with Alan Brady releasing the first commercial wines from Gibbston Valley Wines in 1987. Since then, local winemakers have garnered several shelves full of awards, especially for the elegant, fruit-driven Pinot Noirs.
As an added bonus, the dry conditions inhibit growth of fungus and mildew; the dreaded phylloxera has been kept at bay so far.
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.
The classic image of the felt-hatted old-timer panning merrily beside a stream is only part of the story of gold extraction, but it’s a true enough depiction of the first couple of years of the Otago gold rush. Initially all a miner needed was a pick and shovel, a pan, and preferably a special wooden box known as a “rocker” for washing the alluvial gravel. As the easily accessible gravel beds were worked out, all manner of ingenious schemes were devised to gain access to fresh pay dirt. The most common technique was to divert the river, and some far-fetched schemes were hatched, especially on the Shotover River: steel sheets were driven into the riverbeds with some success, landslides induced to temporarily dam the flow, and a tunnel was bored through a bluff.
When pickings got thinner miners turned to sluicing guns that blasted the auriferous gravel free, ready for processing either by traditional hand-panning or its mechanical equivalent, where “riffle plates” caught the fine gravel and carpet-like matting trapped the fine flakes of gold. Eventually the scale of these operations put individual miners out of business and many pressed on to fresh fields.
To get at otherwise inaccessible gravel stock, larger companies began building gold dredges, great clanking behemoths anchored to the riverbanks but floating free on the river. Buckets scooped out the river bottom, then the dredge processed the gravel and spat the “tailings” out of the back to pile up along the riversides.
Otago’s alluvial gold starts its life underground embedded in quartz reefs, and when economic returns waned, miners sought the mother lode. Reef quartz mining required a considerable investment in machinery and whole towns sprang up to tunnel, hack out the ore and haul it on sledges to the stamper batteries. Here, a series of water-driven (and later steam-powered) hammers would pulverize the rock, which was then passed over copper plates smeared with mercury, and onto gold-catching blankets, before the remains were washed into the berdan – a special kind of cast-iron bowl. Gold was then separated from the mercury, a process subsequently made more efficient by using cyanide.
Although returns are far from spectacular, small-time panners still extract “colour” from the streams all over the province. There’s very little appliance of science: instinct counts for much and fancy mining theories not at all. Bigger capital-intensive companies occasionally gauge the area’s potential, and as one mining engineer pithily put it, “there’s still a shitload of gold out there”.
The Greenstone Track (36km; 2–3 days) and Caples Track (27km; 2 days) run roughly parallel to each other. Both are easy, following gently graded, parallel river valleys where the wilderness experience is moderated by grazing cattle from the high-country stations along the Lake Wakatipu shore. The Greenstone occupies the broader, U-shaped valley carved out by one arm of the huge Hollyford Glacier. The Caples runs over the subalpine McKellar Saddle and down the Caples Valley, where the river is bigger and the narrow base of the valley forces the path closer to it.
The Greenstone and Caples can be done as a loop from Greenstone car park, 6km south of Kinloch Lodge, but more commonly people combine the Routeburn Track with either the Greenstone or the Caples: we’ve described both tracks as a follow-up to the Routeburn. In winter, the lower-level Greenstone and Caples tracks also make a less daunting prospect than the Routeburn: the McKellar Saddle is often snow-covered but at least the huts are heated.
The most interesting route to the east coast from Alexandra is through the Maniototo, a generic name for the flat high country shared by three shallow valleys – the Manuherikia River, the Ida Burn and the Taieri River – and the low, craggy ranges that separate them. Despite easy road access, the Maniototo feels like a windswept and ambient world apart.
The region’s big draw is cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail, but former gold-mining communities such as St Bathans and Naseby are worth sampling for their calm seclusion and subtle reminders of how greed transforms the land. Much of the area’s pleasure is in even smaller places – the post office at Ophir or the old engineering works in the Ida Valley – and in the dozens of small cottages, many abandoned – a testimony to the harsh life in these parts.
Predictably, Europeans first came to the area in search of gold. They found it near Naseby, but returns swiftly declined and farming on the plains became more rewarding. This was especially true when railway developers looking for the easiest route from Dunedin to Alexandra chose a way up the Taieri Gorge and across the Maniototo. In 1898, the line arrived in Ranfurly, which soon took over from Naseby as the area’s main administrative centre. With the closure of the rail line in 1990 an already moribund area withered further until the Otago Central Rail Trail caught on. In recent years, environmentalists have battled to save the landscape from Project Hayes, what would have been New Zealand’s largest wind farm, a battle only won when the power company Meridian Energy backed down in early 2012.
Many New Zealanders only know the Maniototo through the works of Dunedin-born realist painter Grahame Sydney (w grahamesydney.com), who spends much of his time in the region. His broad, big-sky landscapes of goods sheds amid parched fields and letterboxes at lonely crossroads are universally accessible, and instantly recognizable to anyone visiting the region.
Prints and postcards of his work are found throughout the Maniototo and beyond, and originals hang in most of the country’s major galleries. At first glance many of the works are unemotional renditions, but reflection reveals great poignancy. As he says, “I’m the long stare, not the quick glimpse”.
One of the finest ways to explore the Maniototo is on the Otago Central Rail Trail, a largely flat 150km route from Clyde to Middlemarch that passes through all the main towns except for St Bathans and Naseby. Open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders, it follows the trackbed of the former Otago Central Branch railway line and includes modified rail bridges and viaducts (several spanning over 100m), beautiful valleys and long agricultural plains.
Passenger trains ran through the Maniototo until 1990, a continuation of what is now the Taieri Gorge Railway, but it wasn’t until early 2000 that the trail opened, galvanizing a dying region. Most people cycle, and all sorts of accommodation has sprung up to cater to bikers’ needs. Pubs and cafés located where the trail crosses roads aren’t shy to advertise the opportunity to take a break.
The route is generally hard-packed earth and gravel, making it possible to ride most bikes, though fat tyres make for a more comfortable journey. Combining the ride with the Taieri Gorge Railway makes a great way to travel between Clyde and Dunedin. The trail takes most people three days.
If you’re just out to pick the highlights (or are walking and don’t fancy the whole thing) aim for a couple of 10km stretches, both with tunnels, viaducts and interesting rock formations: Lauder–Auripo in the northern section, and Daisybank–Hyde in the east. A torch is handy (though not essential) for the tunnels.
Queenstown is New Zealand’s premier commercialized resort town, superbly set by deep-blue Lake Wakatipu and hemmed in by craggy mountains. Kiwis and visitors complain that the town is too loud, crowded, expensive, big for its boots and the victim of devil-may-care development. There’s some truth in this, with the faint screams of adrenaline activity junkies piercing the tranquillity and the base thump of music and shrill whistle of the TSS Earnslaw providing the backdrop, but somehow Queenstown retains the air of a small-town idyll. Furthermore, it offers a great selection of restaurants, some of the flashiest accommodation in the country, and nightlife that will either suck you in or drive you away.
Best taken in small doses, Queenstown is well worth using either as a base from which to plan lengthy forays into the surrounding countryside, or as a venue for sampling all manner of adventure activities. The most prominent of these is undoubtedly bungy jumping at three of the world’s most gloriously scenic bungy sites, visited either in isolation or as part of a package, perhaps including whitewater rafting and jetboating on the Shotover River.
Visitors after a more sedate time plump for easy walks around lakeshore gardens and to hillside viewpoints; lake cruises on the elegant TSS Earnslaw, the last of the lake steamers; a gondola ride to Bob’s Peak, which commands magnificent vistas from a cable car over Queenstown and the Remarkables range; and wine tours around some of the world’s most southerly vineyards. Milford Sound can be visited from Queenstown.
Frantic summers are nothing in comparison to winter, when Kiwi and international skiers descend on Coronet Peak and the Remarkables, two fine ski-fields within half an hour of Queenstown, particularly during the annual Queenstown Winter Festival, late June and early July.
Even visitors who had no intention of parting with a large wad of cash to dangle on the end of a thick strand of latex find themselves bungy jumping in Queenstown. A combination of peer pressure, magnificent scenery and zealous promotion gets to most people and, let’s face it, historic bridges high above remote rivers beat a crane over a supermarket car park any day. The sport’s commercial originator AJ Hackett, at the corner of Camp and Shotover streets (t 0800 286 495, w bungy.co.nz), runs all three Queenstown-area bungy jumps: the original 43m Kawarau; the 47m Ledge and the mighty Nevis. There are several bungy and swing combos. If you want a record of your fifteen minutes of hair-raising fame you can pay to download photos or a film from the company’s website.
Some say that with bungy jumping it is only the first metre that counts, but size does matter and the Nevis is New Zealand’s highest, with eight seconds of freefall. Jumpers launch from a partly glass-bottomed gondola strung way out over the Nevis River, a tributary of the Kawarau 32km east of Queenstown. Access is by 4WD through private property so spectators have to fork out $50, though this does give you a ride out to the launch gondola and a wonderful view. Free T-shirt but jump photos are extra.
Queenstown is fast becoming a major cycling destination. there have always been great rides here, but with the opening up of gondola access to downhilling in the Queenstown Bike park, the sterling track-building efforts of the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club (queenstownmtb.co.nz), and the imminent completion of the Queenstown trail, part of the new Zealand Cycle trail (wakatiputrails.co.nz) everything is coming together. Whether you’re after a gentle lakeside ride, steep downhill or a multi-night adventure, there’s something for you, and the whole Queenstown region is heli-biking heaven. All the bike shops rent suitable machines and are staffed by keen riders who will point to the best Queenstown has to offer. There’s lots more great information at ridequeenstown.co.nz.
Some of the most thrilling activities around Queenstown take place on or in the water – sometimes a bit of both. You’ll almost certainly get splashed during 360-degree spins when jetboating and punching through big waves whitewater rafting. You’re almost always in the water when river surfing, sledging and canyoning, and only family rafting gives you much chance of a dry run.
There are strong arguments for spending your jetboating dollar on better-value wilderness trips elsewhere – the wilkin River Jet, waiatoto River safaris and trips down the wairaurahiri River spring to mind – but Queenstown does offer the scintillating shotover Jet and the thrilling, scenic and historic skippers Canyon Jet.
Shotover Jet Corner of Camp and shotover sts 0800 746 868, shotoverjet.com. Slick, touristy and pricey but the thrills come thick and fast. Courtesy buses take you out to arthur’s point, 5km north of Queenstown, where super-powerful jetboats thrust downstream along the shotover Canyon. Perilously close shaves with rocks and canyon walls plus several 360-degree turns and periodic dousings guarantee that a twenty-minute trip is enough for most.
Skippers Canyon Jet 0800 226 966, skippers canyonjet.com.Agreat way to combine exploring the skippers road with jetboating among the ancient gold workings of the upper Shotover River. There are various combos, perhaps the most logical being with a rafting trip down the shotover river, which doesn’t save you much money but helps pack in the thrills.
Queenstown’s adventure stalwart is whitewater rafting, which takes place locally on the Kawerau River and the Shotover River, and infrequently in the remote Landsborough River. Although there appear to be three whitewater rafting companies in town, each with assorted packages and combo deals, all rafts are in fact operated by Queenstown Rafting, 35 shotover st (0800 723 8464, rafting.co.nz).
Kawarau River (Grade II–III; 4hr with around 1hr on the water). With its large volume, this is the more reliable of the two rivers. The 7km “Dog Leg” section negotiates four rapids (exciting but not truly frightening), ending with the potentially nasty Chinese Dog Leg, said to be the longest commercially rafted rapid in New Zealand. Being lake-fed, its flow is relatively steady, though it peaks in spring and drops substantially towards the end of summer.
Shotover River (Grade III–IV; 5hr with almost 2hr on the water). More demanding than the Kawarau, with rapids revelling in names such as The squeeze, The Anvil and The Toilet. They reach their apotheosis in the Mother-in-Law rapid, usually bypassed at low water by diverting through the 170m Oxenbridge Tunne. The 14km rafted section flows straight out of the mountains and its level fluctuates considerably. In October and November, snowmelt ensures good flows and a bumpy ride; by late summer low flows can make it a bit tame for hardened rafters, though it is still scenic and fun for first-timers. In winter the lack of sunlight reaching the depths of the canyon makes it too cold for most people, though you can elect to do a much shorter trip by accessing the rapids by helicopter.
Landsborough River (Grade III; mid-Nov to April Friday departures; 3 days). Fly-in wilderness trip with camping beside the river – it’s more about the whole experience than the whitewater.
The Rees–Dart Track (58km; 3–4 days) is the toughest of the major tramps in the area, covering rugged terrain and requiring six to eight hours of effort each day. It follows the standard Kiwi tramp formula of ascending one river valley, crossing the pass and descending into another, but adds an excellent side trip to the Cascade Saddle.
The fame of the Routeburn Track (32km; 2–3 days) is eclipsed only by that of the Milford Track, yet arguably it is superior, with better-spaced huts, more varied scenery and a route mostly above the bushline, away from sandflies. The Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and one of the finest of them, straddling the spine of the Humboldt Mountains and providing access to many of the southwestern wilderness’s most archetypal features: forested valleys rich with birdlife (including the rare yellow-headed mohua) and plunging waterfalls are combined with river flats, lakes and spectacular mountain scenery. The nature of the terrain means that the Routeburn is usually promoted as a moderate tramp and the short distance between huts eases the strain. Anyone of moderate fitness who can carry a backpack for five or six hours a day should be fine. That said, the track passes through subalpine country and snowfall and flooding can sometimes close it, even in summer. Fit hikers might consider doing it in two long days, though that doesn’t leave much time for soaking up the scenery.
Most people walk the Routeburn Track westwards from Glenorchy to The Divide. To return to Queenstown from here is a journey approaching 300km, so to avoid backtracking anyone with a day or two to spare should consider a Routeburn combo with the Greenstone Track or Caples Track to make a three- to five-day loop. In winter the Routeburn takes on a different character and becomes a much more serious undertaking. The track is often snowbound and extremely slippery, the risk of avalanche is high and the huts are unheated. Return day-trips from Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut and from The Divide to the Lake Mackenzie Hut are much better bets.
Pronounced evenly as Wa-Na-Ka, WANAKA, only 55km northeast of Queenstown (but over an hour by road), is kind of like its laidback cousin. There is a similar combination of beautiful lakeshore surroundings and robust adventure activities, but Wanaka remains an eminently manageable place, with the tenor of a village and a feeling of light and spaciousness – an excellent place in which to chill out for a few days.
There’s no beating the setting, draped around the southern shores of Lake Wanaka at the point where the hummocky, poplar-studded hills of Central Otago rub up against the dramatic peaks of the Mount Aspiring National Park.
Although central Wanaka is a pleasant place to café cruise or relax on the foreshore, there are no sights as such. For attractions you’ll either need to head 2km east to Puzzling World or a further 7km to the museums, a micro-brewery and airborne adventure activities around the airport. Alternatively, head 3km west to the delightful Rippon Vineyard. A half-day around the sights will leave plenty of time to go kayaking, jetboating, rock climbing or, best of all, canyoning.
With the jagged summits of the Southern Alps mirrored in Lake Wanaka’s waters, the lure of Mount Aspiring National Park is strong and Wanaka makes a perfect base for easy walks and hard tramps.
During the winter months, Wanaka’s relative calm is shattered by the arrival of skiers and snowboarders eager to explore the downhill ski-fields of Treble Cone and Cardrona, and the Nordic terrain at the Snow Farm.
Founded in the 1860s as a service centre for the local run-holders and itinerant gold miners, the town didn’t really take off until the prosperous middle years of the twentieth century, when camping and caravanning Kiwis discovered its warm, dry summer climate. Though still only home to around 7000 people, it is now one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing towns, with extensive developments and new housing subdivisions popping up everywhere.
William Fox’s unwitting discovery of gold at Arrowtown in 1862 quickly brought prospectors along the Crown Range and into the Cardrona Valley, where gold was discovered later that year. Five years on, the Europeans legged it to new fields on the West Coast, leaving the dregs to Chinese immigrants, who themselves had drifted away by 1870.
Tiny CARDRONA, 25km south of Wanaka, comprises little more than a few cottages, a long-forgotten cemetery, the Cardrona Hotel and the similarly ancient former post office and store.
South from here, the road twists over the Crown Range Road (SH89), the quickest and most direct route from Wanaka to Queenstown, though it is tortuous enough in places to discourage anyone towing a caravan or trailer. Reaching an altitude of 1076m, it is one of New Zealand’s highest public roads and is sometimes closed by snow in winter. Nonetheless, on a fine day the drive past the detritus of the valley’s gold-mining heyday is a rewarding one, with views across bald, mica-studded hills to the tussock high country beyond. At the pass, a great viewpoint overlooks Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, before it switchbacks down towards SH6 and Queenstown.
The Matukituki Valley is Wanaka’s outdoor playground, a 60km tentacle reaching from the parched Otago landscapes around Lake Wanaka to the steep alpine skirts of Mount Aspiring, which at 3033m is New Zealand’s highest mountain outside the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Extensive high-country stations run sheep on the riverside meadows, briefly glimpsed by skiers bound for Treble Cone, rock climbers making for the roadside crags, Matukituki-bound kayakers, and trampers and mountaineers hot-footing it to the Mount Aspiring National Park.
The park, mooted in 1935 but not created until 1964, is one of the country’s largest, extending from the Haast Pass, where there are tramps around Makarora, in the north to the head of Lake Wakatipu (where the Rees–Dart Track and parts of the Routeburn Track fall within its bounds) in the south. The pyramidal Mount Aspiring forms the centrepiece of the park, rising with classical beauty over the ice-smoothed broad valleys and creaking glaciers. It was first climbed in 1909 using heavy hemp rope and without the climbing hardware used by today’s mountaineers, who still treat the mountain as one of the grails of Kiwi mountaineering ambition.
Travelling along the unsealed section of the Mount Aspiring Road beside the Matukituki River, you don’t get to see much of Aspiring, as Mount Avalanche and Avalanche Glacier get in the way. Still, craggy mountains remain tantalizingly present all the way to the Raspberry Creek, where a car park and public toilets mark the start of a number of magnificent tramps into the heart of the park.
New Year’s Eve The one-time youthful revelry has been curtailed in recent years, and the new year is welcomed in with a family-oriented celebration.
Rippon Festival (w ripponfestival.co.nz). One-day rock, roots and reggae festival with a top Kiwi line-up and a magical setting with superb lake and mountain backdrop. There’s always a lively after-party. First Saturday in February every even-numbered year.
A&P Show (w wanakashow.co.nz). Town meets country at Wanaka’s showgrounds on the lakefront with everything from calf-wrangling demos and biggest pumpkin competitions to the perfect Victoria sponge and a Jack Russell race in which up to 100 dogs chase a rabbit dragged around behind a man on a horse. Heaps of food, drink and fun, but accommodation is hard to come by. Second weekend in March.
Warbirds over Wanaka (t 0800 224 224, w warbirdsoverwanaka.com). Wanaka airport plays host to New Zealand’s premier air show – three days of airborne craft doing their thing watched by over 60,000 people. Easter every even-numbered year.
Festival of Colour (w festivalofcolour.co.nz). A biennial celebration of visual art, dance, music, theatre and the like, with top Kiwi acts, including the symphony orchestra, performing all over town and at Hawea. Lots of free stuff, or buy tickets for individual performances. Mid-April in odd-numbered years.
In June Wanaka gets geared up for winter, mountain-bike rental shops switch to ski rental (see Scenic flights), watersports instructors don baggy snowboarder pants and frequent shuttle buses run up to the ski-fields. If you plan to drive up to the ski-fields, you’ll need tyre chains, which can be rented at petrol stations in Wanaka.
Cardrona Alpine Resort Reached by a 12km unsealed toll-free access road branching off 24km south of Wanaka, near Cardrona t 03 443 7411, w cardrona.com. Predominantly family-oriented field sprawled over three basins on the southeastern slopes of the 1934m Mount Cardrona. Expect dry snow and an abundance of gentle runs (five beginner, thirteen intermediate, nine advanced). There are quads and several learner tows, and a maximum vertical descent of 390m and everyone has the run of three terrain parks. You’ll need snow chains to negotiate the access road to the base facilities halfway up the field.
Treble Cone 22km west of Wanaka, accessed by a 7km toll-free road t 03 443 7443, w treblecone.co.nz. More experienced skiers tend to frequent the steep slopes here. Its appeal lies in open uncrowded runs (four beginner, sixteen intermediate, nineteen advanced) spectacularly located high above Lake Wanaka, and a full 700 vertical metres of skiing with moguls, powder runs, gully runs and plenty of natural and created half-pipes. Three new groomed trails make it much better for beginners than previously and snowboarders will have a ball.
Snow Farm Across the valley from Cardrona, 24km south of Wanaka, then 13km up a winding dirt road t 03 443 7542, w snowfarmnz.com. With so many Kiwi skiers committed to downhill, it comes as a surprise to discover a cross-country ski area. It’s an inexpensive way to get on the snow, negotiating the 55km of marked Nordic trails. July–Sept.
Heli-skiing is not cheap, but there’s no other way of getting to runs of up to 1200 vertical metres across virgin snow on any of six mountain ranges.
Harris Mountains Heli-Skit 03 442 6722, w heliski.co.nz. Offers almost 400 different runs on 150 peaks – mainly in the Harris Mountains between Queenstown’s Crown Range and Wanaka’s Mount Aspiring National Park. Strong intermediate and advanced skiers get the most out of the experience, where conditions are more critical than at the ski-fields, but on average there’s heli-skiing seventy percent of the time, typically in four- to five-day weather windows. Of the multitude of packages, the most popular is “The Classic”, a four-run day.