A day filled with a mix of sailing on an historic steamship with a bit of cycling tacked on the end is an experience that can only be found out of Queenstown!
The day starts with a trip on the 51.2 meter long TSS Earnslaw, the only remaining commercial passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere and the last of a quartet of large steamships which once plied Lake Wakatipu. The lake has been the home of the Earnslaw since its maiden voyage on 24 February 1912, from Kingston on the southern tip of the lake. (Her official public launch and thus her official “birthday” is 18 October 1912.) Built in Dunedin, it is the largest ship every manufactured in New Zealand. Once completed, the ship was disassembled and sent 174 miles by rail to Kingston where it was painstakingly reassembled.
In its early life, the Earnslaw provided regular service from Kingston to Queenstown and on to Glenorchy and Kinloch at the northern tip of the lake, a trip of 48 miles. It was sheep stations and the discovery of the gold in the region that fueled the need for larger regular shipping service than was already provided by the existing ships on the lake. The Earnslaw could carry 1035 passengers, 1500 sheep or 70 head of cattle.
The death knell for the shipping business on Lake Wakatipu came in 1936 when a road was completed from Kingston to Queenstown. An extension of the road further on to Glenorchy in 1963 was nearly the final nail in the coffin. In 1968, the New Zealand Railway who had owned the vessel since her inception sold her to private tour operators. She has sailed under various owners since then as a pleasure cruiser out of Queenstown.
With the rise of tourism in the region, she now has a fairly demanding scheduling, running daily, every two hours, from the Queenstown Wharf from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Her destination?
Walter Peak High Country Farm
After a leisurely 45 minute cruise across Lake Wakatipu, enjoying the views and the solitude of the lake, the Earnslaw arrives at Walter Peak High Country Farm. One of the earliest and most successful sheep stations on the lake, it has been in operation, with lesser or greater success under different owners since the 1860’s. The Mackenzie family, its longest owners, transformed the station into one of the most successful in New Zealand with 170,000 acres (265 square miles) and 40,000 sheep but only 50 people. An often heard joke about New Zealand’s South Island is that there are more sheep than people, amply proven here.
Today, Walter Peak offers farm tours, excellent for city-dwellers interested in understanding life on a sheep station, gourmet or casual dining at the Colonel’s Homestead Restaurant, horseback riding, and our primary interest, cycling.
There are an abundance of choices for the cyclist out of Walter Peak. The easiest offering is a guided tour for small groups organized by Real Journeys, owners of both the Earnslaw and Walter Peak. Arrange your ride at their office at the Queenstown Wharf at least two days in advance, get fitted for a bike, show up at the wharf on the day of your ride and you and your bike will make the trip across the lake with your guide and your group. Once you are at Walter Peak, they will shuttle you out to the start of the ride and you will ride home with a guide and a lovely lunch stop along the route. The full ride is 35 kilometres, though with a support vehicle, you can ride as little as you want, should the ride prove too strenuous.
If you don’t like to follow someone else’s schedule, which is usually our way of seeing things, then an unsupported ride is the way to go. There is only one road here so it is really the same route. The principle difference is that our route was out and then we doubled back, whereas the supported riders are shuttled out to the starting point and ride back thus never covering the same terrain twice. We brought our bikes on the boat, thus being a less expensive choice if you have a bike of your own.
The final option is a multi-day cycle tour on the Round the Mountain Cycle Trail, a 180 kilometre trail from Walter Peak to Kingston skirting around the Eyre Mountains. It can, of course, be ridden in the reverse direction.
Though we didn’t ride this route, we drove much of it, stopping at the common lunch or overnight spots on the ride and captured a few of the highlights to share. Of particular interest was the Kingston Train Station and the Kingston Flyer, the original steam train which operated between Invercargill on the southern shore of New Zealand, Dunedin and Kingston since the 1890’s. Regular service for the Flyer ended in 1937 but it has run periodically over the years until five years ago. Plans are in the works to rejuvenate the Flyer and turn it into a tourist attraction on par with the TSS Earnslaw.
What to think?
Our ride out of Walter Peak was likely one of the shortest rides we have ever done. Though only 20 kilometres as our ride was cut short by rain, it was highly memorable none-the-less. This is an incredibly beautiful and remote place, a world away from the hectic tourism of Queenstown. Coming across the lake on the Earnslaw, it feels like we are the only people on the lake. There isn’t another boat in view. Once on shore and cycling along, we pass three cars, four or five cyclists, thousands of sheep and a few majestic cows.
The skittishness of the sheep at the sight and sound of our bicycles reinforces the isolation of this place. On other New Zealand rides we have taken, the sheep have either ignored us or stared at us with mild curiosity or disdain. It was particularly humorous to see two sheep outside the fence line, absentmindedly eating grass at the edge of the road. When they saw us, they didn’t know what to do. When they noticed that they were being approached by cyclists coming from the other direction as well, they became even more panic stricken. They were well trapped, and they knew they were in trouble. With a sense of desperation, they skirted back under the fence, back to the safety of their pasture.
The other thing that affirmed my sense that this was a special place was the utter peacefulness of the cows. Dare I suggest that this cow might even have a smile on his face? With that pasture and that view to call home, it doesn’t seem too farfetched.
Keen to know more?
A full history of the TSS Earnslaw is available from the New Zealand Maritime Record.
For details on Walter Peak High Country Farm, check here
The main page for Round the Mountain Cycle Trail is here
To see the beauty of this trail presented with a degree of professionalism I can’t quite match, check out their YouTube presentation here.
For a news item on the recent sale of Kingston Flyer check the Newshub article. It includes some wonderful footage of the train at full steam.